Saturday, 21 September 2019

Clueless or delusional. Who can say?

I really struggle to work out what is going on. It's one of two possibilities. Either this administration is just giving the EU the runaround having always intended to leave without a deal, or it is as we are led to believe; that Boris Johnson does want a deal and believes this inept posturing will somehow lead the EU to offer us a deal more to our liking.

To be it seems more like the former in that opposition to the backstop is entirely confected. If they are so confident that alternate possibilities are available then they should have no problem signing up to a backstop. It feels more like there is a hidden agenda based on more fundamental opposition to a withdrawal agreement of any kind.

This is largely to do with the knee-jerk reaction to provisions within the withdrawal agreement. We are subject to a number of competition rules and rules on procurement and the likes. What is less understood is that the provisions are there for the purposes of the transition or for business started inside the existing framework to conclude. This is all with a view to these provisions being replaced by measured outlined in the future relationship. In effect, the withdrawal agreement is scaffolding for a gradual dismantling of EU membership over a period of time as opposed to a bulldozer demolition as favoured by Brexit radicals.

That is not to say there aren't nasties in the WA that would make any Brexiter wince, and the single customs territory defined in the backstop is a customs union in all but name - largely as a consequence of Theresa May's botched general election. This could be dialled back to the original proposal but still the government seems to want to sabotage it entirely.

What we are seeing here is an attempt to resequence Article 50 talks once again, shunting the NI issue into talks on the future relationship whereupon any NI protocols cease to be a backstop. Theresa May tried this stunt a number of times and Johnson is no more likely to pull it off. Ireland wants an insurance policy therefore the EU does.

What the Brexiters can't cope with is the fact that any agreement on regulatory harmonisation for Northern Ireland will lead to the tail wagging the dog, stymying Brexiteer ambitions of total regulatory independence. Itis still an article of faith in the Brexit mind that such a thing is desirable and beneficial, having never understood the trade utility of common regulations. Three years of intensive trade debate has made no impact on their collective understanding.

This morning, though, we are reminded by UNECE that the origin of flagship "EU rules" is not in fact the EU. Vehicle regulations and emissions standards are very much the product of global regulatory efforts, along with much else that renders redundant the notion of regulatory independence. We are, therefore, making a colossal pig's ear of Brexit in order to chase a mirage - an unobtainable and largely useless version of sovereignty that exists only in the imagination of Brexiters.

This is ultimately why the Brexit radicals are calling for no deal. It's escapism. The real world cannot bend to the Brexiter sovereignty delusion (a pillar of eurosceptic thinking) so they retreat from reality altogether. And this is the reason I dislike prominent leavers. They're lazy. Anyone can construct a crowd pleasing argument against the EU which they'll do ad nauseam for popularity, but it takes intellect to come up with a viable destination. When you ask them, the cupboard is bare.

Instead of concrete plans we get the usual blether about independence, supremacy of our courts, parliamentary sovereignty and freedom to make our own trade deals without asking Brussels - but the fact of the matter is that the EU is a global regulatory superpower capable of exerting considerable power. If we want a comprehensive trade relationship with the EU then it necessarily requires a high degree of legal and regulatory alignment where every subsequent deal with a third party must take into account binding commitments we have already made.

If though, we are saying that the price is too high and that we value agility and sovereignty over a comprehensive relationship with the EU then that largely implies we will exclude ourselves from lucrative European markets - which is a wholly respectable point of view, but not without credible ideas to mitigate the massive losses that go with terminating our involvement in the single market. This is where we really see the intellectual paucity of the Brexit blob as it recycles the same tired ideas such as free ports and deregulation - none of which can be construed as a credible strategy for this century.

It now looks like we are steamrollering toward a no deal Brexit largely because two administrations now have proven themselves completely incapable of comprehending the nature of the EU's red lines. They simply do not understand the EU - what it is, how it functions and why it cannot show the flexibility demanded of it. 

Just recently an IEA wonk tweeted "Are the EU going to risk future trade with Europe’s 2nd biggest economy, UK, in order to safeguard a border which sees just 1.6% of Irish exports & imports...and risk the construction of border infrastructure & the bona fides of the GFA?' As it happens, you're not a proper eurosceptic unless and until you understand why the answer to this question is yes. And that really is telling. It tells us that the Tory version of Brexit is not rooted in classic euroscepticism. Classic eurosceptics instinctively get why the EU won't bend. Rather it is now a radical right wing economic experiment based on some loony tunes idea of how modern trade functions.

Unfortunately for all of us, there is no running away from reality. For sure we can refuse to ratify a withdrawal agreement and even make it look like the EU's fault (which is probably the objective of the Johnson administration) but soon after we bump into the cold reality that we do need a comprehensive relationship with the EU not only as our neighbour but also as the global trade and regulatory superpower. At that point we have to confront all the same uncomfortable dilemmas - only from a position of desperation where the balance of leverage is entirely in the hands of the EU.

Again we see the main conceptual error on the part of the Brexiters in viewing Brexit as an event we can soon after move on from as opposed to a long and detailed process. That, fundamentally, is what motivates their opposition to a negotiated exit. They want it done and dusted, failing to recognise that our bilateral relationship with the EU is an evolving continuum and that membership needs to be replaced with something. If they refuse to confront that reality then others will - and they are going to like it a lot less than the withdrawal agreement. 

This week it seemed like the penny had dropped, but we still see no sign of a sincere effort to secure a deal. We can only really conclude that this "negotiation" is a sham or the the prime minister really doesn't have the first clue what he's doing. In the fullness of time that will become clearer, but it scarcely matters when the effect is much the same. 


Additional: You may have noticed that productivity on this blog is not what it was but then there is so little original to say at this point. This, though, is the calm before the storm. There will soon be much to say. All the while this blog still requires considerable effort to maintain, and at cost to myself. It is supported entirely through your donations and I haven't asked in a while. Please give if you can.

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