Friday, 30 June 2017

Brexit: lessons from history

A subject of study I keep returning to is that of the collapse of Yugoslavia. A war of unimaginable horrors. I would venture that the story of that war is a macrocosm of all politics. If you do not know the story, then you do not know politics. It is a story of how political opportunism, cynicism and nationalist exploitation of narratives can reduce people to savagery.

What makes it especially fascinating is that it mirrors a lot of the Second World War and in some ways could be considered the closing chapter of it. If we look at twentieth century history then each major war was just unfinished business from the last. 

We can also note that the Yugoslav wars were unique in that it is the last major Western war to be played out exclusively through what we now define as mainstream media - captive audiences taking mass media on trust. This is the means by which respective aggressors could weave their nationalist narratives and stoke the fires of resentment. 

What makes it further interesting is that Yugoslavia was a relatively westernised country enjoying greater freedoms than their Soviet counterparts, where the Muslim population lived as political equals and not especially distinct as they are in the UK. It is interesting to see how war can turn the clocks back where people revert to tribal and ethnic divisions for no other reason than survival. Very soon the pack horse takes the place of the automobile and the one must-have accessory is the AK-47. 

From a historian's perspective there are few wars as well documented, where all the key people told their story to the cameras. In some respects it will be seen as the first complete record of any major conflict. The lessons are there to be learned if one cares to look.

To me, what the conflict shows is that for all our technological advancements, humanity has barely evolved and for all that we thought Europe had seen the last savagery of ethnic cleansing, Bosnia especially shows that when politics fails we revert to our most primal instincts.

The resistance in Bosnia reminds us that humans are deeply tribal and spiritually bound to the places where they live. A facet of mankind that will likely never change. This teaches us once again that artificial federalist constructs have failure in their DNA.

The federal construct of Yugoslavia was an exercise in self-deception and denial. The response to expressions of nationalism was denunciation. Denial became its preferred solution for nearly everything. Anyone seeking justice was told to wait their turn. Eventually though, the multifarious problems became insurmountable and the illusion of unity could not be upheld. Very rapidly things fell apart. 

There has never been an example of supranationalism that could contain the desire for sovereignty on the basis of identity. It just doesn't work. Even on a scale as small as Northern Ireland we see that the political constructs held together by fudge and denial fall apart when exposed to the light of day. There is no permanent solution. The best we can ever hope for is compromise built on the basis of trusted institutions - none of which ever withstand the test of time.

Herein lies the lesson for the European Union. A project flawed from inception. Again we see that history repeats. The EU has always a convenient umbrella under which hostilities and rivalries can be buried or suspended - but never resolved. 

Where the EU differs from the Yugoslav republic is that it has no army and favours soft power and coercion to bring member states into line. Having overextended into Eastern Europe, taking on board democracies still in their infancy, it has sought to impose its own vision of liberalism and equality, using the carrot of development aid to bring about further compliance. 

While the EU is not dominated by any single member state, it is dominated by a particular brand of secular liberalism it intends to export with no delay, using its soft power to bury opposition. Incapable of recognising its own hubris, it fails to recognise how it sows the seeds of its own demise. 

We presently subjected to a drip of favourable EU propaganda - that the European economy is recovering and the populism is on the wane by way of the election of Macron. Having taken a hit like Brexit, the EU is keen to brush off the stench of death. We are told that Brexit is but a distraction and not a mortal blow. 

To an extent the propaganda line is all true. Brexit does seem to have galvanised public opinion in favour of the EU, the Euro is no longer at death's door and the "far right" threat has, for the time being, abated. That though, is a particularly western European perception - and a self-deception at that. 

We should note that Macron was elected on a fairly meagre turnout, there was a very real chance that Le Pen could have been elected, and for all that Macron provides some immediate relief, the divisions in France still exist. They will not stay buried as Brexit has shown. We are told that Brexit has divided Britain, but Britain has chosen to expose and confront rather than bury and pretend. A French reckoning is similarly inevitable. 

This current narrative, however, centres on the more visible and dominant states of Europe. We should not lose sight of the fact that there are a number of forgotten members increasingly fragmenting politically and being told to wait their turn. We are seeing some considerable social upheaval in Hungary and the EU is beginning to ask questions about the rule of law in Poland. We get only drips of news - and as for the rest, they may as well not exist so far as Western Europe is concerned. Recent unrest in Romania barely registered.

In this we can expect the eventual break up of the EU. Brexiteers have always pushed the line that the EU cannot survive and that break up is a matter of when rather than if. Largely because the model is flawed and the one power able to bring to bear any kind of leverage, Germany, is one that is spiritually and historically unwilling.

We have also seen the EU's true colours. Though we can debate the events leading up to the war in Ukraine, the association agreement was a very deliberate attempt to snatch Ukraine out of the Russian sphere of influence without much regard to the political consequences. As bad as that is, the EU showed no willingness to defend Ukrainian territory or even supply military deterrence. Now that the EU has met with the consequences, Ukraine has dropped off the agenda and the war that rages on the borders has slipped from our collective memory. 

In that respect we should note that Britain's influence was largely illusory. The underlying technocratic agenda of the EU has always been toward expansion and regional coercion. It suits the British egotism to pretend we were steering that agenda but at the height of the Ukraine crisis Britain was as impotent as remainers say we are going to be by way of leaving the EU.

In that respect the hardcore remainers share many of the same delusions as the hardline leavers. The latter believes Britain is still a major power exerting influence over former commonwealth states while the Europhiles believe that the EU is an instrument of influence over the the European empire. Nether is true. The expansion of the EU is a symbiotic self deception between the EU which sees itself as an exporter of liberal progressivism while later accession states, or rather their ruling classes belief the EU is a stepping stone to becoming a liberal democracy.

Reality, though, paints another picture. Liberal democracy is not something which can be installed like a piece of software. It has to be developed in house - fought for and won. An honest appraisal tells you that even more developed states like like Poland are still not there yet. We might also note that even our own "liberal democracy" is but an illusion. Politics is making a comeback in the UK and we will soon learn that issues we thought were settled are anything but.

In some ways this mirrors the Yugoslav experience where the federalism served only as a pause on politics. Within a year or so of its collapse the politics resumed as though the years in between never happened. We can expect much the same in Northern Ireland. Political sticking plasters eventually lose their adhesiveness.

What Bosnia shows us is that it is ultimately the determination of the people to fight for the peace that brings about a lasting settlement. We are told that Bosnia is a rare example of post-conflict state building but the success lies largely with the determination of its peoples to preserve what was won in battle. This is why civil wars have to be fought to their conclusions without intervention. 

In the end, the peace that Western Europe has enjoyed has been thanks to what was won in war. The shock of the Holocaust and the brutality that swept the continent was a wake up call. There could be no going back. We remember. No such construct like the EU was needed. We did not need a federal Europe to pause politics because we had resolved the politics in World War Two. That is a process we went through, and it is ultimately part of the cycle of history. 

History is replete with examples of lofty idealistic constructs designed to quell the tempers of democracy. Some of them, for a time, have worked. But what they all share is is a swift and violent democratic correction. Unless people are free to define their own borders, customs and values then the centre cannot hold. The longer such vital powers are denied the more tempestuous the unravelling.

One can argue that had Yugoslavia reformed along the lines of liberal democracy and quelled rival nationalisms it could very well have been a model European country. Ultimately though it was always incapable of addressing the fractures within. To deal with a problem requires that it is recognised. Political hubris and and self-deception always stands in the way. Such entities are seldom ever capable of responding until it's too late. This is a pattern we see repeated time and again. There is no reason to expect the EU will be any different.

