Brexit is based on a mood, not a policy. From this emptiness flows the chaos.

If you’re not following it closely, it’s easy to ask, as an American correspondent did recently, “why doesn’t the United Kingdom just leave the European Union, and get on with it?”. Well, it’s more complicated than that. The referendum vote mandated the government to get out of the EU. I don’t think the people who voted for it voted for a complete disruption of the European trading system and in doing so, make themselves much poorer. “But that’s just project fear, isn’t it?” Well, yes and no. At the time of writing, 25 months after the vote, and 16 months after the UK invoked article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, to set a 2-year withdrawal clock ticking, the British Government has finally worked out its opening negotiating position to put to the EU. The “Chequers agreement” as it is known wasn’t “the deal”, it was a deal between members of the UK government on their opening negotiating position, and which almost everyone thinks unworkable, not least the two senior Brexiters who resigned from the Government over it. Why has getting to this stage taken so long? Let’s face it, Brexit is not a policy, it’s a fantasy. It’s a mood, not something we need to do, it’s an attitude. Most people who voted for it, did so because they believed slogans deliberately constructed to allow people to project their own fantasies and frustrations onto the project to leave the European Union. From these slogans, no actual policies fall. From this emptiness, flows the chaos that is currently engulfing British politics.

 

“Take back control”? by whom, of what? Still not clear.

“Freedom”? For whom, to do what? Still not clear.

“Sovereignty”? Over what? This is meaningless when it’s at the expense of influence over trade rules we’ll end up obeying anyway.   The Jurisdiction of the European court of Justice mainly covers competition law, state aid to companies, agriculture and trade marks which is hardly something a bloke in a pub would normally care about. It is not supreme in the way the UK’s supreme court is. It is confused in the public mind with the European court of Human Rights, which isn’t an EU institution, but is what prevents the UK being beastly to terrorists, much to the chagrin of the British tabloids. We are not leaving the Council of Europe, and so the UK will remain bound by the European court of Human Rights. All the UK has done, by leaving the EU is storm out of the room in which the decisions are being made.

“Democracy”? It’s hard to see how being a member of a club of democracies, which itself is overseen by a parliament is anti-democratic. It’s true, I won’t miss voting in the European parliament elections, because I’ve always seen it as a risible little potempkin talking shop, but the idea “democracy” was improved by voting Leave, is risible. Just as no parliament can bind its successors, no electorate can either. If you think holding a second referendum on the deal “an attempt to overturn democracy”, then you don’t understand democracy, which isn’t “one man, one vote, once.” Indeed the referendum has poisoned British democracy by introducing a set of mutually exclusive demands, that cannot be met at reasonable cost for which millions will think they have voted.

“Our own trade deals”? Again, it’s hard to see any benefit of leaving the most comprehensive trade deal on earth, with the earth’s largest market, which is also the nearest to the UK, plus deals with dozens of other countries farther afield, in order to secure a trade deal with Australia. At best this is wishful thinking, but most of it is just Imperial nostalgia. The choice the UK faces between”Europe and the Deep Blue Sea” is, with respect to Churchill, a false dichotomy. Far from being “shackled to a corpse”, the EU facilitated trade with China and the Pacific rim and made the UK an attractive place to do business, a Gateway to Europe for the world. Imagining the EU is in some way “holding us back” because mature, stable economies are growing slower than vast, poor ones, is another category error.

Immigration? The largest body of immigrants to the UK come from the Indian subcontinent, none of whose countries is a member of the EU. There is no “deal” with the EU that would stop an EU citizen coming to the UK, and let’s face it, it’s not the Polish plumbers who bother the anti-immigrant crowd, is it?

