Thursday, 29 March 2018

Brexit realists must reclaim the argument


As a thought exercise I sat down to come up with fifty distinct reasons to leave the EU. It wasn't that difficult and that was without climbing heavily into the details - and nowhere on that list was immigration. What those reasons are, for the purposes of this post, is neither here nor there. The question is more one of which of those issues is resolved by Brexit?

That's where Brexit becomes problematic because some of its worst facets remain the same long after Brexit and are in fact amplified for the UK by way of having left. For instance, EU trade policy becomes no less murderous and its protectionist tendencies will likely be worst after Brexit and we will feel the consequences of them more acutely.

 A common theme running throughout was how the EU limits our abilities to decide things unilaterally, but that is without examining the consequences of what happens when we do act unilaterally without the necessary clout to handle the repercussions. Regulatory divergence, for instance, is one of those things where we can nominally repatriate the power but there are few advantages in actually diverging.

The therefore find that the gains from Brexit are very often only in principle or only theoretical. We will, for instance, have the power of veto in a number of forums, but in all likelihood will seldom every deploy such measures. This is the Norwegian experience with the EEA where it finds it must build up political capital by choosing its battles carefully. Win some, lose some.

Meanwhile there are obvious trade-offs like fishing where we could fetishise sovereignty and control to the max but find our market for fish substantially diminished. The same goes for agriculture and aviation.

The essential problem with the EU is that it takes all of these considerations and places then under a single treaty framework which leads to a gradual transfer of authority where we eventually find that the levers of power in Westminster aren't attached to anything.

Nowhere is this more observable than in the domain of trade, and especially WTO affairs. Ronald Stewart-Brown commenting in 2008 on the failed Doha round had this to say about it:
… it needs to be emphasised, the UK no longer has any meaningful existence in the world of international trade negotiations as it has ceded Brussels controls of most aspects of its trade relations with third countries apart from currency and trade promotion. While she retains nominal WTO membership, it is now in reality little more than a region of the EU in trade policy terms, with the periodic right to nominate one of its nationals as EU trade commissioner.
In the early days of UK membership, when EEC decision-making on trade policy was primarily inter-governmental, the Department of Trade and Industry was a leading and respected player in EEC trade policy matters. But as EU trade policy decision-making became more supranational so DTI trade policy expertise gravitated to the commission in Brussels. The dropping of the word trade from the department’s title when it was renamed last year as BERR (the department of business, enterprise and regulatory reform) says it all.
Gradually we find we are being erased as a nation state in all the ways that matter in international arenas, and at a pace so glacial we barely notice that the machinery of the EU is taking over, making our own politicians puppets to be paraded to give the illusion of influence. This is why the argument that British influence would decline if we left the EU was unconvincing. The damage is already done. 

We are told that the EU amplifies our influence, but only in so far as our agenda chimes with that of the Commission and to an extent the Council, but that is where we see a globalist groupthink take over where our respective establishments are unlikely to oppose any initiatives, especially if it be an act of global virtue signalling. If the UK found itself wanting to go in a different direction to the herd (and the fact that it never does is part of the problem) it would find it has no more influence than being a lowly pipsqueak member state.

But then by the same token the UK cannot expect to wield massive influence as an independent member of the WTO either. Multilateralism hinges on building consensus and choosing alliances. Brexit goes some way toward making that possible but again the potential is only theoretical simply because Brexit does not change the Westminster groupthink or break its habitual conformity. 

To get the benefits of being an independent state we have to start acting like it - and there is no outward sign that much as sunk in. In fact, it is telling that British trade wonks fancy their chances of a career by jumping ship to Brussels think tanks because their dogmatic mindset matches that of the EU.

One of the biggest problems arising from Brexit is that the UK has forgotten how to act as an independent nation and no longer has any concept of what is in the direct national interest. Trade wonkery in Europe has gone native and unlike the USA its denizens posses not a shred of patriotism. that's what makes UK academia, trained in the doctrines of Brussels, next to useless, bordering on dangerous.

The worst of the damage from Brexit will come as a result of playing the game by the old rules with UK politicians still failing to come to terms with the fact that the UK is not the power it believes itself to be - an illusion that the EU has sustained for the last four decades. 