When the EU does eventually fold there will be little warning. The collapse of the common currency will make it far more painful then ever it should have been. It may even see a balkanisation of its own. Britain came close to losing Scotland and if that can happen then Spain or Germany are just as likely to break up. We cannot say how or when, all we know is that there is no possibility of the EU succeeding. It is not defined by its peoples, its values are alien to its citizens and the politics on pause will eventually reawaken. We should be thankful that Britain is getting out while it can.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Negotiating the non-negotiable

People continue to assert that you cannot be a member of the single market without having freedom of movement. It is non-negotiable they say. Except of course that it is negotiable, has been negotiated and there is a clear methodology for doing it. There is a bit of a fudge involved but the EU is all about fudging things. This is what it does.

The EEA Agreement says we can invoke safeguard measures "if serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties of a sectorial or regional nature liable to persist are arising". That case can easily be made.

We are used to being told that Freedom of Movement is universally beneficial - usually by London dwellers who would have a panic attack should they find themselves on the outer side of the M25. We are told that that those who complain about freedom of movement are simply small town racists whose opinions can and should be disregarded.

But actually there is a disruptive element to it and for people who didn't want their lives and communities disrupted it is singularly unfair. What we find is that less fashionable small towns become crime ridden ghettos because of a glut of rented properties.

Part of this dynamic is Houses of Multiple Occupation (HMO) which are supposed to be inspected and licensed and managed by councils. They don't do it. Consequently, even if gang labourers were paid minimum wage (yea right), local workers still cannot compete because immigrants can massively undercut on expenses by way of overcrowding HMOs. 

The Landlords Association says "Councils are dreadful at prosecuting rogue landlords. The prosecution rate in 2012 was less than 500 out of 1.5m landlords."Councils often won't do anything about it because if they evict they have a statutory obligation to house them, adding to an already acute problem. The overcrowding and consequent crime it brings is what generates a great deal of resentment".

As ever we can blame domestic administration for their reluctance to uphold certain rules but even good councils are finding they cannot stay on top of what is happening - highlighted by the fact that many of the Grenfell victims were illegal sublets.

Arguably this could all be remedied by building more houses but if we do, for as long as the obligation to re-house those we evict exists we will simply create a further pull factor which will worsen the behaviour of tenants in order to get to the top of the list. There are enough loopholes to exploit.

As much as this qualifies as a regional issue that is liable to persist you can take it one further and say that public tolerance is at its limit and the mood is at "boiling point". That's your societal difficulties right there.

We are told though, that the EU will not permit the UK to become part of EEA/Efta if we intend to act in bad faith and invoke Article 112. This is on the assumption that the EU is not interested in compromise and that the UK has no leverage in this matter.

This is entirely a matter of how we sell it. There is every reason to believe that the EU is not in a hurry to create UK specific institutions to service any future relationship, but if the EU puts a block on EEA membership for the sole reason of upholding one principle, one which it has already fudged for other members, we are then forced to seek a bespoke agreement, one which will chew up EU runtime and extend uncertainty for both parties for some time to come.

There are those who continue to assert that the EU will push us all the way out with no concessions but cannot venture a single reason why the EU would seek to block an entirely workable avenue with a framework where an appropriate offset could be exacted by mutual agreement. We could be entirely up front about our intentions to use Article 112 and this need not be a showdown.

As notes, if we go about this from a different angle, approaching it with some clarity of vision - and one that fits with the spirit of European cooperation then there is an opportunity to find an equitable settlement that everybody can live with. To treat this entirely as a procedural process would be to miss an opportunity for wider European reform.

This though is, for the moment, largely academic. It still looks like the government is hell bent on reinventing the wheel - and in so doing lands us with the onerous task of imagining what a bespoke agreement would look like. Eventually it will dawn in the government that we need to remain a part of the single market. It's just a question of whether we go the long way around to get there and how much we will pay to uphold the delusion that "Brexit means Brexit". Those who continue to insist the Liechtenstein solution cannot be applied are adding to that bill.

We should note, however, that this is not a problem of our own making. British EU citizens have for some time voiced their opposition to unlimited EU freedom of movement. When Mr Cameron went to Brussels to resolve this matter he was rebuked, as were the British public. The principle mattered more than obtaining public consent. EU inflexibility and its contempt for democracy combined with the hubris of our rulers points further to the necessity to leave. Intransigence will likely harm Britain - but that is a consequence of ideological blackmail. Such exposes the lie that the EU was ever a collaborative democratic venture. 

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Brexit: picking our battles

The question of who should oversee citizens rights in the context of Brexit is a vexed one. Superficially it is clear cut. Why should the EU enjoy imperial judicial influence over those who have opted to stay in the UK? It's not like the UK is a serial abuser of human rights - and even if we were this is still a matter of sovereignty. The US has no authority on US citizens living in the UK. Why should the EU?

The fact, though, that we have been a part of the EU does muddy the waters somewhat. To my mind the choice is stark. If you want the protections and rights of EU citizenship then the place for you is in the EU. The UK should take measures to facilitate that choice. I struggle to see any practical reason why the EU should extend its hegemony.

This though is a matter of doing the job properly. Why create unnecessary cliff edges and why shaft people when we don't have to? As far as phasing it out there needs to be an international element to the jurisprudence, as some people will be outside the jurisdiction of the UK courts - or will have no redress if the UK courts/government wrongly exclude them.

If that isn't the ECJ, we will have to go to the expense of creating a new panel - which will then adopt many of the ECJ judgements in conducting its proceedings - so for the sake of expediency we have to ask if it's worth all the hyperventilation. The ECJ in principle may be a bad thing but in practice it is not going to matter all that much for the purpose of Brexit.

It would seem that fetishising sovereignty on a self-expiring issue might well be an overreaction - especially if we wish to store up goodwill for the latter stages of negotiation. Again this is a question of picking our battles wisely - and the more important questions are still a way down the road.

If there is any reason to get worked up it is that the very concept of EU citizenship is the root of leaver objections to the EU. Many of us have no real issue with extensive economic integration but citizenship is basically a takeover of those functions best reserved for the nation state - and "social Europe" is very much a power grab in pursuit of a country called Europe. This is why I would pay almost any price to leave the EU.

We are, however, leaving the EU - and we do know that even if we retain a high degree of freedom of movement, EU citizenship is coming to an end - and that is no bad thing. The question, as ever, is whether we do it with a chainsaw or a scalpel. Do we hire the axeman or the surgeon? In respect I'm going to stick with my general rule - look at what the ultra Brexiteers want - then recommend the opposite.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Let us be done with representative "democracy"

One voice I continue to ignore in the Brexit debate is that of David Allen Green. There is only so much sanctimony a person should have to tolerate and I see more than my share of it from other commentators. This particular post though, in which he argues against the use of referendums, cannot be ignored. You can read the preamble on the FT website but I will get straight to the meat of it.
The difficulty with the 2016 referendum result is not so much that it was in favour of Leave. Wrong or irrational political and policy decisions are made all the time. The problem is that it has proved irresistible and irreversible. The people have spoken, there is a mandate, and so the mandated thing must be done. There is no check or balance. There can be no stopping it.

The use of referendums, especially on a UK-wide basis, contradicts the principle of parliamentary supremacy. The referendum injects a poison into the body politic which cannot be contained. There is nothing the parliament can then do to gainsay the referendum result.
Um, well, actually, there is, and they gave it some considerable thought in both chambers of the house. We can argue the toss but there were opportunities which could have been exploited. The question is one of whether they dare - which is another matter entirely. In the end they rolled over without placing any substantive obstacles in the way of triggering article 50. 

And why do you suppose that is? Well, I'll tell you for why. Public trust in Parliament was on trial. Binding or no, parliament voted by a substantial margin to refer a constitutional decision to the public. The government even went as far as saying that decision would be implemented. A contract was written. The government had the authority to make such a contract by way having won the election. To then have told 52% of the electorate after the fact that they were only testing the water would have been to invite a bloodthirsty contempt.

