Thursday, 20 July 2017

Could the Brexiters be the best hope for avoiding Brexit?

That the latest round of Brexit talks did not yield any particular resolutions is in no way surprising and no one, including Brexiters, would have expected otherwise. But the undercurrent of talk around this week’s meetings is alarming. The BBC’s Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg, amongst others, reports a sense that the British government has not agreed on what it wants, what it might compromise on, and is generally inadequately prepared for the negotiations. Instead, the UK seems to still be working at the level of meaningless generalities such as seeking “frictionless access” to the single market, something incompatible with the government’s stated policy of leaving the single market and customs union. That this is so was implicit in the end of meeting press conference, with Michel Barnier calling repeatedly greater clarity from the UK on its aims.

A significant sidelight on this was shed by former EU trade negotiator Miriam Gonzalez Durantez in a very interesting Guardian article. She argues that “the preposterous positions on Brexit taken by the government” are in part attributable to the leading advisory role played by the Legatum Institute think tank, the shortcomings of which she forensically dissects. Be that as it may, the core issue is that which is being played out daily in leaks and briefings, namely that the government is hopelessly divided on Brexit. It has lost its power to shock, but it is still worth remembering that they chose, of their own volition, to trigger Article 50 without having a settled view on what they wanted and how to go about it. It must rank as one of the most irresponsible acts by any government in living memory.

What is also worth recalling is that for all that the media misleadingly refer to the splits within the government as being between soft and hard Brexit they are nothing of the sort. The principle fault line is between those such as Philip Hammond, and perhaps David Davis, who want to seek a long transitional agreement and those such as Liam Fox, and perhaps Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, who do not. Perhaps within that there are other differences, such as a willingness or not to entertain a ‘no deal’ Brexit or to entertain some degree of ECJ jurisdiction. Nevertheless, this is not soft versus hard Brexit, it is hard versus kamikaze Brexit. Hammond’s position may be marginally more responsible, but the margin is fine.

The kamikaze tendency were out in force today, with Michael Gove refusing to endorse a government position paper which would allow the ECJ a role even in pending cases. A more high profile intervention came from Liam Fox which included the less than overwhelming claim that Britain could “survive” without an exit deal, and the less than plausible claim that a trade deal with the EU would be the easiest in history. That latter argument recycles one that Brexiters like Nigel Lawson used to make before the Referendum (Lawson has since said that he thinks there will not be trade deal) based on the fact that the UK already has zero tariffs and regulatory harmonization, the things that usually make trade deals slow. Thus, they argue, this one can be quick. But that ignores the fact that to make these arrangements ongoing entails membership of the single market and customs union which is precisely what the Brexiters don’t want. In particular, regulatory harmonization is not a one-off event but an ongoing process of evolution which is ultimately overseen by the ECJ. But Brexiters don’t accept ECJ jurisdiction. So if it was a normal trade deal, which sought to make trade closer, it would indeed be quick. But it is not a normal trade deal, because – uniquely in modern economic history - it seeks to make trade less close.

As this pantomime goes on, the costs of Brexit in any form are becoming ever clearer – with, for example, banks already preparing to move thousands of jobs out of the UK – and those of a kamikaze Brexit particularly so – with, for example, serious threats to food supplies and air travel. At the same time, Britain’s reputation in the world is already being eviscerated, as detailed in a very thoughtful piece by Jonathan Lis, Deputy Director of British Influence, on the indispensable site. One particularly interesting part of that analysis is discussion of the idea that the UK could somehow retain membership of various EU foreign policy, defence and security bodies after Brexit. This is of course, as Lis explains, completely unrealistic but all of a piece with other ideas about, for example, Euratom or the European Medicine Agency (EMA). As it becomes clearer what Brexit actually means in practice, so the UK tries to imagine that it can somehow avoid the damage by special arrangements. But one by one these fantasies are being exposed. For example, whereas David Davis airily opined that the EMA – which matters both in its own right and in its role in the strategically vital pharma industry and bio-medical research complex in the UK – might stay in Britain after Brexit that was simply brushed aside by the EU. The EMA will go.

There is therefore now a polarity amongst Brexiters (and sometimes within them). Sometimes they continue to cling to Pollyannaish fantasies of ‘having our cake and eating it’, whether as regards trade or non-trade issues. Sometimes they say that none of it matters, and that the cake can be hurled on the floor and trampled underfoot. And of course the one pole easily morphs into the other. When their fantasies are exposed as fantasies they stamp their feet like spoiled adolescents and say they don’t care.

All of this is both depressing and predictable to committed remainers. But I think its real importance lies in how it gets received by less committed remainers – the kind of remain voters who might say that whilst they did not vote for Brexit they now think we should get on with it – and less committed leavers – the kind of leave voters who accepted the Brexiter claim that leaving would be quick, easy and advantageous.

