Friday, 24 March 2017

Sorry Civitas, it's not ok to walk away

If one were so inclined I could spend some considerable hours dismantling the Civitas report from Michael Burrage. There isn't much point though because when you are dealing with people who believe we can walk away from the EU without agreement you are entering a dialogue of the deaf.

There is much that is factually wrong in the report as already outlined, but then people are entitled to be wrong about technical processes and procedures. God knows I have been on more than one occasion. My tolerance ends though when it crosses the line into wilful distortion. Burrage makes a number of falsely framed assertions with regard to The Leave Alliance's Brexit plan
Flexcit looked to secure a smooth, reasonably quick and economically neutral Brexit, and thought that this might best be done by the UK re-joining EFTA and thereby retaining membership of the EEA and the Single Market. For some unexplained reason, it assumed that the referendum could only be won on the grounds that the UK would remain a member of the Single Market, and therefore decided that the UK should accept free movement, subjection to EU rules and continued UK contributions to the EU budget. Since the referendum was not won on these grounds, and virtually all leaders of the Leave campaign made perfectly clear they wanted and expected the UK to leave the Single Market, its argument has naturally lost momentum. 
Far from being "for some unexplained reason", we made it very clear early on that we could not win the referendum without winning the economic argument and we could not do that without a viable plan. That is the lesson we observed from the Scottish referendum. As it happens, that assumption was wrong - but only by a very slender margin.

Burrage asserts that we said we could only win by making a case for staying in the single market. This is a lie. What we said, with some validity, was that swing voters would not make the leap without some reassurances. That much became obvious fairly early on in the referendum campaign.

We anticipated the usual remainer lie that three million jobs would be lost should we leave the EU. Our argument was that these jobs depended on trade, not political union. It was therefore necessary to show that we could end political union while maintaining favourable trading conditions.

In the end, though we won the referendum, largely by an accident of events, the absence of a plan cost us considerably. I know of a number of people who voted to remain because it would have emboldened the hard right and we would see them pushing us over the cliff. Though we were able to say that there was at least a plan, it was pointed out that it was only a plan, not the plan. Vote Leave failed to reassure voters and consequently we lost votes. I take the view that we could and should have won by a considerably larger margin.

There was, though, a second strategic reason for having a plan. We were thinking in terms of how we could carry over the referendum win into influencing government afterwards. Ultimately the absence of a plan is why the Brexiteers were swept from the board in the immediate aftermath. The Brexiteers, save for David Davies, are all in token jobs and limited in the damage they can do.

The absence of a plan and the insistence on the most economically disruptive exit possible is why leavers will struggle to influence the end game. Once the penny drops that the WTO option is a non starter, the Brexiteers will find their cupboard is bare. As soon as Article 50 is done and dusted, they are history.

One other factor we considered was that lying was not necessary. The egregiously stupid £350m claim was not believed by anyone serious and no opinion former could lend it credibility. Similarly the leaver arguments in regard to regulation were equally slender. We took the view that we would not be taken seriously if we presented the kind of panglossian nonsense classic eurosceptics have a penchant for.

This turned out to be a correct assumption. Vote Leave likes to take credit for winning the referendum but in fact the vote was won on Facebook. The debate online was of far greater depth and breadth than the one presented in the legacy media. For several months, social media was alight with far reaching debate. In that, Vote Leave was next to useless, providing seasoned campaigners with no useful material and in fact, Vote Leave was a liability on more than one occasion.

With no help from any official sources, The Leave Alliance was able to bring the Norway Option into the public sphere which allowed us to make the distinction between economic integration and political union. That was probably our most useful contribution to the debate.

As to the single market, we took the view that how we leave was as important as question of why. It's all very well having a grand vision of a buccaneering free trade global Britain but that says nothing of how you get there.

We took the view that we most definitely will need a comprehensive trade relationship with the EU. Having been a member for four decades our central premise was that leaving is a process, not an event. We would need a sophisticated mechanism to do it because a basic free trade agreement does not even begin to cover the depth and complexity of the issues. In this, you can either spend years stuck in the EU negotiating one from scratch or you can take one off the shelf with a view to getting out as fast as possible without the inherent risk of failure.

Of itself we are not sold on the EEA per se, only that it is the only mechanism available to us that adequately cushions the blow of leaving. And this is really the difference of opinion between us Flexciteers and the Tory right.

The hard Brexit cult believes that there is no need to cushion the blow because there is in fact no blow to cushion. We are only a skip and a jump away from a trade miracle through unilateral liberalisation - and there are no adverse consequences. Consequently it has been impossible to sell them on the merits of even having an interim solution. It has been an uphill battle just to get David Davies to hint at the possibility.

And that is why the Civitas report is pure garbage. As much as the author wilfully misrepresents our position, the study is an evaluation on the merits of the single market as a destination. We only ever viewed it as a temporary solution and then in the post-Brexit stage we could evolve the EEA agreement into something more suitable.

Whether the single market is good or bad is neither here nor there. The fact is that we are in it and it will take some considerable effort to disentangle ourselves from it. Further to this, there are elements we would wish to keep, not least frictionless customs and the enhanced rights we enjoy for our aviation industry. There is nothing in the WTO option that covers these such EU policy areas.

In this the zombie Brexiteers have fixated mainly on tariffs and trade in goods neglecting to consider that the EU is far more than a trade framework. It is an extensive government with a number of systems we depend on having shut down much of our domestic administrative capability. A point entirely lost on the likes of Burrage.

In essence, the Civitas report is an attack piece aimed directly at Flexcit. Were it an honestly framed report it would not take such a sneering tone. Rather than advocating the single market "for some unexplained reason" we went to considerable lengths to explain the thinking - and in response all we have seen from the likes of Civitas is deflection and denial.

That tells us that we are dealing with a belief system and the very existence of this report indicates that they find our arguments threatening. They should. When you look at the two approaches side by side there is nothing at all to be said for the WTO option.

In any case, if reports are correct, Article 50 will soon be upon us. The waiting will be over and the complexities of Brexit will soon become apparent to the Brexit zombies. I do not expect them to acknowledge the issues even then. We will see more of the same insistence that walking away is viable. To everyone else though the penny will start to drop that a free trade agreement doesn't come close and we will need a more sophisticated departure programme. When the realities are known, the merits of Flexcit will present themselves.

Ultimately Flexcit was an exercise in facing up to uncomfortable truths and finding ways to manage them. It was our attempt to take an unvarnished look at Brexit and examine the difficulties as well as the opportunities. That is why it is still the subject of debate. Ultimately the resistance to Flexcit is because it says things that Brexiteers do not want to hear; that Brexit is complex, we won't get it all our own way and regulation is here to stay. This goes against three decades of eurosceptic thinking on which they have built their identities. They won't give up the ghost without a fight.

What we see from Burrage is a number of tortured contortions to present a rose tinted Brexit model pretending that forty years of economic, social and political integration is undone at the stroke of a pen. Anyone with a shred of integrity can see right through it. But then when it comes to Tory Brexiteers integrity is in short supply. It comes as no surprise that such dishonesty carries weight among their creed.

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