That mistrust, though, did not arrive overnight. There was a strong objection to the ratification of the Lisbon treaty, we were lied to about it's purpose and a major constitutional change was made without direct public consent. Arguably, had there been a referendum on Lisbon, we would not now be in this mess. Article 50 as an instrument would not exist and a less rigid framework for exit would be possible. We may not even be leaving.

Moreover, Green speaks of the referendum being "irresistible and irreversible". Except of course, actions of parliament can also be irresistible and irreversible, not least a major transfer of powers to Brussels - some of which we may never regain - even by leaving the EU. Certainly what has been done is not easily undone.

Green argues that "Until modern times, referendums and popular mandates were seen as not only alien to the parliamentary tradition but as subversive". He quotes Edmund Burke setting the objection out in his 1774 speech to the electors of Bristol.

Firstly one would note that this is not 1774. This is a vibrant free society with as close to a free press as we have ever had, with unprecedented amounts of information available to the public, where the deliberative debate extends far beyond the reaches of Westminster - the actions therein are transmitted in real time to the rest of the world.

There is no reason why the populace should be excluded from constitutional questions - especially one like the EU referendum, which is a basic question of who the people want as the supreme authority. If that is not a matter for a referendum, then what is? We should also note that in 1774 MPs were elected by a tiny minority of electors without universal suffrage - with MPs largely forming a ruling class who saw it as their god given right to rule. In some respects that mentality has not changed.

To become an MP you need to join a party. Independent candidates do not fare well since politics is played out through the media - and sadly, people vote for brands and leaders rather than voting on issues. To join a party means conforming to the party scriptures, to bury one's own personal ideas and instead suspend one's own critical faculties to push the tribal narrative.

It takes a certain sort of mediocre person to do that. A particular kind of narcissistic, ambitious type with few scruples and generally without the intellect to see why this system is a huge part of the problem. As bad as that is, we have a system that puts them all in one room to decide the fate of the nation. Being it a metropolitan London culture, subject to its own traditions, behaviour patterns and groupthinks, it exists in a parallel universe. How can this possibly be representative or even wise?

For as long as this system exists we will forever have a ruling class whose value system is entirely alien to the rest of the country. Not for nothing do we call it the Westminster Bubble. And in this bubble we have these same ambitious nobodies seeking as much exposure as possible, constantly courting the eye of bubble dwelling reporters, seldom ever taking a break to absorb and understand the issues, largely taking their brief from that same ill-informed media or badly researched party literature. Deliberative it is not. More often it is tribal and completely bovine. Labour was only ever unified over the issue of the EU out of political expediency.

Meanwhile, we have so many ministries and committees that there is always scope for an ambitious MP to find a step up the greasy pole. Promotions are offered in exchange for conformity meaning MPs will often quell their personal misgivings in the belief they can use their position of influence to the greater good. It never pans out like that though. The system has ways of muzzling dissent. Consequently we have old timer MPs who came to do good but stayed to do well - where few leave office poorer than they went in.
Green argues that for UK-wide votes "there is no compelling reason for a decision to not be taken by elected representatives – even if they pass the legislation for the referendum. Part of the problem is caused by the notion of a “mandate”. Taken literally, it is an instruction, not a permission. The government is mandated to to do something it otherwise may not do; the people have issued a mandatory order".

What Green is saying here is that MPs ought to have the power to contradict the public. The word democracy stems from the Greek word, dēmokratía, comprising two parts: dêmos "people" and kratos "power". If the people have only limited powers over their representatives then we can say with some justification that this is not a democracy at all - not least when in many constituencies there is no chance whatsoever of unseating the incumbent.

But then Green explores general elections.
"Of course, in general elections the supposed mandate is no such mandatory order. The content of a manifesto has some constitutional effect in that the House of Lords under the Salisbury Convention will not block policies set out in a manifesto of a party which has gained a majority in the House of Commons. But the content of a manifesto can be disregarded by a victorious party, and indeed it often is. The mandate has no mandatory force.

And that is how parliament should work. Whatever is in a manifesto is always subject to getting past the House of Commons. It is up to ministers to propose a measure and up to MPs to then decide. That is representative democracy in action. And if voters are unhappy then they have a remedy at the next general election. And as no parliament can bind its successor, then unpopular legislation can be repealed and unworkable policies abandoned.
So again we see how voting for a manifesto is largely just an exercise in politicking - and if that was true in days of yore then it is ever more true now. Voting is largely a gamble and the chances of getting anything close to what you voted for are somewhere around nil. We have a ruling class free to do as it pleases. In fact the EU referendum is probably the only time in my life where I did actually get what was promised in the election. 

Then to assert that we have the "happy remedy" of removing governments at an election, again ignores the reality of the system. A government in its first term seldom has coherent opposition, they are usually rebuilding their base and are largely introspective. For the first term a government gets to do as it pleases and in recent times we have seen that same insular navel gazing spanning many terms. It was this very dynamic that allowed Labour to ratify Lisbon without much of a parliamentary debate let alone a national one. Our glorious representatives barely bothered to read it. Is this what Green thinks is deliberation?

Green says that "with mandates from referendums, this valve is removed. MPs on all sides vote on the issue not with the consciences or their knowledge but in accordance with the referendum result. There is no scheduled way for the mandate to be either renewed or reversed. The electorate in a referendum seems to bind all parliaments, and indeed binds the electorate, for all time".

As much as that safety valve is barely functioning, it is interesting Green would talk about MPs voting with their knowledge. Given that the man has set himself up as a Brexit oracle, if he is halfway competent, then he knows full well the sum total of that knowledge is, well, bugger all really. As to binding parliaments and the electorate, what does he think the ratification of Lisbon did?

Green opines that "One curious feature of the push for the EU question to be settled by a referendum is how it is contrary to the UK institutions to which many Leavers say they want to have sovereignty reinstated. Parliament is not able to make a decision on EU membership contrary to the referendum result, and the courts are no less than “enemies of the people” for insisting that decision by made by parliament. In the constitutional equivalent of the Bến Tre saying, it became necessary to undermine the sovereignty of parliament and of the courts so as to “take back control”.

This all depends on whose sovereignty we are talking about. If, as Green claims, we are a representative democracy, then the power derived from the people is held in trust by our MPs. Power and sovereignty that is not theirs to give away. It is for the people to decide where that power should reside. 

In this I am, like many, perplexed as to why Brexiteers would want that power rest once more with Parliament since Parliament did this to us in the first place. But yes, it is absolutely right that the powers of Parliament should be undermined if that Parliament is abusing the trust placed in it. The repatriation of powers to their rightful place very much is taking back *some* control. We need to go one further and take more powers away from Westminster.

We should note, though, that this referendum did not pop up out of the blue. This was fought for and won not over the space of a year but from the very early days of the Anti-federalist League, on through to the Referendum Party and on to Ukip. This was no ordinary issue plucked from the air. This is a matter ultimate sovereignty and a major constitutional issue on which the public have repeatedly been defied - largely in thanks to an immovable establishment which knows full well that that the people cannot usefully exercise their own power.

In his closing remarks Green states that "Any reversal of Brexit should not be done by a referendum. What is needed is for the UK to return to and reassert itself as having a representative system. Further referendums and further (contested) mandates may have a pleasing result in the short-term, but the long-term cost is to the democratic system itself. Referendums are part of the problem, not part of the solution. Let’s instead return to being a parliamentary democracy".

No thank you, David. Our system of parliamentary "democracy" has descended into retail politics where political parties use the resources of the state to bribe and solidify their power bases. Vital decision making powers have been taken away from the people and put into the hands of fraudulent, virtue signalling, vain, venal and shallow creatures belonging to a particularly parched gene pool, incapable of acting with integrity or wisdom - so evidenced by three absolutely pointless and destructive military incursions. As bad as this is, it rules out the possibility of fiscal prudence.