For these groups – and taken together they must be quite sizeable, perhaps half of the vote on each side – what is unfolding is likely to be increasingly alarming. On the one hand, it is all clearly proving to be far more complicated and protracted than they were led to expect. On the other hand, they are not like the Brexiter Jacobins for whom nothing matters so much as the purity of the flame. So they are likely to begin to see Brexiters as at best completely incompetent and at worst slightly mad.

From this perspective, for all that it will be a white-knuckle ride, committed remainers might have as their best hope that the government continue to display division and incompetence and bring Britain to the edge of disaster. If the relatively sensible and realistic voices of, for example, Hammond hold sway then it is less likely that Brexit will be discredited in itself, and more likely that its failures will be attributed to EU ‘punishment’. By the same token, if the kamikaze Brexiters are given their head and get to the point of disaster they will be less able in future years to nurture fantasies of betrayal (or, at least, those fantasies will have little traction outside their own fetid circle).

Of course this is very high risk stuff, not just for remainers but more importantly for the whole country. Precisely because it means going right to the brink of disaster in order to avoid disaster, it inevitably means damage. The jobs and investment lost, the companies relocating, the skilled workers leaving, the shredding of national reputation will all have long-term negative effects. But, against that, we might just get out of the even worse precipice that the Brexiters want to push us over. If this seems an unappealing set of options, that’s what the referendum campaign and its aftermath have left us with.

In this context, the Labour party stance – although I have been, and am, highly critical of it – might just possibly pay dividends. It is just sufficiently ambiguous and possibly sufficiently plastic that as the Tory Brexiters drive us towards what a majority of the public recognize as folly, Labour could, without too much pain, ride that wave of opinion, topple the government and pull back from Brexit. Alternatively, the idea that has been floating around since the referendum of a new centrist party emerging and taking power might come true. At all events, the more that Brexiters flail around incompetently, the more their mendacious predictions fail, the more extreme they become and the more the slim result of the referendum disappears into the past then the more fragile Brexit becomes. Very few people voted for the Brexit that is emerging; fewer still for the kamikaze Brexit some Brexiters dream of.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Brexit news

After I started this blog last September, there were periods when very little seemed to be happening with Brexit, and much of what was happening was only visible through coded and ambiguous statements from various people and bodies. Now, events are happening apace and it is getting very difficult to keep a handle on what is happening and what it means. There is certainly far too much for me to analyse on my own, because even though I assiduously read up on developments I just don’t have enough time to write about all of them. So in this post I am going to give a brief round-up of some of the best pieces of Brexit reporting, analysis and comment I have read this week as well as some sources I find generally useful.

For an overall assessment of where Brexit stands now, see Guy de Jonqières’ piece on Borderlex and put this in the context of the Referendum campaign with Alistair Campbell’s latest, forceful blog and a good article by Nick Cohen in The Observer.

For a one year report on Theresa May’s premiership, with (inevitably) the main focus on Brexit, this by Ian Dunt on can’t be bettered.

Also by Ian Dunt is this great analysis of ‘the Great Repeal Bill’ which can be read alongside a good article on the same topic by Adam Bienkov of Business Insider UK.

Martin Wolf of the FT wrote a scathing piece on the Brexiter Jacobins and the catastrophe they are leading us to.

The National Audit Office produced a damning report on the “horror show” of leaving the Customs Union whilst this detailed piece by Dr Peter Holmes of Sussex University on the Scottish Centre for European Relations site unpacks the Customs Union issue more broadly.

I posted about Euratom which was in the news this week (and readers of the New European newspaper will find a revised version of that post in next week’s edition) but for those who can face it the UK Government’s position paper on this has since been published and can be compared with the EU’s position paper from a few weeks’ ago. But equally important issues are emerging around, for example, pharmaceuticals, as explained in a good blog by George Peretz QC and the European Arrest Warrant, covered by Camino Mortera-Martinez of the Centre for European Reform.

The very best thing I have read this week is David Allen Green’s FT Blog where he politely but quite devastatingly pulls apart the lies still being told by Brexiters about post-Brexit trade deals.

I have not included here the many news stories this week about company re-locations, deferred investments, labour shortages and so on caused by Brexit, but a very good source for these is the Brexit Record site. For regular analysis of the evolving Brexit situation the Remainiacs podcasts are great.

The news and comment websites I find most useful (leaving aside those of UK and Irish national newspapers) for good Brexit information and comment are, Reuters UK, Bloomberg, Bruegel, Centre for European Reform, Scottish Centre for European Relations, LSE’s Brexit Blog, KCL’s UK in a Changing Europe site, and the New Europeans site (not to be confused with the New European newspaper) which is especially good on EU citizens’ rights in the UK and UK citizens’ rights in the EU. [Declaration of interest: I have written for the last four on this list].

