Thursday, 18 May 2017

Brexit: exit to what?

It is on days like this I am thankful to Twitter as the crowd has more inclination to fillet a manifesto than I. It would appear that anyone looking for further details regarding Brexit has been left disappointed. We are still in platitude city. We still have nothing but questions.

At the core of Brexit is a major existential question for the EU. As much as it is constrained in what it can do by the WTO and various international conventions, it must also be mindful that any concession made to the UK does not spark internal demands for the same internally. We're not the only country struggling to politically justify freedom of movement.

With that in mind the EU has stated time and again that the integrity of the single market is the primary consideration and that the UK cannot expect full participation on the same terms. When you look at it in the EU context this is hardly controversial.

Against this backdrop we have a government which apparently thinks a "new deep and special partnership" is possible. Those words are not chosen by accident. This is not empty political rhetoric. This is very much the language of the Eurocrat. Deep means comprehensive economic integration and the word partnership suggests, in eurospeak, something far beyond an FTA. Whatever it is going to be it is going to have to be substantial. There is no simplifying it to a basic agreement, which is ultimately what Brexiteers have in mind.

In this we have the intractable dilemmas on how the Northern Ireland border is going to work. Somebody is going to have to make a profound concession and that somebody will not be the EU. It is by nature a system of rules and a solution has to be found that sits within that framework.

If we wish to maintain "frictionless trade" then we are looking at, as EUreferendum notes, a Swiss style set up but this would require the UK to comply fully with EU animal health and food law, and all other relevant law, as well as carrying out full EU-style checks on imports from third countries."For these sectors, the net effect would be the same as if the UK had never left the EU, with the proviso that the "fax law" jibe would come true. The UK would have to comply with EU law, with no direct input in its making – notwithstanding that many of the standards underwriting the law originate at global level".

What we then suspect is that any such agreement that applied to the Northern Irish border would have to replicated throughout. Unless the EU is willing to replicate the entire EEA/Efta model for the sole benefit of the UK (doubtful) there are few avenues available to us. Even if NI were granted a special status within the single market, it merely shifts the problem to the UK border. 

Being unaware of the many technical conflicts our government has yet to confront any of these dilemmas, believing that and entirely new construct can be plucked out of the air with few consequences. If that be so then the onus is on the UK to suggest something workable that is also lawful. To my knowledge there is no such undertaking and if there were we would be hearing very different noises. 

At the core of the government's thinking is a binary construct where there is a clear delineation between modes of interaction. There's in, out and semi-detached. In May's mind, the only agenda is out and "full control". This ignores the Swiss experience where in their determination to be out, as they realise for themselves the necessity of integration, little by little they cede more control to the EU. For us that starts with the Northern Ireland issue, and once you concede on that, the floodgates open to include everything from the Single European Sky to fishing. 

In this we are then forced to ask how Brexit is Brexit? Which bits to we leave entirely, and to what end, and what sovereignty can we usefully wield as a consequence? Severance for its own sake would make very little sense but since we will be conceding in so many areas, May could well be forced to do exactly that making Brexit far more painful than it ever needed to be.

This is where Britain comes unstuck. We are to be mired in a state of quasi-membership where we sever links for no useful gain in pursuit of FTAs that will likely deliver little. Since the establishment and the London think tanks still have a hugely two dimensional understanding of trade, they will likely operate to the same methods as the EU working under the same paradigm - only with far less to barter with. Our piecemeal membership of the EU will restrict in real terms what we can usefully concede.  

What is missing here is the vision. Without a broader ambition of where to go beyond Brexit, the process is reduced to a transactional severance that amounts to little more than economic and social disengagement. That though is not May's fault. Her Brexiteers have insisted that out means out, and to them that is the only goal. Brexit as the destination rather than the beginning of a journey. Consequently Brexit of itself is a hollow pursuit, an empty task for legal engineers just so we can say we are technically not in the EU. 

This is one of the many manifest failings of Euroscepticism as a whole, having completely failed to offer an alternative path. Having failed this basic test we are being rail-roaded into a destination unknown where the economic damage is to such an extent that we will lack the necessary clout to pursue a bigger idea. A vision would have given some direction to Brexit but instead we are in the politics of appeasement.

But then that's modern politics all over isn't it? If you look more broadly at the manifestos, it is a game of whack-a-mole, seeking to appease vocal blocs of voters, handing out the candy to keep the children quiet. The Brexiteers are the entitled brats at the front of the queue. 

At the heart of this is a fundamentally flawed understanding of the world as it is. In the Brexiteer brain we are moving out of a regulated sphere into a unregulated sphere where the existence of the EU as our nearest and largest trading partner has no impact of influence on what we do. This is evident when you look at the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg who still believe that the central issue is tariffs.

In the real world, virtually nobody acts unilaterally, absolute sovereignty does not exist and in a world of competing authorities, where some corporates have more clout than most countries, everything is a negotiation and a compromise. In that, we can either be part of Efta, forming the fourth largest bloc as a counterweight to the EU, or we can be out on our own as a supplicant to the EU, unable to put up any useful opposition having designed our own leash. The only means of securing absolute sovereignty is the WTO option which is the economic equivalent of self-immolation. 

I have take the view that EEA/Efta would give us most of what we need with the right to jettison a lot of what we don't, and in so doing, we build up Efta to an extent where the single market is no longer under the sole control of the EU, where we then expand and enhance it. That would make Brexit worth it. Instead, what we're going to get is a managerial Brexit to become a second rate country, securing scraps of deals that barely replace what we have by proxy in the EU, completely failing to understand the wider context of trade and the many different approaches.

In place of a real world vision, all we get from Brexiteers is dismal fantasies about reviving the Commonwealth or CANZUK which, while superficially appealing, has no real relationship with reality. That is why there is a real risk of Brexit being a miserable failure. 

This is not yet a foregone conclusion. May, whether she likes it or not, has to make some major concessions. Unpopular ones. The public is not going to understand because why would they? This is complex. Increasingly we are seeing more and more people waking up to the fact that what May has in mind is impossible and the political realities point to Efta being the most obvious interim solution. For now all we can do is speculate but at some point May does have to face the music. At that point she can either engage in reality and turn a crisis into an opportunity, or she can steer us onto the rocks.

In the meantime we have to tolerate this mind-numbing, soul-draining charade of an election without knowing what we are voting for, where the only certainty is that May hasn't the first idea what she is doing - while swallowing the bitter pill that total incompetence is the best we can hope for. If you were expecting mediocrity, you need to lower your expectations.

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