Green would have it that we remain passive serfs who give up our influence to one of these specimens where the fullest extent of of our participation is taking part in a voting ritual every five years or so. How can that ever produce anything but an elected tyranny? Under this system we are ruled, not governed, and ruled by an odious political class entirely immune to the debate in the public sphere. It rather seems to me that we are not having nearly enough referendums and there are insufficient checks and balances to ensure the wishes of the public are heeded. 

For as long as this system of parliamentary democracy exists we do not have democracy at all. The power triangle is the wrong way up. The regions should be instructing London, not vice versa. Whichever way I look at it this system is spent. It has no life left in it and there is no possibility of reforming it. 

There are those who believe that tinkering with the voting system might help, but the means of selection is not really the problem. It still means a congregation of politicians in London making decisions on things they cannot begin to comprehend with no system of feedback while they are trapped in the bubble. A creation of our media which did not exist in 1774. 

What we need is decentralised politics where the regions make decisions locally by means of their own selection, thus inverting the power hierarchy and reducing the volume of decision making in London. The idea of regional assemblies has been floated before, but this is largely based on the idea of subsidiarity rather than a recognition that the people are sovereign. What we need is for London to be the servant, not the master - and until we de-londonise our politics, we cannot de-londonise our economy and culture. 

The Palace of Westminster is a relic of a bygone age. Designed for a politics that no longer exists, it can no longer usefully provide for the people. It is time to close it down and save it for ceremonial events. Its purpose has passed and we need to look at other ways of doing political business. If we can't take Westminster out of politics then we have to take politics out of Westminster.

Brexit: room for optimism?

My assessment of how Brexit is going can vary on any given day according certain assertions made by senior figures. Occasionally one has to remind oneself that there are in fact two Brexits; the one going on behind closed doors and the one playing out in the media. The two are barely related and probably wouldn't recognise each other if they passed in a corridor.

I think it was a Daily Express journo last week who remarked that this isn't really a negotiation. These are proceedings. It is a technocratic process where the EU defines the agenda, the order of battle, and what Britain must agree to in order to progress to the next stage. Brexiteers can stamp their feet time after time but we will capitulate but cause there is nothing else we can do. We can neither expect nor demand concessions from the EU. At best they will concede to a fudge to make the climb-downs easier to sell.

Another feeling I'm getting is that the famed two year negotiating period is far less significant than we might have thought. There is no question of concluding anything inside two years. We are learning on the fly what will happen within the two years, but by some means or another we will be engaged in talks for some years to come before anything substantive happens in terms of the status quo. If this is not already assumed then it will be down to the government to ask for an extension simply because we do not have the means to transition. The systems are not in place and will not be for a long time.

For now the government is maintaining the line that we will negotiate a bespoke deal on trade, and they will hang on to this delusion for as long as is politically tenable. In a series of tweets, Brexit commentator George Peretz mirrors some of my own thinking in that the UK will set out what it wants from single aviation regime to Euratom, to swift movement of car parts to supply of legal and financial services, supported by an array of anxious businesses saying "we must have this or jobs will go".

At the is point the EU will reiterate its position that it does not allow cherry-picking from the single market. You're either in it or you ain't. It has always been the view of this blog that the EU is not especially minded to create an entirely new regime and new institutions for the sole benefit of the UK, and again the UK will be faced with taking what is offered or taking nothing at all.

Though the Brexit lamebrains and loudmouths like Redwood and Rees-Mogg continue to take a hard line, all the grown ups actually involved in the proceedings will point out that the UK does not have other options. It will then be down to the Tories to sell a single market agreement as a not-the-single-market FTA+.

It would take and act of extraordinary stupidity and hubris to walk away from such a deal - and though certain figures within the Tory party would, one suspects that, contrary to outward appearances, David Davis isn't THAT stupid.

In an interview with Andrew Marr, he implied that Theresa May was a mere "backdrop" to his leadership role in the proceedings which makes him pretty much PM in all but name. That's the feeling I get now. This is a caretaker government and nobody will rock the boat, accepting this unspoken dynamic for the full term.

In that respect there is the possibility that I overreacted at the appointment of Steve Baker, who might well be serving only as a confidence trick to maintain the outward appearance that the hard liners are still being given a voice.

In this, politically, it makes sense in that the government does not have to concede publicly to perusing a soft Brexit, rather it will happen as a consequence of Britain's lack of leverage - and by this point, David Davis, being an astute player at times, will present this single market fudge as the right deal and the one we were after all along. Until then, he doesn't want to spook the horses by saying the one thing that will depose Mrs May. "Soft Brexit".

Of course in the background we will still have all the histrionics on the opposite benches that we are charging headlong into "hard Brexit" but there was always a strong chance the reality of our predicament would be the ultimate decider. Ultimately if the UK government is unable to come up with a plan and direction for Brexit then the EU most certainly will. That default option will most likely be an EEA variant if not actually "the Norway option" itself. There is the possibility that the EU might have other ideas such as an association agreement or some other mechanism - but that would be an extensive undertaking it may not be inclined to pursue. Not least because of the impracticality.

I think if I go back into the archives of this blog I have floated this scenario before - probably even before the referendum. It has always been a strong possibility and the path of least resistance. It would take a concerted and deliberate attempt to derail it, and from where I'm sitting the Brexit ultras do not have the political capital to do it. The tide is going out on them and their case is weakened every time they speak.

This, though, is the optimistic assessment where the UK's lack of a clue will ultimately be, ironically, our salvation. There is still another possibility as outlined in this rather bleak assessment by Both are equally plausible. But as ever, we won't know until we know. Optimism though, is only if one downscales one's expectations of Brexit. The absence of a strategy has destroyed the revolutionary potential of Brexit. At this point a successful Brexit is just anything that isn't a total catastrophe.

Friday, 23 June 2017

There can be no turning back

It is a year since Britain voted to leave the EU. I've never understood this ritual of having to write about something just because an arbitrary period of time has passed. After all, nothing has changed. We still don't know what Brexit looks like, we still don't have a plan, Brexiteers are still awful and remainers are even worse.

What makes the remainers worse, generally speaking, is that they want the want this whole enterprise to fail and are rooting for the other side. Academia especially. This makes me all the more glad I voted to leave. I cannot name a more spoiled, selfish self-entitled bunch. More generally the tone from the remain side has become ever more shrill. There is a clamour to halt Brexit by any means necessary even if that puts us in a worse position than actually leaving.

And you know what? So much as I am deeply worried about the direction of travel and the manifest incompetence of our government I still don't care a jot for what any of these people think. I am still glad we are leaving and any Brexit is better than remaining. And I will tell you for why.

Yesterday a remain inclined individual demanded to know why I would vote against my interests, asking what I would personally gain from Brexit. This is actually quite typical. I get this all the time. It would seem that politics to some is all a about "what's in it for me?".

As to what I personally gain from Brexit, I would have to say nothing at all. Some things transcend immediate financial gain. This above all is about safeguarding and reinventing British democracy. From the age of tyrant kings to the modern age of tyrant parliaments the clamour has always been for more power. More for them and less for you. For all that the EU is a largely benign technocracy is one that exists only for the accumulation of power.

Brexit, one hopes, will put the brakes on this. Encoded in the DNA are "ever closer union". In theory that is supposed to be a union of European peoples but in practice in means a union of ruling elites and democracy-phobic institutions. This is why we get such a torrent of wailing from the left and academia. Brexit deprives them of their means of inserting their agenda into politics and slays the goose that lays the golden eggs.

This is why this week, on this anniversary of Brexit we are only hearing what Brexit costs in financial terms and not what we stand to gain. Whichever mode Brexit takes, assuming they don't manage to subvert it, we are looking at a complete overhaul of the statute book which will likely precipitate a more far reaching reform of the constitution. Brexit is a gateway drug to greater democracy. A cleansing forest fire.