Of the many useful people to follow on twitter for (mainly) Brexit news and views consider @IanDunt, @davidallengreen, @JenniferMerode, @jonlis1, @jonworth, @lisaocarroll and @mattholehouse.

For regular postings exclusively focussed on good quality Brexit news and analysis from a wide variety of sources, follow me on twitter @chrisgreybrexit.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

What does the Euratom mess tell us about Brexit?

Readers of the blog will have been aware for some time of something which has only hit the headlines this week. It is that amongst the implications of Brexit are some very serious issues to do with nuclear safety, nuclear waste and nuclear medicine. These arise because the government’s hard Brexit plan entails leaving the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) and this in turn arises because although Euratom is not part of the EU it falls within the jurisdiction of the ECJ. Theresa May has made leaving all forms of ECJ jurisdiction as red line, non-negotiable and defining plank of Brexit and so leaving Euratom was included in both the Article 50 letter and also the parliamentary Act which authorised her to send that letter. This now seems likely to lead to a parliamentary rebellion amongst Tory MPs against, at least, this aspect of Brexit.

All this points up very sharply a whole series of very significant questions about Brexit in general:

·       It is an issue of great complexity and great importance, but it did not feature at all in the Referendum campaign. Can anyone say that those who voted for Brexit knew that they were voting for something that would, amongst other things, impact on the availability of cancer treatments? How many other aspects of Brexit is this true of? What, then, of the idea that Brexit is ‘the will of the people’?

·       Even Dominic Cummings, the Campaign Director of Vote Leave, has criticised leaving Euratom as “unacceptable bullshit”. But don’t leave campaigners have to take responsibility and be held to account for the practical implications of their ‘take back control’ slogan from which exiting Euratom directly flows?

·       It exemplifies the complete lack of planning for Brexit, shown also by the absence of UK position papers for the Brexit negotiations compared with detailed papers from the EU. So did the government understand what they were doing by deciding to leave Euratom? They have admitted that they did not conduct a formal impact assessment. How many other aspects of Brexit is this true of? Where are the assessments of, for example, a ‘no deal’ Brexit? Or of the different ways of enacting Brexit? Or of the government’s preferred way as expressed in the White Paper?

·       Why, relatedly, is the government still trying to dismiss the detailed, practical issues arising from Brexit as ‘Project Fear’, in the Euratom case as “scaremongering”? Are they, as widely reported, doing the same for all of the practicalities around trade, security, the Ireland border etc.? Can competent government proceed on an evidence-free basis, relying only on slogans and platitudes?

·       What does Euratom tell us about what appears to be the central tenet of the government’s White Paper, which is to create new bi-lateral shadow institutions to re-regulate what were formerly EU institutions? What will this cost? Is it possible? And, even if it is possible, what’s the point of Brexit anyway?

·       Did parliament understand what it voted for in approving the Article 50 Bill? The Euratom exit was clearly identified in that Bill, but now MPs are not happy with it. If they can revisit Euratom, then why not the other features of Act, such as single market membership or even the entirety of Brexit?

·       Relatedly, if parliament does decide that the UK wants to stay in Euratom and, therefore, to breach the red line of ECJ jurisdiction, then why not breach that red line for any number of other things (aviation, medicines, patents) up to and including the single market?

·       But even if the UK parliament were to decide it did not want to leave Euratom, what status does that have within the Brexit negotiations? Exiting Euratom was in the Article 50 notification letter sent to the EU, so does it any longer matter what the UK says? And if the UK can take back one part of that letter than does it not mean that the whole of it can be withdrawn (as discussed by Cambridge University Professor of EU Law Kenneth Armstrong)?

Or, to pose these questions at the most generic level, if there are very good reasons for avoiding the chaos, damage, cost, and complexity of leaving Euratom then do these not apply a fortiori to leaving the EU?

Monday, 10 July 2017

What should remainers be fighting for now?

Vince Cable’s recent comment that Brexit might never happen has brought into focus the difficult discussion amongst remainers as to what should now be our goal. Should it be a soft Brexit (in the ‘original’ meaning of leaving the EU but remaining within the single market, customs union and other institutions via EEA/EFTA) if simply remaining in the EU proves impossible? Or should it be to remain as full members of the EU without even countenancing the possibility of soft Brexit? Within the remainer ‘community’ (if one can call it this) both views are in evidence. To take two of the most eloquent and influential remainers, if I am not misrepresenting them, in the first camp is Ian Dunt, editor of and author of Brexit: What the Hell Happens Now? In the second camp is the philosopher A.C. Grayling. Or, amongst politicians, many LibDems appear to be in that second camp whilst most Labour and Tory remainers seem to be in the first.

