Monday, 6 November 2017

Only a big vision can rescue Britain

If there is one thing glaringly evident in the Brexit process then it is a fundamental lack of vision from all sides. The Tory drive for Brexit is based on a free trade fantasy which has no particular regard for legal reality nor is it particularly troubled by a thing like detail. It cannot deliver prosperity. More likely it will make the UK an oligarchy with few friends on the continent.

But then I am not especially impressed with the opposition either. Yesterday's parliamentary debate on the single market led by Stephen Kinnock was equally lacking in inspiration. What's missing is the big idea. It's easy enough to sell the EEA as a system patch to resolve a number of problems created by Brexit, but it's a technocratic solution that utterly fails to inspire. We are not making history here. I do not feel the hand of destiny upon us.

When Mrs May went to Florence to make her pitch, Florence was not chosen by accident. It is a place of European significance chosen to add gravitas to her proposal. This is how the EU likes to operate. It was a homage. The problem with it, though, was there was never any substance to it. Just empty words like "partnership"; going through the motions, mouthing the platitudes. No shared destination and no real ambition. May used the EU's bureaucratic lexicon but it was entirely hollow. 

One thing we can say about the EU is that it is on a mission. It is in a race to bolster the WTO as the epicentre of the global rules based trading system - and every FTA it signs exemplifies that. There are clear strategic objectives while the UK has none except to leave the EU, which is little more than a bureaucratic transaction. What then? What is our role to be?

It would appear that, without a strategy, our fate is to be a client state of the USA - as a dumping ground for agricultural surpluses at the expense of our own agriculture, in exchange for marginally better access for UK services.

For some leavers I can see the attraction. Conservatives of a certain bent far prefer a transatlantic relationship than any kind of comprehensive EU relationship. We hold a particular delusion that there is such a thing as a "special relationship" when in fact it largely consists of being a fig leaf of internationalism for America's ill-conceived military adventures. As to trade, America has always run an America First trade policy and that is not going to change.

If that came with the sort of freedom of movement that comes with EU membership I wouldn't give it a second thought. But that is not going to happen. Consequently a realist is forced to admit that the national interest still lies in maintaining a deep and comprehensive EU relationship.

Many would argue that if this is the case then there is no advantage in ceding our controlling share in the European Union. But then in a geopolitical sense, arising from the fact we never joined the Euro, we are just not in the centre of the EU universe. Germany is at the helm trying to put out various brush fires as they arise while attempting to mollify disquiet internally. We look into the EU goldfish bowl and largely see little that concerns us and wonder why we are on the hook to bail out its various vanity projects.

I take the view that leaving the EU frees the EU to reform in ways that it never would with the continued presence of the UK. Europe can consolidate its gains, make the necessary adjustments and  Britain can feel more comfortable being a close and valued trade partner while looking beyond Europe as indeed we always have.

In that respect I can't see the for the life of me why Brexit is especially controversial unless it is a particular article of faith that everything depends on membership. What is controversial is the process of how we get to where we want to be - and starting that process before we even know what the  destination is. Not knowing makes the default option of being a US client state all the more likely.

This is something we should be cautious to avoid. The Tory infatuation with the USA is not one shared by the whole country. Many resent the idea of being culturally subordinate and value close European ties as a protection against becoming the 51st state.  

We therefore need to agree upon a direction that recognises the practical necessity in maintaining the closest trade links possible, observing that economic cooperation goes far beyond the narrow definition of trade.

It really comes down to fleshing out what an actual partnership with the EU looks like. For starters any partnership is born of common objectives. Common security, defence and foreign policy are a given for the region. Being that we alone cannot sustain super power sized armed forces it follows that we must have a framework for cooperation.

As to economic partnership, any which way you look at it, the Single Market is the obvious framework. That, though, is the tough sell for those who thought Brexit would deliver far greater freedoms than is allowed by the EEA agreement. But again this perception is born of a lack of vision.

The fact is that the UK is not of equal stature to the EU. It therefore follows that if we want a genuine partnership where the EU does not call all of the shots then we must enlist allies. That is where the power of Efta is overlooked. UK membership of Efta evens out the balance.

What we can then do, by way of having an independent trade policy, is work to the same agenda as the EU - pulling more countries into the global rules based trade system, coalescing around global standards. This shifts the centre of gravity for the single market from Brussels to Geneva. 

In this we can address a number of domestic complaints by redirecting our aid spend toward technical assistance to bring more countries on board. This is with a view to expanding and enhancing the single market, wresting it from EU control. As an advocate of free trade, or rather regulated trade, we could very well be Europe's envoy in the world working to a common set of goals which increase the overall wealth of the continent.

Whatever trade designs we might have, being independent and agile is a useful asset but we cannot expect to go very far alone. There must be an appreciation that nobody works in isolation and nobody has absolute sovereignty. From that understanding we can nurture our own relationships while staying the best of friends with the EU, maintaining our global standing and retaining much of our European influence.

Brexit is really a matter of recognising the fact that Europe is evolving in different spheres at different speeds with different centres of gravity. It should, therefore, be our objective to work with the EU to build a more dynamic Europe where the supranational dogmatism of the EU takes back seat for those who want no part of it.

If there is a vision to enhance and improve Europe then there is every chance the EU will climb aboard and support us. Perhaps it will even be amenable to improving the EEA agreement with a view to respecting the Europe wide yearning for greater control. If, however, the message is that we are dumping Europe, striking out on or own and going into competition with the EU then we can expect acrimony, opposition and animosity.

If we want to Brexit to work in our interests then there has to be a genuinely European vision behind it where both sides get something they want. Otherwise it's a zero sum game. It is, therefore, a question of selling Efta as a vision rather than a dismal technocratic solution to park Brexit. As much as anything, it is not a positive message to sent to Efta; - that we view Efta as a parking garage rather than a new home more befitting of our oceanic character.

If Brexit is treated purely as a transactional and administrative chore then there is no possibility of being in a better place. We would squander an opportunity while trading influence for the mirage of "global Britain". That would be a travesty.

No comments:

Post a Comment