It's true that if we didn't want all this cost and upheaval then the smart thing to do would have been to vote to remain, but I very much do want to see every rock lifted to see what crawls out. Already Brexit has exposed just how spoiled, whiny and cosseted half the population is and just how anti-democracy many of them have become.

We are told that Brexit chews up parliament for the next decade preventing it from doing anything else. That actually tells you a lot about the remainer mentality. They view Brexit as an abstract rather than something that touches on every strata of public life. In that they show a greater ignorance of the EU than even the hardest of Brexiteers. In just a few short months we have gone from "the EU doesn't make our laws and we are sovereign" to "sovereignty doesn't really exist and by the way look at this massive volume of laws we have to sort out".

More than anything Brexit is a major work of legal engineering and even if we port over all of the EU acquis and we change very little, it is still a significant constitutional change where, if we do it right, we are no longer importing volumes of law without judgement or scrutiny. And that is really the point of this exercise - to ensure that the last word rests with the British people and that laws can be repealed on the say so of the British people alone.

We are told that Brexit makes us inward looking and that it marks a withdrawal from polite society. To a point it does. Britain needs a period of introspection because we've let government run on autopilot for forty years and and we have a mess to sort out. How we are perceived on the "world stage" is really not my concern.

If anything taints perceptions it is those whiny remainers putting it about that Britain is entering a new dark age of racism, bigotry and miserliness. American left wing think tanks are lapping this up from leftist academics. Just read some of the garbage from Peterson Institute. Frankly, if we are odds with polite society then it's a sign that we are doing something right. The one thing they do not like is grubby displays of "populism". That's what they're calling democracy nowadays.

Come what may, Brexit has disturbed the cosy consensus politics of the last half century. The British public have done something interruptive and inconvenient. That has remainers scrambling for their favourite comfort blanket - The EU.

In this I cannot imagine a worse outcome than to stay in the EU. Already the EU is fundamentally altered by Brexit. The dynamic has shifted and the brakes on "ever closer union" have been taken off. Rather than pause for reflection they have taken it as a sign that "more Europe" is the answer. Whatever prized position the UK might have enjoyed in the EU, that "status quo" is already gone forever. To remain in the EU would be a greater humiliation and we would not be a welcome member.

More to the point one can only imagine thing would get worse if we remained. Our politicians could very well sabotage Brexit. That would very much scar the national psyche and we would find something even worse than Ukip to send to the European parliament. Naturally the response by the EU will be to further isolate and disempower the European parliament - which is already a treated as a messy inconvenience they would rather not have. It is not a parliament of the people in any real sense. It is an appendage.

Staying in the EU would doubtless spare us the economic upheaval of Brexit but at the same time I would not fix anything either. The divisions would still exist, and be more pronounced, our stagnant economy would continue to limp on without any serious reform and we'd be back in a mode of managed decline while our politicians go back to meddling with minutia, playing their sordid little games as ever they have. No thank you.

We should also be acutely aware that not all is well in Europe. Over the last few weeks we have seen a subtle shift in European propaganda. Since the election of Macron, all of a sudden the deep divisions within France are no longer a talking point, the European economy has miraculously bounced back like the Euro crisis never happened, Brexit is but a distraction on the side, everyone is happy and the political struggles in Poland, Hungary and Ukraine no longer exist. Funny that. Brexit seems to have mended all of Europe's woes!

Or is it something else? Is it that the wounded beast is smarting and desperate to prove its relevance? For sure, the EU's approval ratings are on the up but they will evaporate just as quickly come the next major crisis. After all the migration crisis has not gone away. Just this week 1300 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean. Two years ago this was news. Now we barely bother to report it. It's the new normal. As of June 14, 1,828 are believed to have died in 2017. The "summer of death" has become the decade of death.

We can put the stop on Brexit for sure. We can pretend that this year never happened. We can join in with our European "partners" pretending all is well. We can go on denying that our present economic model is failing us. We can go on ignoring the people of the regions and the towns, we can go back to the make-believe of European Union. We can paper over the cracks and go back into denial - go back to being passive economic units grazing on the land, go back to living in an inert political environment, unable to effect serious change. Sure, we can do all of that. But if you think the Brexit bill is high, wait til you get the bill for self-deception. You will like that a lot less.

Brexit - The first year

It's been a year since we voted to leave the EU. And what a year it has been. Though everyone has their take on a year of Brexit, as ever there are few efforts more comprehensive than this latest work by Richard North of Priced just £4, you can buy it here...

Buy Now

Brexit undone?

It is a year to the day I wrote a blog predicting that leave would lose the referendum. Brexiteers have reminded me of this ever since. Somehow this is invalidates anything I might have to say on the matter. But then I would point out that with a win of a mere 2% - we almost lost it - and we won by way of an accident of numbers. A last minute rejection of an overweening, patronising and insulting remain effort.

It weren't no bus wot won it.  It wasn't any clever marketing, it wasn't any computer algorithm, it wasn't Russian interference and it certainly wasn't because we made a convincing case to leave the EU.

This does not stop every man and his dog leaping in to take credit for it. The Brexit bubble are all too happy to take ownership of it. The truth is that we would have won it with or without an official campaign simply because the British public do not like being taken for granted - as Mrs May has just learned.

A year later, I am still not bubbling with optimism. Brexit is still not assured. Unlike the likes of Spiked Online and others I was fairly sanguine about the various legal shenanigans and parliamentary attempts to thwart Brexit. I think the public saw it for what it was and parliament had just enough good sense not to betray the public mood. If anything kills Brexit it will be the Brexiteers themselves.

From the beginning the absence of a plan was a major hole in our campaign and it has continued to erode public confidence in the Brexit. Instead of rising to the occasion, Brexiteeres have doubled down on some of their more feeble assertions and flights of fancy. At every turn they have closed down the debate as to how we leave and consequently talks are under way and we still have no idea where this is going.

As much as the Brexiteers have been unable to shed light on our direction of travel, the media is still struggling with the basics. We are nowhere. We have not progressed even an inch. Normally this blog is quite productive but this week I've been having a serious case of writer's block. I start writing a post only to realise I have written the same words countless times, going over the same subject, correcting the same old mistakes. It stops me dead in my tracks. I can't do it. I cannot write yet another article about Norway.

More to the point, I'm starting to think we have missed the boat. The point of the EEA option was to take much of the difficulty and complexity out of the Article 50 process and give ourselves a head start. Now we are going to end up settling the admin work to find we have nothing in mind as a destination and those "interim measures" will be an extension of EU membership until the conclusion of a trading framework - which could be years away. There we will dangle in Brexit limbo.

All the while there is a more comprehensive debate of the issues online. The Tory Brexiteers are being stripped of their influence and their credibility - largely by their own hand. We have propaganda outfits like BrexitCentral embarrassing the cause and weakening the proposal every time they speak.

Whichever way you look at it there is no possibility of completing this process before the next general election - and that's assuming this government can hold together for a full term. It could very well be brought down even in the next few months. Unless the Tories can pull off a miracle, they will not form the next government. The EU will then offer us a special status to park Brexit and the government will accept while the country breathes a sigh of relief.

In that respect no movement in the history of politics will be more deserving of defeat. They didn't want a plan. They didn't want to compromise, they didn't want to face the realities of Brexit. They treated everyone who didn't share their ultra-Brexit aspirations as the enemy.

If this happens I will be bitterly disappointed, but not nearly so angry as the Brexiteers who brought this on themselves. Assuming they even realise they've been shafted. Right now it seems like the only way we will accomplish a Brexit is for the Tories to make a monumental pig's ear of it. That is still a safe bet. But it won't be the Brexit anyone sane wanted. 