As for myself, I am torn. Since the day of the referendum result I have been writing that the best that can be hoped for is a soft Brexit. Not because that is my preferred outcome, but because it seems the best achievable outcome. As anyone who reads this blog regularly knows, I think the referendum was ill-conceived, the result bogus and the consequences catastrophic. But that result sits there as a political fact, and just as it is monstrous that the government have pursued a hard Brexit and so treated approximately half of those who voted with contempt so too would it be unreasonable to completely over-ride those who voted to leave, for all that I think they were ill-informed and just plain wrong. This is all the more true given what has happened since the Referendum, with Brexit coming to be defined as hard Brexit so that shifting from that to soft Brexit is already a bigger political ask than it would have been last year.

A soft Brexit would give most people some of what they want – there were many Brexiters who campaigned for leave, and surely many voters who voted leave, on just this basis: something like Norway or Switzerland. Even Nigel Farage recently opined that this was where we were heading and if so it would be, from his point of view, better than EU membership. For remainers, it also gives many of us something of what we want. In brief, soft Brexit as defined above gives Brexiters exit from the EU, CAP, CFP, common defence and foreign policy and de jure CJEU jurisdiction; but not from freedom of movement (except for maybe some tweaks), de facto CJEU jurisdiction and budgetary contributions. Nor does it enable independent trade deals. It gives remainers retained membership of the central EU institutions and continued freedom of movement. And it should be remembered that the majority of people are enthusiasts for neither leave or remain: to them, it gives a stable situation which avoids the economic shocks of hard Brexit and the political turmoil of no Brexit. It’s really how those people’s opinions move now that matters, rather than the hard core on either side of the debate whose opinions will never change.

In short, I don’t think it’s at all likely that we can go to the status quo ante of June 22 2016. This is only in part because the situation is so dire that we have to make compromises to salvage anything from the mess. It’s also because in some ways a soft Brexit would put Britain where it has in some ways been from the moment of joining – that is, seeing the EU primarily in transactional, economic terms; something evident during the remain campaign. I deplore that, but since it is so perhaps it is better for the institutional arrangements to reflect it.

But even if this were not so, what has happened in the year since the referendum result has meant that what would happen if we were simply to revert to remaining could be deeply problematic for both the UK and the EU, as leading Brexit expert Anand Menon has recently argued. On the one hand, despite comments from Macron and others that Britain would be welcome back if it changes its mind, the EU has to some large extent moved on from Brexit. On the other hand, a ‘remaining’ Britain would undoubtedly be wracked by a revived and embittered Euroscepticism which might even force another referendum on leaving within a few years’ time. Better for all to have Britain outside of the EU institutions, including for those of us who are pro-EU since no longer would Farage and his oafish followers be able to embarrass our country in the European Parliament. Of course the hard Brexiters would be furious but whereas in a no Brexit scenario they would surely regroup, in a soft Brexit scenario their chances of garnering much support would be minimal and they would be left, where they should be, on the fringes of political debate.

None of this is to say that soft Brexit is without adverse consequences (and, an important point, it cannot be assumed that it is automatically available as an option*). There will be a price to be paid for that Referendum result whatever happens. But soft Brexit would be better economically than hard Brexit – and especially if it took the form of, unlike Norway, being in the customs union as well as the single market. Still, it would be highly damaging in terms of geo-politics as the role that Britain has created for itself in the previous decades as the lynchpin between the EU and all the other multi-lateral bodies would have been squandered. Yet, even accepting that, it would at least defuse the sense abroad that we have completely lost all rationality and stability and to that extent would be preferable to hard Brexit and perhaps even to reverting to remain, which would compound the sense of a country which does not know what it is doing whilst yielding little in terms of the UK’s ability to be a dominant shaper of the EU which is shot for good now, whatever happens. (Or, almost: perhaps a new centrist party forming a government which went to the EU and strongly affirmed not just EU membership but commitment to the European project could change that – but this seems extremely unlikely).

It is possible, of course, that UK public opinion will shift quickly and decisively towards remaining in the EU and if so, despite all the issues raised in this post, that would become an attainable goal again. The emerging economic disaster of Brexit might well have that effect, and perhaps it would only take a couple of major company relocations to cement what is already beginning to show in the opinion polls. But that will only happen as a result of external events; it’s not going to make much difference how vociferously and articulately remainers argue the case for remain. That’s already been priced in to public debate and there are few minds that will be changed by it in itself. What could, however, make a difference to what happens now is for the remain camp to create and unite behind a single body, rather than the multiplicity of groups that currently exist. If they do, the first thing they will have to agree on is whether no Brexit is still a viable goal and, even if it is, whether soft Brexit is a tolerable and perhaps more feasible one.