Worse still we have yet to realise that the EU has acquired its own distinct trade personality and a patriotism of its own among its own officials where we will find that the EU is no ally in trade affairs. When it comes to something like expelling Russian diplomats in response to the Salisbury poisoning, we can expect some token solidarity but that does not happen in the realm of trade. We are going to have to get used to the idea that the EU is not interested in cooperating with third countries, nor will it be looking to do us any favours.

Moreover the UK will find that it is not nearly as popular among its former colonies as it belies itself to be, with former Commonwealth nations having trade concerns of their own, not least new regional trade initiatives in Africa where we could very well see Africa become a fourth standards superpower in the years to come. 

The point here is that in order to maximise the utility of our new found sovereignty and independence we will need entirely new strategies where we shall have to look at how mid ranking nations operate, rendering much of our EU experience obsolete. 

In this we find we can no longer afford the pretence of an ethical trade policy. It already looks like the UK will break from the EU intention to curb palm oil imports from Malaysia and Indonesia. Our ecological pretensions outside of any global framework will have to take a back seat. 

That is perhaps one of the more bruising consequences of Brexit in that it will shatter our self-image as a moral actor under the EU umbrella - however bogus that may have been. That, I suppose is no bad thing. A trade first trade policy might be a welcome novelty instead of the finger-wagging and preening we see from the "international community". 

What is clear is that of itself, Brexit achieves very little and puts our establishment way out of its depth, having to confront a world of labyrinthine complexity when it can barely master the basic definitions of the EU apparatus. How well we do will be entirely contingent on how well we can re-focus our civil service and change the institutional mindsets within it. 

The mood in international trade has, since Trump and Brexit taken a more aggressive turn, which has the potential to turn into a global trade war. Though nobody wants this, trade is very much back on the agenda and very much en vogue and will be the driver of international conversations in the next decade. It could very well serve as a cleansing forest fire as the global economy adapts to a new phase of globalisation.

Again this will require a new mindset. Being that we are but a small ship in rough seas, our safety net is not the EU, rather it is strengthening the global institutions and multilateral frameworks in whatever way we can. As much as the WTO serves as a stabilising factor, we must be cautious not to row back on the progress in global regulatory harmonisation. Noises from the Tories about slash and burn deregulation are entirely the wrong signal to send.   

It is these considerations that should steer our approach to Brexit. The mantras from the Tory right about taking back control of our laws, money and borders may well be what the public assumed they were voting for but there are real world practical limitations where more control in theory means substantially less in practice. Options are restricted, choices narrow and consequences more severe. 

The USA can afford to fetishise sovereignty in that it is a superpower that to a large extent does not need trade outside of a foreign policy - but if the UK turns down that path it will find that sovereignty without the power to wield it is meaningless. 

As a leaver I accept that Brexit comes with limitations and will likely slide to become only a mid ranking power, but I see that more as a political and cultural realignment that is long overdue and one which confronts a number of our long held delusions. I see that as healthy. The question is whether our political class can also be disabused of its pretensions. As a Scotsman said to me just recently, England is a country in need of liberation from the British. He's not wrong. These delusions have long fed a residual self-image that has caused us to meddle where we shouldn't.

As much as Brexit has robbed our political class of its veneer of competence and alerted us to the state of our political atrophy, in will in turn we a wake up call to a country that has been asleep at the week, disengaged from international affairs and all to happy to delegate governance to Brussels. Lifting the veil of Brussels exposes a whole universe of global governance that we must navigate as an independent actor. We may not be in any shape to do that presently, but at least acknowledging it exists will be a start. 

There are those who will regard any Brexit as a failure - and if the mantras of the Brexiteers are the benchmark by which we consider Brexit a success then Brexit will fail. The challenge for Brexit realists, therefore, is to reclaim the argument and make it clear that Brexit is less about restoring a perfect indivisible sovereignty, rather it is a matter of repatriating the decision making. 

Brexit has never been an economic proposition and it was a politically motivated folly by Vote Leave Ltd to ever pretend it was. This was primarily about democracy, warts and all, and the legacy of Vote Leave will have been to sour the appetite for that worthy goal. 

The only way Brexit could ever deliver on what was promised, or provide remedy to any of our complaints about it is for the EU to stop existing. Though I certainly wish that were the case, such wishful thinking has no place in the Brexit process. We shall have to contend with the EU whether we like it or not - and that reality is not going away any time soon. 

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