Monday, 1 July 2019

Brexit: repairing the damage


It was always a working assumption on this blog that parliament would somehow assert itself to avoid a no deal Brexit. If there was a way, they would have to have taken some radical action earlier in the game. Parliament, however, has been unable to form up around any coherent position and they even blew their one certain way of avoiding no deal by failing to ratify the withdrawal agreement. Our fate now looks to be sealed.

This, though, is as much to do with the effectiveness of no deal propaganda. Brexiters have sealed themselves into an airtight bubble of self-deception, with a full array of imaginary remedies for the big day. It's actually less about having a no deal contingency plan as it is holding the line just long enough to see us crash out without a deal.

At the far reaches of this delusion, however, there is a firm belief that a Brexiter strongman will get these foreigners to play ball, despite the EU having reassigned all of its lead negotiators. It hasn't sunk in that the game is very much over. Still they believe the EU will come running over the matter of £39bn.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the EU has its own priorities and it cannot allow Brexit to dominate the agenda much less project any sign of weakness. A deal was negotiated and to now allow a charlatan like Boris Johnson a propaganda win of any kind would be unconscionable for the EU. The EU is in full power projection mode, making a big show of its shiny new trade deals - almost rubbing our noses in it. Moreover, the EU is a patient animal. It is in a better position to play the waiting game. When it comes to trade the balance of leverage is firmly on their side.

Should we leave without a deal, I fully expect the EU to go into lockdown as far as the UK is concerned. It will take some months before all the necessary controls and exclusions are in place, more akin with turning off a tap and flicking a switch. I won't be surprised if the EU's contingency measures are rolled over and become the new interim state and there will be other areas of cooperation not governed by WTO rules where the EU will make exceptions purely out of self interest but it is not going to do the UK any favours. The longer it hangs us out to dry the more demands it can make.

Recent remarks by EU trade chief, Sabine Weyand, give us some indication where the EU is headed. "We have an increasing linkage between the geopolitical and economic. We're talking about trade tensions, we're looking at a rivalry for global leadership in technology and security carried out by means of trade policy.' This development 'is very difficult for EU because European integration has rested on separation between the geopolitical and economic.' It must 'fashion our response' by changing: 'We need to integrate much more our diplomatic tools and our external economic relations tools.'

In other words the EU is now looking to use trade in the exact same way a nation state would - and for it to have that power means further erasing the ability of member states to set their own foreign policy. This is the EU bumping into the reality that trade is indivisible from foreign policy and it cannot be a sterile technical discipline divorced from politics.

Where the UK is concerned, though there is no explicit agenda to punish us, it is not going to sit idly by should the UK to set about what they view as an entirely regressive agenda of deregulation (undermining its own agenda), and as the Swiss are learning, the EU can and will apply whatever leverage it has.

Here Switzerland does have choices in that a refusal to cave in to Brussels' demands results in more or less the status quo. Not so for the UK, for whom its formal trade relations go up in smoke at the end of October. That makes our situation more urgent and as the job losses start to mount, the political pressure to do a deal mounts also. It is at that point the EU reminds us that we have bills to settle and nothing happens without a formal resolution for Ireland - one which looks very much like the backstop and this time it won't be a negotiation.

What happens next really all depends on who is in charge in the UK and for how long. A Johnson administration may well choose to weather the storm but the longer it drags on, the more likely he will lose the next election or will be forced into another coalition. Sooner or later we go grovelling back to Brussels.

In the meantime we can expect a certain amount of damaging bravado should it be a Brexiter in charge. To immediately reopen talks with Brussels would be a major loss of face and we still have to go through the motions of educating the ERG brigade that GATT Article 24 is no basis for a solution. More than likely, their plan will involve deregulation in the City, seeking to make it a more globally focused hub, bleeding European business to Frankfurt and Paris.

