Wednesday, 14 November 2018

I'd have settled for a compromise, but this is capitulation

I've flip-flopped on a number of issues over the course of this blog. At one time I was ambivalent about freedom of movement and broadly in favour of it, but settled on the notion that the current form of it must end. I've been adamant that a no deal Brexit is a very bad thing, but at the same time almost willing it to happen. The one constant is that I think the EEA represents the best available compromise.

Sometimes my position can change by the day. Yesterday, albeit without having seen the gory details, I was reluctantly supportive of the deal as it was rumoured to be. Today I am implacable opposed to it and I think if it's this or no deal then, miserable as it is, no deal is what it has to be.

I make no apology for my flip-floppery though. I can say with some pride that I have attempted to explore every avenue of Brexit in full and attempted to reconcile the issues in ways few other have. The issues are not always clear cut, it's difficult stuff and some of the trade-offs cause me to question some of my longest standing views. Sometimes you have to argue the opposite case just as a thought exercise. What I have detested most in both remainers and leavers is fixed positions unwilling to explore other possibilities and alternative ideas.

This has caused me many a fall out with Brexiters who have taken an absolutist line on everything and have made no attempt to understand the issues or even entertain the idea that they might on some level be wrong.

In part, the reason I do this blog is is that writing about something is the process of understanding something. Very often I don't fully understand my own impulses and ideas until I have brought structure to them. I publish my thoughts in the hope that you may take some benefit from seeing the thought process.

Blogging Brexit is difficult in that there are so many unknowns and much of what I do is speculation. It is informed speculation but even informed speculation from the best of us can be wildly wrong, especially where political predictions are concerned. There are plenty of times I have been wrong and probably more often than not. Predictions are indeed a mugs game. As the process evolves, though, more of the unknowns become known. This is how our thinking evolves.

Central to this whole dilemma is that the UK exists as an entity in a world of complex international agreements - bilateral and multilateral. Each bring their own benefits but also constraints on what is generally understood as sovereignty.

The globalist liberal believes in the maximum facilitation of trade and freedom of capital and subsequently goods and people. This comes with considerable economic benefits. It also comes with problems. The other side of the argument are those who fetishise national sovereignty who, like me believe it is essential to the defence and exercise of democracy.

One can take that view and be broadly in favour of international cooperation but stop short of supranationalism, which though described as pooling sovereignty, is in fact the transfer of political authority. That is my beef with the EU. The more power it has the less power the people have. That is the principle at stake.

That principle, though has to be reconciled with the real world where trade superpowers set the regulatory agenda, frictionless trade does not happen without regulatory harmonisation, and as a smaller economy, less powerful than the EU, and the EU as our single largest trade partner will continue to call the shots in one form or another. Trade gravity is one of the few unarguable truths in economics.

That then presents us with a number of unpalatable choices and dilemmas when the ideal balance is not available to us. We therefore have to evaluate the remaining options and that is not easy. This is easy for remainers who tend to view this entirely through an economic prism. It is far more difficult to crack when you factor in the political, cultural and democratic concerns.

Remainers will generally compartmentalise. Speaking from experience, they tend to fetishise the economy over all other concerns, not least because the current economic settlement works in their favour. They argue that the economic settlement (the EU) is not the cause of the political and social dysfunction in the UK. That is a more difficult question address.

Remainers will say that much of what is done to us is primarily the actions of the UK government. That is their conceptual error. The EU is the UK government and Westminster is the national administration putting into effect measures and legislation agreed at the EU and global level. What appears to be domestic law is very often the implementation of directives and conventions.

This can dictate anything from product labelling through to the structure of utility markets through to labour rights, waste disposal and public transport. There are many tiers of invisible but important aspects of governance that place obligations on national and local authorities and directs large parts of their spending and the manner in which they execute policy.

Over the four decades of EU membership we have seen a radical transformation of governance which has become more proscribed, more remote, more centralised and more immune to democratic inputs. Gradually the value of voting and democratic participation is diminished and our ability to innovate in policy is reduced.

We Brexiters therefore take the view that political authority must be returned to its proper place be that Westminster or at the local level. Pragmatists can compromise on common standards and conventions for the free movement of goods, and only the most obtuse would seriously object to common trade governance. What is intolerable is integration, standardisation and harmonisation for its own sake or for the sake of the European ideal to homogenise. It transfers authority to Brussels over things can and should be decided domestically.

It is by that measure we must assess any withdrawal agreement with the EU. Being that the purpose of Brexit is to repatriate political authority then we must also be able to meaningfully diverge and design our own laws according to our own values and economic objectives. We should, therefore, be seeking a balance between our commercial interests and restoration of democratic control.

Trade, however, is more complex than cross-border trade in goods, and as much as it is governed by the EU it is also governed by a series of regional and global rules. We may wish to simplify relations but there is no simplifying the inherently complex. We uphold certain shared values and standards and we agree not to engage in anti-competitive practices. These are the values which underpin a global order we have created and participated in for some seventy years.

It therefore stands to reason that any enhanced treaty with our nearest trade partners and closest allies would extend beyond the remit of food safety controls, banking rules and transboundary anti-pollution measures. The Prime Minister is right to say that we desire a deep and special partnership.

The operative word there is partnership. We respect their sovereignty and vice versa. So can that be said of the withdrawal agreement? Absolutely not. Primarily the UK seeks to restore control over who and what comes into the UK and on what terms. As part of a full and permanent customs union there are extraordinary constraints on UK policy. This also comes with a number of non-divergence obligations and further commitments to implement EU social and environmental law with the ECJ as the ultimate arbiter.

Intellectually, democratically and morally this is not consistent with Brexit. Rather than attempting to reconcile the issues it simply removes us from the decision-making apparatus while locking us into many of the tiers of governance that are not required for the functioning of trade. We should also note that this agreement is only the withdrawal agreement and there is to be a future trade component of the relationship which will also concede to more regulatory measures again with the ECJ as supreme authority.

There is every advantage to having a deep and comprehensive economic and social partnership with the EU. The concessions we make though must be in the mutual interest and where possible preserve jobs and trade. It is actually a feat of legal engineering that Theresa May has managed to concede to just about everything except those measures that will protect trade. Not only does it unplug us from single market participation, it prevents us from exploring mitigating policies and agreements with other countries.

Being that I have attempted to reconcile the issues and have strongly argued against leaving without a deal I am not being obstinate by saying this is BRINO. Few can say they have invested more energy in comprehending the issues and unlike the Ultras I do see the need for compromise. But this isn't compromise. Not only is it a capitulation, it goes further than that to make the UK a supplicant.

Being that that the case, the so-called WTO option, which I had previously considered unthinkable, now seems infinitely preferable. We did not do this thing for £350m a week to play with. We did not do this thing for Boris Johnson's "bumper trade deals". We did this to return powers to their rightful place to address the democratic deficit here in the UK so that once again our democracy means something. Should we agree to this deal we defeat the purpose and the spirit of Brexit. What the EU is saying here is that in or out of the EU, if we want trade with the EU then we must do away with democracy.

I have repeatedly stated that the UK could not survive as a trading nation by relying on the WTO Option. The Leave Alliance said "It would be an unmitigated disaster, and no responsible government should allow it". There is but one caveat though. If the ultimatum is between trade or democracy, then we must choose democracy. If this is the only deal then Theresa May was right. No deal really is better than a bad deal.

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