Sunday, 24 February 2019

May's deal is the only way to take no deal off the table

When I look at the more extreme end of the Brexiter movement I start to think they have a pathological need to be unhappy about something. I've seen plenty of reasons good and bad for not supporting Theresa May's deal, but if they didn't have a reason they would invent one.

This is probably a lot to do with how humans do politics. It's almost arbitrary. Most of us inherit our politics from our parents and as we we grow up we first rebel but then revert. We're given a naked christmas tree and we decorate it with confirmation bias fodder. Either way, once we settle on our politics it becomes a cornerstone of our identity subsequently influences our relationships. Politics is tribal because humans are tribal.

This is now problematic for leavers. We've spent decades as the politica underdog with no voice and nothing going our way. Much like the left we draw our power and identity from our respective gripes and grievances. Now we are leaving the EU our main whinge is front and centre we have less in macro terms to whinge about. We now have to invent a wholly new set of whinges to ensure the survival of our underdog identity.

This is ultimately why trying to appease Brexiters (or any faction in politics) is futile. We will always demand more. We have no shifted the goalposts where a relatively pedestrian proposition like leaving the EU has morphed into a full blown culture war where nothing short of terminating all formal EU relations will do.

Now I'm not saying there aren't good reasons to question the withdrawal agreement. Were I so inclined I could probably come up with a few new good reasons to oppose it and probably better reasons than those currently in circulation. That, though, does not make the central dilemma go away. The deal on the table is as good as it is going to get and we get to choose between that and no deal.

Here is where I part company from Brexiters. There are a litany of complex regulatory and trade issues that cannot go unaddressed and we need to tie up the loose ends. More than that, the world turns on formal relationships and we need an FTA and much more besides. Being that both sides have their own demands and red lines the deal was never going to wholly satisfy anyone.

What it does do, though, is formalise our status as a non-EU member. That alone, irrespective of the details, is a seismic event and in terms of international statements, it's huge. It marks a parting of ways and as much as we will be a non-EU member, we will be treated accordingly both by the EU and the rest of the world. To a large extent the details do not matter. Had we never joined the EU we would still have a thousand binding stands with our neighbours.

The Brexit puritans want a year zero relationship but this is neither realistic or necessary. Had we never joined the EU there is a strong chance that we would still be in Efta and very possibly a member of the EEA or we would have taken up a role similar to that of Switzerland with hundreds of separate accords. Over forty years we would have accumulated a lot of EU baggage, most of which wouldn't even register with the public.

In respect of that, this perhaps points to the follow of the EU. Had they set about building a relatively anonymous organisation like the WTO then there's a good chance the EU would be churning away in the background with little public attention. But no, they had to give it a flag and a parliament and all the bells and whistles.

Since we did join it, though, what we have on our doorstep is a trade superpower holding most of the cards and any relationship with it is going to be asymmetrical. I accepted that when we voted to leave. It's why I preferred the EEA Efta route because it has better safeguards and Efta with the UK would, to a point, even up the balance of power.

Moderates, though, lost that argument. British exceptionalism won out. The various Brexit propagandists have convinced themselves that not only do we hold all the cards, we don't need formal trade relations or cooperation agreements and it will be the EU begging us once we are out.

In terms of the leverage we hold, the no deal leverage is overstated. If we pull the plug then it is a body blow fore Ireland and creates a number of major headaches for the EU - weakening it substantially and exacerbating a number of its own internal stresses. It makes for a decade of sour relations. I have no doubt that the UK is capable of inflicting enormous damage on the EU. The problem being, though, that we suffer a magnitude more.

This is not a particularly credible threat. The EU has been quite clear that it prioritises the sovereignty and integrity of its customs and regulatory territory and if Brexit is to be a zero sum game it will keep us out in the cold long enough to cannibalise UK market share in Europe and make damn sure it hurts us more. Since the effects for the EU are distributed and manageable, our need is greater than theirs.

To a large extent, though, Brexiters are none to bothered about this. Whatever concern you raise, there's always a pre-prepared argument or excuse waiting in the wings. It doesn't matter how flimsy it is or how many times it has been debunked, just so long as there is cover. More than anything this is a domestic dispute between the hard right and the so-called progressives. In more ways than one, Brexit could not be less to do with our future relationship with the EU. That is just a casualty of war.

As far as the hard right are concerned, Mrs May's deal is a plan for remain sewn up by Ollie Robbins and the remain establishment where soe even tell me they would rather remain that fall into the "trap". This has been a recurrent theme from the beginning. the referendum was a trap. Article 50 was a trap. The backstop is a trap. One self-pitying conspiracy theory after another. There is no end to it.

When it comes down to it the Brexiters don't want a solution. I'm not even sure if they know what they do want. They are addicted to ideological trench warfare and they have been going at it for so long that it is now a way of life. They will push us over the cliff them blame somebody else for the consequences.

On this I don't really have a dog in the fight. If somebody has to lose then I prefer it be the "progressives" but that is still a lose-lose proposition. It is for that reason alone I support Theresa May;s deal because that is the only sure fire way of taking no deal off the table. It clears the air and allows us to start afresh a wholly new debate about the shape of our future relationship. As much as it removes the threat of no deal it also removes the threat of remaining as we will be formally out of the EU.

Whatever the pitfalls of Mrs May's deal, most of them are issues with a natural expiry date - not least citizen's rights. For the remainder, for all that we might stamp our feet about provisions within the deal, they don't go much further than a great many of our international obligations and there's really not much point in complaining unless we have a coherent and deliverable idea of what to do instead.

The militant wing of the Tory party don't want a deal because they know that we are politically obliged to come up with something that obviates the need for the backstop and ensure it is never activated. Whatever that may be, they know full well that it comes with certain regulatory and customs obligations that dampen their "fwee twade" ambitions. They would rather crash out and then work toward an FTA from a blank canvass.

This, though, is not going to happen. To restart talks the EU will make many of the same demands it is making now and it will not tolerate the legal limbo that then exists in Northern Ireland. Being that the situation will be a good deal more urgent, we will have to submit to a permanent backstop without even a political declaration to replace it.

So it ultimately comes down to who is right. Is it worth all the upset in order to chase after the free trade unicorn? The simple answer is no. The ERG have no grasp of how the system works and none of their proposals withstand the barrage of scrutiny applied over the last two years. It is a wholly flawed enterprise that never had a hope of working.

Ultimately, if we want to leave we simply have to navigate the process as best we can and then see where we are at the end of it. The destination will likely be suboptimal but there is no final destination because bilateral relations are always a continuum. Playing the game at least ensures we are still in the game and we don't lose all of the assets we have. From there we can work to optimise and stabilise the relationship.

For all that parliament may dither, the politicking to and fro has little bearing on events. Ministers can have their little tantrums and wail all they like but leaving without a deal is the default. The EU can maybe grant us an extension but will only do so on their terms and for their own convenience. Whether the decision time is mid-March or mid-July, the dilemma is still the same. All the while the UK hemorrhages jobs and capital. If they want to put a stop to that, their only option is to bite the bullet and back the PM. 

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