It’s important to stress that even if united around the second soft Brexit (or perhaps one should say ‘soft remain’) position, achieving it is a daunting prospect. For all that since the election some of the steam has gone out of the ultra-Brexiters it is still the case that they have moved the terrain of debate significantly towards them in the last year. Thus the main arguments within the government are not so much about soft versus hard Brexit but crazy-hard (crash out) Brexit and awful-hard (transitional) Brexit. That ‘crazy-hard’ has become the new ‘hard’ and ‘awful-hard’ has become the new ‘soft’ shows how far things have shifted since the referendum, and how much work there will be for remainers to claw things back to anything resembling sanity.

*Addendum (10 July 2017): Just to elaborate a little on this (following comment on twitter by @LittleGravitas). The situation here is a complicated one. The Brexit debate has always assumed that remaining in the single market is a straightforward option, but it has several intricacies. First, there is the issue of EEA versus EFTA membership. EFTA members are Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland whilst the EEA brings together the first three of these countries plus EU members, with Switzerland relating to the EEA via numerous bi-lateral treaties. As a broad generalization, EFTA members are rule-takers vis a vis the EU without representation (so-called ‘fax democracy’).
The UK left EFTA in 1972 and rejoining would require the agreement of the EFTA Council. Thus it would not be automatic nor would be in the gift of the EU (i.e. it could not in itself be an outcome of the Brexit negotiations with the EU). Would the UK be welcome to rejoin? Here there have been very different noises at different times and from different people. For example, the President of the EFTA Court sounded a positive note in December 2016 but the Swiss Economy Minister speaking in April 2017 was much more cautious, worrying that the size of the UK economy would swamp and therefore distort EFTA.
There is also much complexity in how independent trade deals operate. It is often said that EFTA countries like Norway can make their own trade deals because they are not part of the EU Customs Union and within that its commercial policy. That is so, but it neglects the way that EFTA members often make trade deals as an EFTA bloc and also (which matters for the UK) they are predominantly goods not services agreements. Moreover, it is not necessarily the case that EU composite trade deals are accessible to EFTA members (although some are). On the other hand, being outside the customs union poses other issues, especially for trans-European supply chains, that matter hugely for the UK since it has many industries (automotive being the most obvious) within such supply chains whereas the other EFTA countries do not.
There might also be the possibility of an associate agreement with EFTA, which would not necessarily entail freedom of movement of people (this is the kind of arrangement that Finland had between 1961 and 1986). But this model is more for countries moving towards eventual EU membership than for a country leaving the EU.

Friday, 30 June 2017

Labour and Brexit: politics bent out of shape

As I have pointed out several time on this blog, Labour’s position on Brexit has been a mess for months now, and this has now come glaringly into focus with yesterday’s Queen’s Speech vote. Corbyn ordered his MPs to abstain on a backbench amendment to stay in the single market and although some rebelled (thus, in the case of frontbenchers, losing their jobs) most followed the whip and the amendment was easily defeated. Of course, it would have been defeated anyway in the absence of a Tory rebellion but that was never in prospect given that Labour’s stance would have made such a rebellion pointless.

During the election campaign Brexit was not discussed in detail by either party. Labour produced a manifesto position which made no sense (to retain the benefits of the single market and customs union without, implicitly at least, being members of either). But there was just enough ambiguity to keep remainers on board and, in any case, they could see a Labour vote as the best way of denying the Tories the majority for their unambiguously hard Brexit plans. This, indeed, was what happened and it opened up just the tiniest possibility for a soft Brexit even if not the abandonment of Brexit altogether.

That possibility still exists, but it has become even tinier as a result of yesterday’s vote. At the core of the problem is the stance of Corbyn (and his allies) towards the EU. His lukewarm support for remain during the 2016 referendum campaign scarcely concealed the well-known truth that he has, since the 1975 referendum, shared the Bennite analysis of the EU as a ‘capitalist club’ and – as we would now say – a vehicle for neo-liberal globalization (the background and consequences of this are well-explained on the interesting Nog’s Musings blog). The problem with this view is that it is one-dimensional, failing to recognize that the EU is, at the same time, a vehicle for the regional regulation and restraint of neo-liberal globalization. Which is what much of the Left in the UK (especially, given the strength of neo-liberalism here) recognized from the 1980s onwards and this, in turn, is reflected in the pro-EU position of most Labour MPs, members and voters.