Brexit: sovereignty and democracy - an explainer

Almost every day I have the same tedious conversation with a remainer who tells me that we are sovereign. In the most basic sense, yes that is true. Parliament can disobey an EU ruling. The thing is, the EU has coercive means to ensure that we don't - ie penalties and fines. Secondly Britain, above all, respects the rule of law. We follow the principle of Pacta sunt servanda (Latin for "agreements must be kept"). It is a basic principle of civil law, canon law, and international law.

What that means in real terms is that so long as we remain a member of the EU, the ECJ is the instrument of supreme authority and we are subordinate to it.

Very often we are told that the referendum was too complex a question to be put to the public. It isn't. Remain or leave is a pretty basic question, but the question is really a constitutional one which could not be simpler. Do you want the EU as a supreme government?

Ah, but the EU is not a government, they say. This is a flat lie. It has an executive, a court, a flag, a parliament, a constitution and of course, the concept EU citizenship - which is the dead give-away. I do not presently hold a British passport, I hold an EU passport. In every sense it is a law maker with its own foreign policy. We could go at this all day, but the EU is unarguably a government with every intent of securing more powers over the nation state - chiefly through stealthy incremental measures and ECJ rulings.

But actually not all those who assert that the EU is not a government are lying. Many simply do not realise what the EU is. They have very little understanding of its history and its DNA. It has always sought integration by stealth and politicians of all stripes have always sought to conceal its true purpose. To this day it is still described as a trade bloc. It would not be so objectionable if it were.

The EU has direct influence over a number of policies, some exclusively, particularly trade, where we are prohibited from acting unilaterally or in the direct national interest. On all of the top international forums the UK does not have an independent vote, no powers of veto and no right of proposal. Britain cannot act independently on the world stage therefore, by any definition, we are not sovereign.

But then who should be sovereign? Ultimately this is about the sovereignty of the people - not the government. In a democracy political parties set out their manifestos and we vote according to the agenda we prefer. The party with the most seats then gets to form a government to implement that agenda. It is one supported by the demos. Though we can very easily argue that this isn't democratic enough it is a partial democracy because the decision making power rests with the people at election time.

This dynamic does not exist in the EU. There are voting rituals where we send MEPs to Strasbourg, but regardless of who we vote for, the agenda ("Ever closer union") remains the same. MEPs have no right of proposal, few powers of repeal and can only amend legislation if the Commission permits it. Very often amendments to adopted legislation are unilaterally stripped out - sometimes without the knowledge of the parliament. 

This is not democracy. It is a benign technocracy. The power does not rest with the people, the executive cannot be removed and member states have little blocking influence.

The word democracy stems from the Greek word, dēmokratía, comprising two parts: dêmos "people" and kratos "power". Without a demos, there is no democracy. But people without power is not democracy either. We can say with ease that there is no unified European demos, the EU does not rule by consent and the power does not reside with the people. 

As to sovereignty, there are always trade-offs to be made in pooling sovereignty for the the common good. But the EU is not pooling sovereignty. It is subordination. The confiscation and centralisation of power - and in many cases (like the Euro), irreversible. 

In this we have to make the distinction between theoretical and practical sovereignty (or popular sovereignty). We could, if we wanted, repeal the European Communities Act entirely unilaterally bringing us to a WTO Brexit scenario. That is basically a last resort policy and is widely considered as self-immolation. So while we do have sovereignty it is not useful sovereignty that we can realistically wield.

Ultimately everyday sovereignty means having the right to say no. Any nation which cannot and cannot unilaterally invoke safeguard measures for its own concerns is not sovereign.

In this we can play sophistry games til the cows come home. It doesn't matter. In the purest legal sense we are sovereign but, ultimately, in a rare expression of democracy, the people have been granted the sovereignty to decide the matter once and for all. They are the ultimate arbiters and in constitutional affairs their judgement is superior to any court. They have ruled that whatever sovereignty we do have is insufficient. It comes down to one basic choice. You can either have democracy or you can have EU membership. You cannot have both.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Britain's Brexit attitude problem

You have to be a bit of an obsessive to keep a blog so it's only natural to fixate on certain issues and individuals. Just recently I have developed something of an intense hatred for Jacob Rees Mogg which far surpasses my usual contempt for Tory Brexiteers. He epitomises the crassness and hubris of his creed. Mendacious to the core.

What piques my ire today is his assertion that we don't get the benefits of Brexit if we stay in the customs union ie "cheaper food, cheaper clothing, cheaper footwear". Again we must note that we are leaving the customs union come what may because we are leaving the EU. That though does not preclude the possibility of having a customs union agreement.

The absence of such an agreement would lead to complex rules of origin procedures where goods shown not to be entirely from the country of origin incur a tariff. In short, unless we can find some other workaround then it most definitely will hurt UK exports to the EU.

I want to park that issue though. What is more relevant is that Rees-Mogg still thinks the gains are to be made by tinkering with tariffs. With average tariffs being around 2%, and in many instance zero, the gains to be had from tinkering with tariffs are barely a rounding error. You have to go through the tariff regime with a fine tooth comb to find scope for improvements. We might be able to make the odd improvement that will benefit some sectors but it is unlikely that there will be any revolutionary developments in this field. Nothing that would justify the disruption of Brexit.

We are told that the customs union is a "protectionist racket" preventing Lesser developed countries from trading with the EU. This ignores the Everything But Arms agreement which exempts LDCs from quotas and tariffs. If anything excludes lesser developed states it is the non-tariff barriers such as regulation.

We have already heard from Rees Mogg that he sees Brexit as an opportunity for deregulation. He is blissfully unaware that doing such a thing would have very serious ramifications for trade with the EU. Lowering standards increases the rate of inspection of goods travelling into the EU. Massive overheads.  

More to the point, deregulation on standards, for the most part, is simply not going to happen. Because the EU uses global standards, it cannot drop them, nor can we, in or out of the single market. We are obliged to adopt the global standard as per the WTO TBT agreement. The way to include LDCs is to use aid and technical assistance to help them conform to global standards. There are very obvious economic benefits to doing so - eliminating customs delays, fraud and counterfeiting. 

We should also note that a race to the bottom on standards is against the grain. The effort is ever more toward global regulatory harmonisation - to remove red tape and customs barriers. This is where the most substantial gains can be made. This is why the flagship drive of the WTO is Trade Facilitation. 

Further to this, deregulation would certainly be viewed as uncooperative, if not hostile. We could very well open ourselves up to retaliatory action - and not just from the EU. Going rogue is the very last thing we want to do. 

If we take Theresa May at her word, that we are seeking a deep and special relationship with the EU, then it follows that we will wish to continue cooperating on standards and widening particpation in the global rules based system. Her backbenchers though, seem to have completely different ideas, adopting a wholly hostile approach to the EU. 

If we are to make a success of Brexit then we need to adopt a pro-EU stance. Whatever happens we will wish to influence EU trade policy and we will seek joint ventures. Our independence and agility though could allows us to work in different ways toward the same goals. 

By expanding the reach of global rules and assisting in their implementation world wide, building a network of mutual recognition of conformity, we can build a global single market to the advantage of all, while weakening EU control over it. Since the EU, of its own volition, is ceding control of the regulatory sphere, we should make that a foreign policy priority. In this we need to be building alliances of third countries who have difficulty exporting to the EU and press the EU for internal reforms. It has been done before. 

If our attitude to the EU is hostile and if our approach to trade is to go into direct competition with it then we will lose every time. We have to work as partners and allies. At the moment Brexit is being driven by arrogant Tories, bereft of any original thinking, bogged down in the mud of obsolete ideology - with a deeply misplaced assessment of the UK's clout. It's the sneering, "superior Brit" attitude - personified by Rees-Mogg. If we don't change our tune then we will be punished for their narcissism. It will take years to rebuild trust and the damage will be lasting. 

Angry? You betcha!