All of this, I have been arguing for years. Because the arguments for Brexit are based in moods, not facts, they raise as many questions as they answer, and such is the dislocation the referendum has caused in UK politics, The Netherlands has more comprehensive planning for a no-deal Brexit than does the UK. I suspect in practice, this means leaving the EU without a deal is mostly off the table. However Brexiters are trying to cut the Gordian knot, by going full-on for the hardest, most catastrophic break they can engineer. This explains the ‘red lines’ Theresa May offered the brexiters straight after the referendum when she took over from David Cameron. Out of the Single Market, out of the Customs Union, no Jurisdiction of the EU courts, no free movement, no payments to the EU budget, no border in the Irish sea. These red lines effectively make doing a deal with the EU, which regards the four freedoms of the single market indivisible, impossible. They are also mutually exclusive. You see, Brexit is a fantasy, and in chasing it, Brexiters have insisted on wrecking clauses in legislation designed to tie the Governments hands to positions the EU will find unacceptable.

This ‘No-Deal’ plan at least settles it, Brexiters argue. We must leave, and we can deal with the consequences when they arrive. However leaving the EU is a policy which should require decades of carefully unpicking the legal and constitutional ties built up over half a century. Brexit, however has already caused a sharp slowdown in investment. A no-deal scenario would see the UK wave goodbye to much of its automotive, aerospace, pharmaceutical and high tech industries. The social and economic consequences could be severe. It isn’t hyperbole to suggest a hard, no-deal brexit will lead to shortages of food and medicines as a result of severe disruption to modern ‘just in time’ supply chains: Great Britain hasn’t been able to feed its population since the 17th century, and is dependent upon trade to feed the nation, every day. Hence the recent headlines about stockpiling food and medicines, and hence the public mood, perhaps, barely perceptibly, beginning to change.

So the Government has to do a deal of some sort.

It is the Irish border which remains the biggest obstacle to a deal. Brexit cuts across a number of previous agreements the UK made with the Republic of Ireland, an EU state that many brexiters are surprised hasn’t been thrown under the bus by the EU yet. The problem is that if the UK leaves the Customs union, in order to forge its own deals elsewhere, then it must check goods on its borders. However, part of the settlement to ‘The Troubles’, decades of violence not quite reaching the level of a civil war over the status of the province as Irish or British, was that there should be no obvious border infrastructure between the two bits of Ireland. The all citizens of the island of Ireland can choose more or less at will, which passport they use. The border barely exists on the ground. It can be crossed, and the only sign that you’ve moved from one sovereign country to another is that Ireland displays speed limits in kilometers per hour, not miles. That would change if the UK leaves the Customs union, as border posts or fences would be needed on the 208 crossing places on the border to check goods and people. Farmers would need to maintain two flocks of sheep, and other nonsenses as a result of the border being reimposed. There are solutions that would avoid a hard border in Ireland. You could leave Northern Ireland in the Customs union,  but that would require a ‘border in the Irish sea’ effectively splitting the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Many Brexiters don’t care, they’re effectively English nationalists, and aren’t bothered by the question of Scottish independence either. If I’m losing American readers with the intricacies of the United Kingdom’s constitutional settlement, I apologise, but the EU was until 2016 part of the glue that held the four nations of the UK together. Brexit threatens not just Northern Ireland’s status, but that of Scotland too. That is a question for another post, but Theresa May’s government is dependent upon the Democratic Unionist party for her majority in parliament. The DUP is a kind of Orange Ulster Tea Party which is, to put it lightly, not in favour of a United Ireland. A ‘Border in the Irish sea’ between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK would be an anathema to most of the Conservative Party, as well as the DUP. There are other solutions being suggested from complex tariff collection arrangements, to turning a blind eye, but they’re all nonsense too.

You can’t just rip up a constitutional settlement,break up a great country and risk restarting a war to satisfy a grumpy national mood.

Ultimately, the problem stems from the paucity of research. There was no workable plan, despite the Tory Brexiters having obsessed over the EU for 30 years. They never considered what happens the day after the Referendum, as most of the Tory brexiters are frankly a bit dim. The obvious solution, as most Brexiters who thought at all about it in any detail agree, is “the Norway option” or similar. This means rejoining the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), which is supposed to be a halfway house to joining the EU, but in which Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Lichtenstein have resided for decades. This solves all the short term problems of Brexit, but leaves the UK a rule-taker without much influence. It doesn’t offer any of the “upsides” (which are mainly fantasy, but that’s by-the-by…) of leaving the EU, and simply removes the UK’s voice in the councils of European Union. The UK, unable to influence the laws it will have to obey, will probably suffer in the long run. So too will the EU, freed from the UK’s generally sane brake on the European Union’s wilder flights of integrationist fancy. Brexiters hate the Norway option describing it as vassalage, as do Remainers to whom it’s a distant second best to full membership. It cannot therefore be a sustainable solution, but for the fact Norway which faces exactly the same arguments, seems quite happy there.

