Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Waiting for reality

The Independent reports that "WTO director general Roberto Azevedo has now baldly stated that the mechanism – which his organisation oversees – cannot be invoked unless the parties involved have reached agreement on a future trade deal. He told Prospect magazine that Gatt 24 only applies in the period between a deal being struck and its full implementation. "If there is no agreement, then Article 24 would not apply, and the standard WTO terms would," said Mr Azevedo. 

As it happens, the Brexit headbangers have, for once, grasped that Article 24 cannot be invoked unilaterally. I'm not sue that anyone is still claiming that it can. There is just the belief that the EU will come around to it if we withhold the £39bn.

Where they get the idea that the EU will allow itself to be blackmailed like this over what is a relative pittance, one cannot say. Moreover the EU has made promises to Ireland, and the world is watching to see if they remain true to their word. Brexiteers may not appreciate the importance of reputation in international affairs but the EU does. Moreover, the EU is not at all inclined to throw the UK a bone, especially if it requires a raft of concessions it wouldn't even grant its own members. We can, therefore, safely assume that Brussels will not be chasing after us.

It was always safer to assume, even before Sabine Weyand's remarks, that the EU's price for returning to the table after a no deal Brexit would be a backstop agreement not far removed from the one presently on the table. GATT Article 24 may then serve as a rudimentary salvage device but would still come nowhere close to a solution. In no way does it address the torrent of regulatory issues the UK will face as a third country. 

We are told that there is further mitigation by way of "mini deals" but these exist only in the imagination of Brexit headbangers. There exists a series of unilateral contingency measures subject to reciprocal action, but these are only deals if you go as far as redefining the meaning of the word. No doubt they will be extended by way of a WTO waiver or similar device but these are only sticking plasters. What then follows is years of negotiation to rebuild something close to a functioning trade relationship.

We then have to consider how the EU will approach it. The Brussels view is that current relations with Switzerland are too messy and it is not keen to replicate the experience - to end up with a sprawling array of agreements and regulatory instruments. The preferred end state is a single treaty that will supersede any interim fixes. The extent of those interim fixes will be wholly contingent on the UK's attitude. If it's a continued belligerence, with the view that the UK is entitled to special treatment, we'll be waiting a long time out in the cold.

Of course, such warnings fall on deaf ears. Anything now said by anyone who isn't a true believer is all part of the global conspiracy against Brexit and this fantasy construct that the EU will come running remains the central pillar of the Brexiter belief system. Devotees will do no thinking of their own. They have a choice of "experts" and they will choose the experts whose views align most with their own. So long as they have someone to wheel out in front of a camera with sufficient prestige they won't even bother with the finer points of their own arguments.

Mercifully it won't take until Halloween before the wheels start to fall off. Boris Johnson will soon come unstuck when his negotiators are escorted to an empty room in Brussels and shown where the coffee machine is. They will not be joined by their Brussels counterparts. Negotiations are long over. The EU won't come running to prevent a no deal Brexit any more than it will after the fact. There is no bluff to be called. We will, however, go through the motions where Johnson will accuse Brussels of intransigence and play the victim, bolstering support among his own ranks for a dramatic walkout.

At that point we get to find out who is right about parliament's powers to stop a no deal Brexit. I'm of the view that parliament has already blown it and even if they could stop it, I doubt they could get their act together sufficiently in order to pull it off. Our fate, therefore, is entirely contingent on what sort of mood Johnson is in on the morning of October 31. A whim rather than a decision. This is no way to run a country.

For the time being we just have to suffer the charade of the Tory leadership contest and go along with the pretence that it isn't a coronation, but anyone who lives on planet earth as already tuned it out. Not one of the contenders offered a viable Brexit plan. It was only ever about flattering the Tory membership and pandering to their delusions. We've been on course for failure for some time now. We're just waiting for politics to catch up with reality. Everything else is noise.  

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