Emboldened by his better than expected election result, Corbyn now presumably sees the possibility of a future victory which could also enable building ‘socialism in one country’ if unconstrained by EU rules on, in particular, state aid. It is these rules, rather than those on freedom of movement, which are the main basis of Corbyn’s hostility to EU membership or even to soft Brexit. The consequence, then, is that there is now a de facto alliance between Corbyn and the Eurosceptic Tories – amongst whom, of course, we must now include one-time remainer Theresa May – and UKIP. Indeed, during the Maastricht wars of the early 1990s, Corbyn voted with “the bastards” (as John Major called them). Hence it is not the irony it may seem that Nigel Farage tweeted approvingly about Corbyn’s approach to yesterday’s parliamentary vote.

So what now? The next big parliamentary test, as Jolyon Maugham explains in some detail in the New Statesman, will come with the Repeal Bill. With Corbyn and the Tory Eurosceptics allied, all depends on the extent to which pro-Europeans in both the Tory and Labour parties are willing to work together in defiance of their leaderships (along with those from avowedly anti-Brexit parties), as explained in Ian Dunt’s excellent analysis of the current situation. As Dunt says (as have many others, including myself on this blog) there is a parliamentary majority for soft Brexit, and the same is true in the country at large.

Soft Brexit remains the most politically consensual and least economically painful way of enacting Brexit (which is not to deny the fact that simply staying in the EU would be preferable, were it politically possible). In the circumstances we find ourselves it is, as Simon Jenkins argues today, the only sane option, and this has been so since the referendum result. Yet just at the moment when the election outcome means that this sanity is within grasp it remains tantalisingly elusive. The combination of Tory leadership in thrall to its backbench ultra-Brexiters and a Labour leadership that is at odds with its backbench soft Brexiters means that the shape of party politics does not match the shape of public opinion or political pragmatism. With the Article 50 clock ticking, there is very little time left for the two to come into alignment.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

From free movers to settled immigrants

The publication of the Brexit government’s plans for EU nationals in the UK and UK nationals in rEU has already attracted much derision for its most obvious deficiencies. These include the uncertainty about the cut-off date, the issue of who will enforce rights and the question of whether whatever arrangement is finally agreed would survive the breakdown of the rest of the Brexit talks. Equally, although the proposals suggest a more streamlined process than the existing one for residency (including dropping the ludicrous demand for proof of health insurance that no one had ever been told they needed), the fee to be charged hasn’t been specified and it is highly unclear that the government has the administrative capacity to quickly process applications. And, whatever happens, none of this is going to lead to the reduction of red tape that Brexiters claimed as one of the benefits of leaving the EU!

It seems unlikely that these proposals will be agreed in their present form by the EU, but almost whatever arrangements do emerge there is a much more fundamental problem with them, and a much more fundamental loss which arises from them. The creation of a “settled status” category of persons is precisely to indicate the loss of the benefits and joys of freedom of movement. No doubt for some people who have, indeed, settled in the UK on a long-term basis and want to continue to do so, some version of these proposals will be more or less viable at a practical level. Even for them, any new system will be bothersome and intrusive and it can be expected that many more than those already leaving will feel disinclined to stay in a country which has so strongly signalled an antipathy to their presence. But, in any case, for many people freedom of movement was not about the chance to “settle” in another country but gave the opportunity to come in and out at different times for long or short periods.

This might be particularly the case for couples and families containing citizens from different member states. It will not necessarily be the case that they have settled in the UK for the five continuous years required. An Anglo-German couple, say, may have lived for shorter periods in one or other country (or in a third country). They may split their residency between countries at different times of the year. For that matter, they may have predicated their career and family plans on being in one country now but at some later stage being able to move for some period to the other country. Yet under the current proposals “settled status” will be lost after a two year absence, except for those who have undefined “strong ties” with the UK (paragraph 22 of the proposals).

What informs the UK approach is a naïve view of immigration – as being a kind of mechanistic one-time move from living in one country to another – and in particular a naïve conflation of free movement of people with immigration (which, indeed, is precisely how it has invariably figured in the Brexit debates). This was alluded to by Sir Ivan Rogers (p.10) in his February 2017 evidence to the House of Commons Exiting the EU Committee:

They [the rest of the EU] genuinely do not understand a UK debate in which the two are conflated at all. They do not understand why a Government would have a migration target covering migration from within the European Union, which for other people is not migration. They do not call it migration; they do not call it immigration. They call it free movement… [t]hey said, “But one is migration, which is external to the European Union, and the other is free movement of people, which is not at all the same thing”.

This reflects the longstanding British failure to understand what a single market is and how it differs from a free trade area, which I have written about in another post. Because, indeed, within a single market it makes no more sense to talk about immigration between member countries than it does to do so between counties in Britain. And free movement as opposed to immigration connotes something much more than the transactional economic cost-benefit analysis on both sides of the Brexit debate, for all that ending it will, indeed, entail massive economic problems for Britain. Rather, it connotes a much broader set of cultural and social possibilities.