Politically, though, the ERG agenda might well be stillborn. They may get away with a round of unilateral tariff disarmament, but they'll have a much tougher time in parliament repealing directives etc, not least since they soon bump into the double coffin lid problem where our global obligations mean we have to have alternative legislation in place that won't look much different to what came before. The idea that we were ever going to have a "bonfire of regulation" was always a mindless fantasy.

There is talk of repealing the Working Time Directive which, politically, is a non-starter, and cutting out the "green crap" won't be a walk in the park with a parliament addicted to eco-virtue signalling. Moreover, these highly technical regulatory systems are not so readily erased or replaced. The EU acquis is a system of interwoven systems where even minor reforms are a matter for delicate microsurgery rather than a chainsaw massacre. With a civil service already absorbed by the fallout from no deal, much will have to go on the back burner and may never again see the light of day.

As much as this deregulation hokum was never a realistic prospect, we are also faced with a drought of political competence and I do not see the public putting up with it for long. Granted, a Labour government is not an improvement but at the very least they'll resist the urge to meddle. The social element of EU regulation saves them having to do any thinking of their own and frees them to do what they do best; tinker round the edges.

If the Brexiteers wanted a radical reboot, they actually needed to win the argument. This they have not done. There is a slender mandate in the 2016 referendum to take us out of the EU but the rest is a political fight to the death. This "fuck business" approach might well play well to the gallery, but not so much when factory orders start collapsing and the effects are felt in the every day economy.

Not to worry though! Richard Tice tweets "I’ve just announced at our #BigVisionRally a few of our direct democracy policies: Scrap the vanity project HS2, Halve our bloated foreign aid budget, Don't pay the Brussels bureaucrats £39bn, Cancel interest rates on student fees (including historic rates)".

That's right! The Brexit Party is poised to race to the rescue with this visionary package of ideas to take Britain in a whole new direction. This, apparently, is why we fought four long decades to take us out of the EU - to save chump change and implement diktats we were never prevented from doing in the first place. Big vision indeed.

The resulting mess from a no deal Brexit will not be resolved for a long time. As much as our politicians have no idea what's about to hit them, it won't really sink in even after the fact, much less know what to do about it. We'll see a reversion to the usual bicycle shed syndrome, only worse in that they'll have failed to realise that the UK is no longer in a position to fund or promote their irrelevant agendas. Remainers will be pining for the days of EU empire, unable to come to terms with our status as a midranking power with no money to piss up the wall on vanity projects.

Even after the general election we are still going to have a crisis of competence. There will still be the same paralysis and the same lack of political talent. It's the same problem as before. Garbage in, garbage out. Now that the veneer of adequacy has been shattered we will never see politicians in quite the same way again. Asinine, inane and thick is about as good as it gets. That's our baseline and anything over and above that is a fluke.

As revolutions go, this will probably go down in history as the most inept one of all time. As much as there was no plan for our immediate departure, the revolutionaries have no idea what they want or have the first idea how to get it it. They've been fighting the battle for so long that they can't even remember why. They want sovereignty but couldn't take a credible punt as to what they would actually do with it.

If anything this is the ultimate price of EU membership. With the agenda set by Brussels and parliament reduced to a mere implementing agent, we have forgotten how to do politics. We can't do radicalism either when we've forgotten what radicalism looks like. Tinkering with policy ideas plucked from a tombola is hardly a coherent agenda for the revival of the nation. More than anything the UK needs a major constitutional overhaul so that the public is back in control. We can't expect the politicians and the institutions who got us into this mess to get us out of it.

Thanks to the failure of the Brexit movement as a whole in failing to set out a credible vision and an alternative to EU membership, our politics is set to descend into chaos with no sign of recovery any time this side of 2030. The institutions no longer work, the parties are spent and no obvious means to reunite the country. We'll spend a decade in damage control, where ultimately the direction will come from the EU as it eventually sees that a languishing UK is not in the long term interests of the EU. By that point we'll be looking at an associate membership deal and we'll end up back where we started. Pretty much what the Brexit blob deserves. Who needs a plan? they said. 

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