If I could have stretched to a blog post yesterday it would have been exactly this. Chancellor Hammond, though, was not alone in grasping at straws. The Brexiteers were out in full force. Suella Fernandes, IDS and Jacob Rees Mogg. Worse still was Martha Carney and Eddie Mair. Still, after all this time, the political circus is still failing to master the basics - and have made no attempt to get themselves up to speed. Whatever they are told goes in one ear and out the other. 

If Brexit demonstrates anything it is that Westminster parties and the media place very little value on research and knowing what they're talking about.

Yesterday we heard Rees-Mogg telling us that leaving the customs union was not a complex thing and that goods "fly off the docks" at Southampton. He and IDS were both referring to the AEO system - but that only applies to certain types of goods - not animal products or food - and says nothing of inspections, certifications and testing. A classic case of a politician not understanding a complex process and therefore assuming that it must be simplicity itself.

What we are looking at here is very typical of Westminster culture. Being bereft of ay answers they will latch on to the first piece of overheard technobabble and rinse it for all it's worth. It doesn't matter if it's nonsense just so long as the true believers keep believing. That is the fundamental dishonesty and cynicism of the Brexiteers. 

We have seen this before from the same gang on Conservative Home, abusing terminology all over the shop in trying to justify a no deal scenario. The media won't be any the wiser and neither will their audience. This is how the game works. These people have no shame. 

I think this explains, to a point, the smugness of Rees-Mogg. He doesn't have to be an expert in his field. All he needs is to be half a step ahead of the media to be able to get away with saying virtually anything. He won't be challenged on it. The media lacks the intellectual equipment. Thanks to the likes of Eddie Mair these poisonous creatures are able to tell virtually any lie.

After three years of intensive blogging and social media activity I am now reputed to be an angry person full of bile and bitter invective. That's because I've been paying attention. It is difficult to say who is worse - the idle politicians on both sides of the debate or the equally crass media who let them get away with it. Thanks to them the debate has barely progressed beyond the basics and we are still going round in circles even now Article 50 talks are underway. The future of the nation hangs in the balance and it has descended into farce. 

For all that I get passive aggressive barbs from the likes of Allie Renison, we see an equally timid business community unable to say, unequivocally, that the government is making a royal mess of this. All we get from trade associations is mealy mouthed and vague recommendations when if they were doing their jobs they would be going on the attack. If their job is to defend business interests then they need to be pelting rotten tomatoes at these people. Figuratively and actually. There is an underlying assumption that we need be polite about this and uphold a sense of decorum while we are being utterly shafted. If we're not being impolite now, then when?

If there is one thing I have learned is that the Tory Brexit claque are in transmit mode only. They only put their heads above the parapet to make assertions and fill the debating sphere with lies before retreating. They are not honest enough to debate their ideas and the process is one way only. Why in gods name are we supposed to be polite about that?

Today the left are having a "day of rage". I am of the view that when it comes to government incompetence a single day is not nearly enough. It's a full time occupation. There is no justification for politeness. The bits of the government that aren't killing us are endangering the entire economy simply because they are incapable of fulfilling their basic obligation to understand the issues. We are way, way past politeness. 

Monday, 19 June 2017

More issue illiteracy from the FT

Writing in the FT Martin Sandbu pretends to know about Brexit. He explores how you might justify a soft Brexit.
"So consider the most obvious soft Brexit option: joining Efta and the European Economic Area, which would keep Britain in the single market on the same basis as Norway, and negotiating with the aim to remain within the EU customs union. (Note that even this is not the softest imaginable Brexit, as the EEA does not cover fish and agriculture. Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson explicitly excludes fish from her call for an “open Brexit”, and her view may command a consensus. Agriculture, however, may face difficulties if trade barriers with the European market go up.)
How can advocates of this soft Brexit solution answer the hard Brexiters’ assertion that this would disrespect the referendum? It is not enough to say that the ballot paper only mentioned EU membership, not the EEA or the CU. The meaning of the Leave vote was what the Leave campaign said: “taking back control” of “our laws”, “our borders” and “our money”, and allow for more trade deals to be struck.
There are sensible answers that soft Brexiters can give on each point. On trade: this was one argument that was always made on pragmatic grounds. Unlike the other considerations, few argued that Britain must strike its own trade deals for the sake of it, but because they would be better and done more quickly than the EU manages. That assertion is rightly losing credibility with the public.
First, because it is now sinking in that leaving the EU customs union entails customs controls on the land border in Ireland. Second, because more people are realising that an independent UK trade policy would have to run just to stand still: before it could improve Britain’s trade position, it would have to recover the more than 50 trade agreements the EU has in place with other countries — not to speak of negotiating a trade agreement with the EU itself. Third, but less recognised, the EU is in fact rather committed to striking trade deals.
One with Canada has just been wrapped up, one with Japan is near completion, while the one with the US has stalled because of Donald Trump rather than anything to do with the EU. If trading more with the rest of the world is the goal, it is easy to make the case that being part of the EU trade bloc is the best available way for the UK to do so.
I'm not going to play silly buggers and split hairs over the mandate. Let's just look at the facts. Norway is not in the EU. It is, however, in the single market because of an agreement. The EEA. Since we want a deal that delivers the benefits of the single market then the EEA agreement is that agreement. Even if we do not go for the EEA/Efta route we will be going the long way around to replicate most of its functionality - but will be forced to flip a coin over which sector we wish to obliterate to get a total cessation of freedom of movement. For the most part, whatever happens we will be a quasi member of the single market to about 80% of where Norway is.

The point of using EEA/Efta is that it serves as the most workable transitional mechanism and is the fastest way to leave the EU. The only other means of transition is ECJ supervision over a much longer term - which is effectively continuity EU membership. That is why I, as an emphatic leaver, would prefer the EEA because at least then we are out of the EU even if we achive no other thing. 

As to the Customs Union, as EU Referendum explains, one cannot be a member of it. We are leaving the EU thus we are leaving the customs union. Turkey is a partial "member" of it but it is a customs union agreement - not membership. We should also note that it is regulatory union and customs cooperation that brings about seamless borders, and is in fact very little to do with the customs union. This is the second hack from the FT today who evidently does not know what the customs union is.   

As to trade policy, the customs union is not the common commercial policy. The UK could still negotiate its own trade agreements with other countries on services, investments, regulations, e-commerce, food, and agriculture. It would leave Brussels to handle the negotiations on tariffs on cars, industrial equipment, trains and electronics. That though is no biggie. The direction of travel, and the EU's own policy is to drive tariffs downward or eliminate them entirely.

Again, though, we need point out that tariffs are really not the issue. There is no low hanging fruit to go after. What concerns us more is our ability to act as an independent agent on international regulatory forums. Readers of this blog will know why that is important. FT hacks will not. As far as this blog is concerned this is one of the more fundamental reasons to leave the EU. 

Sandbu asserts that "Unlike the other considerations, few argued that Britain must strike its own trade deals for the sake of it, but because they would be better and done more quickly than the EU manages. That assertion is rightly losing credibility with the public". Unlike Sandbu I do not have a crystal ball as to the public mood on such matters, but actually if he wanted to know Brexiteer views on trade he could have read one of the many excellent independent Leave Alliance Brexit blogs. 

We very much did argue that if we changed our approach to unbundled sectoral deals then in all likelihood we can achieve a lot more in a shorter time. EU deals drag on for years and as we see this week, CETA has stalled again over the matter of a dispute on cheese quotas. That's very typical of these such agreements. Our view is that individual product types should feature as individual multilateral agreements. The point stands and we will continue to argue that case. 

As ever I could go to town on the rest of the article but if I had to spend my days correcting FT hacks I would never get anything else done. The basic point is that even if we do wish to depart entirely from the single market we will need to evolve out of it - especially if we want to avoid a cliff edge. For the most part the EEA covers all the bases and over time we can use the country specific annexes to gradually opt out until such a time as we were ready to make the switch to some other regime. EU membership has to be reverse engineered. We went in gradually and we shall have to depart gradually. 