Brexiters will cry “Betrayal”, but I can’t help thinking the EFTA or something very close to it will suddenly become a serious organisation rather than a mere EU antechamber, once the UK, the fifth  largest economy on earth, joins it. It is towards this option Theresa May is moving the Brexiters, away from ‘no deal’, slice by slice, abandoned red line by abandoned red line, as the clock ticks away. How far can the Tory party be walked down this road? Far enough and quick enough for a deal to satisfy the Irish Border question? The ‘Norway option’ means Brexit will continue to be the defining question of British politics for a decade and solves nothing from the point of view of politicians, even as the public whose lives will not be disrupted, will be fine with it. I’ve been clear, this is an outcome I’ve been drawn to all along (from 2015) but now isn’t the time.

The final option is to delay (perhaps permanently somehow) the whole Brexit process, but this would probably cause the collapse of the Government, leading to elections and/or a second referendum. The EU has indicated that were the UK to seek such a constitutional solution, an extension to Article 50 would be granted. I’ve tried to sum this up in a paragraph or two, but the complexity of this outcome would render any attempt gobbledegook. This is full-on constitutional crisis territory, and it’s getting more likely by the day. How could this happen? Well, all it takes is for 326 members of parliament to say so, and the overwhelming majority of the 650 MPs know remaining in the EU to be the best outcome for the country. However, most feel for now they must discharge the instructions of the people and leave the EU somehow. I do not know what these people will do if and when public opinion changes, and anyone who claims to is lying.

So what’s going to happen?

I put the chances of a catastrophic ‘no deal’ at 10%. There are only 60 or so MPs in the so-called European research group (they didn’t actually do any research…) who favour this insane outcome. But it could happen by accident, as the law as it currently stands, if nothing else is agreed, leads to no-deal by the natural action of Law. Theresa May’s deal, whatever it eventually is, will probably be a dispiriting fudge, BINO (Brexit in Name Only). However a deal of just this miserable sort remains the most likely outcome, probably around 55%. Which leaves the liklihood of a collapse of the Government, an extension to article 50, and a second referendum, an outcome now firmly in the overton window, at about 35%. All of this is a long winded way to say “I don’t know what’s going to happen”. But I have several ideas as to what might, and the most likely scenario is that Theresa May secures a deal very similar to Norway’s with some fig-leaf measures and linguistic fudges. I just can’t see the point, to be honest. I still don’t understand how this is supposed to improve anyone’s life. Which is why we shouldn’t do it at all. That 1/3rd chance of remain is rising as the idiocy of leaving the EU becomes apparent.

5 replies
  1. Christopher
    Christopher says:

    I’m glad your blog is backup and running. You do seem to have a good insight and grasp of politics, unlike many political wonks, especially in my generation (I’m 24) who mostly seem to vote Labour because that is the ‘cool’ thing to do.

    Reply
  2. John
    John says:

    Seriously if you are going to post lines like ‘what does “Take back control” mean? – not clear’ you can’t expect to be taken very seriously.

    Reply
  3. Jackart
    Jackart says:

    Of what are we “taking back control”? Not Borders, we had those anyway. We could have imposed limits on EU migrants, but didn’t. It’s not trade, we’re losing the huge influence we had. It’s not “laws” because we never lost control of those. So of what exactly are we taking back control”? If you can’t answer these questions, it’s you who can’t be taken seriously.

    Reply
  4. Handy Mike
    Handy Mike says:

    “It’s not “laws” because we never lost control of those.”

    A fatuous and factually incorrect statement. I was surprised to see this blog pop back into life in my RSS reader and wondered whether the redesign might be accompanied by some rethinking.

    It seems not.

    Bye.

    Reply

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