It is this European meaning of free movement as a way of life which will be lost by Brexit, whatever deal ends up being struck about residency and rights, and those most immediately affected did not even have a vote on the decision. So people who have built their lives and plans in the perfectly legitimate expectation of an established political system guaranteeing their freedom of movement will lose it to become – if they qualify and if they wish it – not free movers but settled immigrants. Moreover, to the extent that the government intends these arrangements to be reciprocal for UK citizens in rEU those citizens, too, will have lost the free movement status they hitherto had and relied upon.

Finally, it should not be forgotten that although the direct impact will be greatest upon those who were exercising their freedom of movement rights at the cut off point, we have all lost out. Freedom of movement is, indeed, just that: a freedom. Every single UK citizen who may in the past and might in the future wish to move freely within the EU for short or long periods with minimal administrative and practical barriers is about to lose something rare, valuable and precious. All those opportunities to live, work, study and retire that we used all to be able to exercise if and when we chose have been sacrificed on the altar of the Brexit cult.

Friday, 23 June 2017

One year on: lied to, lost, and leaderless

It is now a year since Britain, in a catastrophic and historically unprecedented act of national self-harm, voted to leave the EU. Everything about that vote was flawed, from having it at all to the numerous concessions made to the Brexiters about the form of the question, the lack of a super-majority requirement (rather than 50%) to leave, and the exclusion of under 18s and those who had lived abroad for more than 15 years and EU nationals here. All this reflected Cameron’s blithe certainty of victory in a referendum he need never have called.

The campaign itself was a travesty. Leave was (at least unofficially) fronted by a man, Boris Johnson - let’s not use the matey ‘Boris’ of the media – who didn’t really believe in it and was transparently motivated solely by his own sense of entitled ambition; whilst Remain was officially headed – well by who? Almost no one knew, but in fact it was businessman Lord Rose who remained almost invisible throughout leaving Cameron as the de facto leader and, with that, the motivation for some to vote leave purely to ‘give him a kicking’.

It’s become fashionable to say that both campaigns were equally dishonest, but that simply is not true. Leave mainlined on what even they admitted was a lie about the EU budget contribution and NHS funding, and another about impending Turkish membership of the EU. And these were just the headline lies. Beneath them were a myriad of others, such as that future terms could be sorted out informally before Article 50 was even triggered so there was no danger of a cliff-edge fallout; or that a good, quick exit deal was assured because ‘German car makers’ would insist on it as endlessly claimed by Brexiters, including businessman Peter Hargreaves who paid for a leaflet to be sent to every UK household at the start of the campaign urging a leave vote. No one has ever been held to account for these and all the other lies.  By contrast, Remain was certainly pedestrian and passionless, but its projections (based on assumptions and models, of course, but not lies) of the consequences were not ‘Project Fear’, as alleged, but attempts to counter the vague and unsubstantiated claims of Leave that all would be well, or even rosy, if we left.

One reason why that did not work was the way that the BBC – still the country’s most trusted and widely accessed news source – adopted a policy of supposed neutrality derived from its approach to elections. This meant that each side received equal airtime and equal respect for its claims, giving the electorate the impression that there was as much – especially economically – on one side as on the other and voters might as well toss a coin. This was combined with a virulently aggressive and dishonest anti-EU press (quite different to that of the 1975 Referendum), a growing hysteria about immigration, and a populist disdain for ‘experts’, despite this being a highly technical and complex issue, along with a situation in which any and every dissatisfaction was projected on to EU membership.

There are reams that could, have been, and will be written about all this. The outcome we know: a narrow victory for leave. The narrowness is important as it means there has never been the unequivocal result subsequently claimed. The most accurate way of describing the result would be that the country replied ‘don’t know’. Moreover, the combination of Leave’s lies and their failure to specify what leaving meant in terms of the future means that there is not (as many Leavers seem to sense) any real mandate for Brexit, and certainly not in any particular form: many leading leavers campaigned on the basis of staying in the single market, for all that they deny it now. From this, crucially, much has flowed: Britain voted against being in the EU but not for anything else.

In the year that has followed, we have seen economic and political chaos. Economically, what was dismissed as project Fear has largely come true – that it has not been more severe is only because Article 50 was not triggered immediately in the way that forecasters had assumed because Cameron had said it would be the case. So we have had a massive currency collapse (which, in itself, would in any other circumstances have been a major political crisis) and consequent inflation and real wage erosion, collapsing investment, a recruitment crisis in the NHS and elsewhere, and the beginnings of a catastrophic brain drain, corporate pull-out and tax base collapse.