This is why we have given little attention to any other model, largely because it is the only fit for purpose model available. More to the point, Switzerland is not a model. It is is the product of several years of diplomacy and bickering, is far from settled and exists as a rag bag of bilateral deals and agreements. It is not an artefact in the same way the EEA agreement is with all its structures and institutions. 

Looked at as a whole we take the view that anything that isn't an EEA brexit will be a hard Brexit largely because there are no other means to reverse engineer the mess we have made for ourselves. But if we want to dispense with the hard/soft/clean Brexit terminology we can reduce it to just two options. We either do it intelligently (EEA) or we go on pretending there is another way and make a massive pigs ear of it. You pays your money, you takes your choice.

A deep and special relationship?

For all that we are told we are leaving the single market and the customs union, we have little more than platitudes to go on as to what our future relationship looks like.

Chancellor Philip Hammond told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, in his first interview since the election. "The question is not whether we’re leaving the customs union. The question is what do we put in its place in order to deliver the objectives which the Prime Minister set out in the Lancaster House speech of having no hard land border in Ireland and enabling British goods to flow freely backwards and forwards across the border with the European Union".

As readers will now be well aware, the customs union has little to do with border controls. Free flowing goods depends on regulatory harmonisation. If we are to preserve free movement of goods then a regulatory union of a sort will be a prerequisite. We are adopting EU regulations as part of the repeal bill process chiefly so that we can maintain equivalence.  Any trade agreement will require a mechanism of co-determination to ensure future regulations stay in line with EU requirements.

To ensure that we can continue to free trade goods there will need to be a mutual recognition system of authorising bodies and testing houses. All of this is a requirement if we wish to continue the same level of market particpation. This will be an asymmetrical relationship simply because Brussels is the regulatory superpower in this arrangement.

As to tariffs, Hosuk Lee-Makiyama is one of the very few people with anything intelligent to say on this matter. He argues on his blog that given the onerous procedures involving rules of origin (an issue I might well have underestimated), having a customs union agreement would save thousands of jobs from leaving the UK – including the car-manufacturing jobs in Sunderland. Since cars are more than 40% foreign components they do not qualify for tariff free entry into the EU.

He says a customs union agreement would let the UK have the cake and eat it too: The UK could still negotiate its own trade agreements with other countries on services, investments, regulations, e-commerce, food, and agriculture – i.e. on all the areas that the UK disagrees with the rest of the EU. Meanwhile, Brussels would handle the negotiations on industrial tariffs on cars, industrial equipment, trains and electronics.

"Since the EU always negotiate these tariffs down to zero, the only rational reason to reject a customs union is if UK wants to impose protectionist tariffs against non-EU countries. In other words, a hard Brexit doesn’t seem like a very free trade proposition".

We can quibble over the exact syntaxes but broadly speaking I think he is probably right. Breaking away from the customs union regime probably doesn't give us much scope to tinker with tariffs to our advantage, no least since we already enjoy a number of tariff free agreements via the EU - and there are international conventions on a number of products - where those tariffs that do exist are difficult to remove for intensely political reasons.

Political opposition to a customs union agreement doesn't really make all that much sense. At best we save about £2bn which we would otherwise pay to the EU. It's a basic question of whether we want to keep the £2bn in tariff revenues or keep our car industry. The question, therefore, is how comprehensive will a customs union agreement be and what carve outs will we require. Not forgetting, of course, that this would have to be within WTO rules.

From a purist's perspective having the EU negotiate anything on our behalf is a red line but for me, even though I am concerned with sovereingty to a point, I really don't see why we should be precious about this. I'm certainly not going to jump up and down with rage if the government seeks such an agreement.

On that score we're going to have to put up with a torrent of stupidity. I've just been listening to a podcast from Spiked Online featuring Tom Slater waffling about politicians seeking to soften Brexit being "antidemocratic". All a customs union agreement would be is a trade deal of a particular type. The only way you get absolute sovereignty is to not have any trade deals at all. Makes me wonder precisely how much we have to self-immolate before these people are satisfied.

As to the single market, Switzerland is not a member of it but has a massive bundle of bilaterals, nearly all of which require the adoption of EU rules and ECJ authority. Nobody seems to bat an eyelid at this - yet can find ample reason to seethe about the possibility of a Norway EEA agreement. In the rush for a "deep and special relationship" that is the single market while also not being the single market, the likelihood is that we replicate the Swiss experience and end up with an inferior deal to Norway with much less sovereignty.

And this is why I get so very irritated with these such people. They're not actually interested in Brexit. They have no idea what they want or how to get it. They prattle on demanding the impossible or the monumentally stupid without the first idea of the consequences - without being able to specify what it would actually achieve - except for this nebulous "sovereignty" concept which only really exists for North Korea and Belarus.

In the end it really comes down to the sort of Brexit you want to see. I want to see Britain break away from EU political integration with a lot more power of veto and to be able to pursue different foreign and trade policy goals. I don't see any reason to create barriers where none presently exist. It's not anti-democratic to want a soft landing and nobody but a nihilist revolutionary wants to see Britain's export sector wiped out.

There has always been a Hotel California aspect to Brexit. Total independence is unobtainable since interdependency is the global model now. It is a fact of life. There are only degrees of independence largely dictated by proximity and volumes of trade. I don't really see a problem with that so long as the UK retains ultimate right of veto where it actually matters - and we are not simply a star on someone else's flag. If Brexiteers propose that we go far beyond that then they are obliged to provide us with something a little more concrete than "Brexit means Brexit".

We should note though that the focus on free movement of goods is an utterly misplaced focus. Though important the matters of financial services, aviation, space, nuclear and intellectual property open up a world of questions. Though there are pockets of useful debate, very little of this is breaking into the mainstream - nor indeed are the many practical issues we face in repatriating competences. 

We are all now well aware of the need for a transitional arrangement but we have seen no discussion as to what that looks like or how it comes into being. Somehow this will all be ready to fly before 2019. What are they smoking? The only transitional arrangement that isn't the EEA is... the EU. 

More to the point, neither a system of bilaterals or an umbrella FTA will actually address the matter of controlling "laws, money, borders and trade". There is no scenario where we can expect cooperation will come for free, there is no scenario where we are not heavily influenced by EU law. We will no doubt produce a fudge on freedom of movement but it certainly won't be the miracle cure for our immigration woes. 

All of this underscores the absurdity of seeking a bespoke agreement. As much as there is zero possibility of accomplishing all this inside a decade, we are not really going to achive much from doing it. If it really did produce a "clean Brexit", restoring ultimate regulatory sovereingty then I could see the point but if Switzerland is the benchmark then we're going to end up with a very messy bundle of agreements to accomplish the same thing on far less preferential terms. 

More than anything, naivety and ignorance is driving our Brexit approach. It is unconquerable. If at this point the Chancellor is still struggling with the basics, what hope is there? Worse still is the hubris - and the assumption that we realists are being overly negative. Despite the best brains from both sides of the debate pointing these issues out, they are certain they know better. 

Sadly this isn't just academic. The first obligation of this government is to remove the uncertainty but for as long as we are kept guessing, and for as long as we are set on a path that has little chance of succeeding, businesses will be exploring other options. As indeed they are already. The slow bleed will become a flood the longer this drags on. Who can blame them?

Ultimately we are starting Brexit off on faulty premises - that Brexit is the cure, not the catalyst and that Brexit is an event, not a process. What is not generally understood is that any deal is not a one shot deal. This is about reshaping our relationship and the institutions and frameworks for it to continually evolve. This is not a matter of tying up loose ends with Brussels and sailing off into the Atlantic. We remain anchored to Europe whatever happens. We seem to have forgotten that.