Whole sectors – from strategically crucial science to socially crucial care homes - are in turmoil as, relatedly but perhaps even more importantly, are the lives of millions of rEU people here and UK people in rEU who have based their entire life plans on Britain being in the EU. There has been not a single economic positive attributable to Brexit – for example, not one company has made a decision to invest in the UK because of (rather than despite) Brexit. Even the fall of sterling that, after it happened, Brexiters claimed a positive (strangely, they had not written on the side of their campaign bus ‘Vote Leave and we can crash the £’) has not put much of a dent in the UK trade deficit.

Politically, the vote saw an immediate crisis that was resolved by anointing a Prime Minister who failed to do the obvious act of leadership which was to find a form of Brexit which would be bearable for most people on both sides of the divide. Instead, she has insisted that Brexit must mean the hard Brexit of the Tory Eurosceptics and of UKIP. With that, she has not only ruled out an EFTA/EEA soft Brexit for trade but by insisting on there being no role whatsoever for the ECJ she has created massive problems across a host of other areas. The implications for Northern Ireland have begun to be widely recognized, but there are many others. For example, it is the hard line stance on the ECJ which means that we must also leave Euratom, with numerous consequences including for the availability of cancer treatment. Such a prospect was not even remotely discussed during the referendum and is highly unlikely to be what anyone thought they were voting about. Something similar could be said of EASA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, also thrown into doubt by hard Brexit with potential effects on flying rights within Europe. There is not even the shadow of the pretence that this approach to Brexit in ‘the national interest’. It is about, as the whole situation has always been about, an implacable, dogmatic minority of Tory MPs and the ungovernable party and country they have created.

Nowhere is this lack of concern with the national interest clearer than on the international stage, rendered all the more complex by the election of Donald Trump. Britain now no longer has any coherent or workable geo-political strategy, something which is good news only to ISIS and Vladimir Putin. Worse, we have become an international laughing stock both for the crazy Brexit decision and for the woeful ignorance and ill-preparedness of the way we are attempting to implement it. But the Christmas cracker patriots don’t care about that. No harm that they do to our country can ever be too much in exchange for their intellectually moribund and practically flawed notion of sovereignty, and no lie is too great to be told in pursuit of it. For that matter, these great patriots have been more than happy to ramp up the internal divisions they have created. More sinister than their adolescent sneering at ‘remoaners’ is their McCarthyite rhetoric of ‘saboteurs’ subverting ‘the will of the people’, matched at street level by the upsurge of violence against EU – and indeed non-EU - immigrants. Their ambition to pauperize and isolate our country is not sufficient: they also want to grind us into cultural dust.

Yet alongside that is a huge irony. From the moment of the referendum result, and ever more clearly as the year has gone on, it was plain that despite years of having dreamt of Brexit the Brexiters had not the tiniest clue as to how to put it into practice. Not even a rough plan. All they had were vapid slogans which could not begin to address the cataclysm they had unleashed. Even now they continue to talk in meaningless or nonsensical terms of ‘securing access’ to, and having ‘frictionless trade’ with, the single market, or of ‘trading on WTO terms’, refusing to engage with the enormous practical complexities that Brexit entails. Perhaps that lack of substance explains the viciousness of their rhetoric. At all events it has meant that they are wholly dependent on ‘the establishment’ – the civil service, business and civil society leaders, most of whom know that Brexit is a crazy idea - to try to implement their nonsense. But, even with that dependence, they still lash out at any expert who dares to inject any realism into the debate meaning that government policy has been constructed within a bunker of yay-saying groupthink.

Indeed victory has neither assuaged the anger of the Brexiters nor given them much joy. They have almost completely given up on making any positive claims for its possibilities and, at best, offer a dour, Dunkirk spirit, backs-to-the-wall grind and at worst a ludicrous, lachrymose self-pitying victimhood that the EU is ‘punishing’ us for leaving rather than taking responsibility for the consequences of the choice that they urged, so mendaciously, upon us. I say ‘us’ because it is not just remainers who have something to complain about, so too do those who were duped into voting leave by the breath taking lies of the Brexiters. Many, as the voting statistics show, were from the poorest and most vulnerable in society who will be most badly affected by Brexit and least able to insulate themselves from its effects.

In particular, apart from the NHS funding lie and the pretence that leaving would have no adverse economic consequences, they have been tricked into voting for something which was presented to them as protectionist and nationalist by leaders like Liam Fox who now proclaim the result to be a mandate for even more intensified globalization. I think it’s a near certainty that if it were possible to sit down with each voter individually and talk them through what Brexit is going to involve there would not be very many takers for it. That is not to patronize leave voters, but to say that the issues involved are far more complex than the referendum campaign acknowledged. For example, the practical meaning of the customs union, let alone things like Euratom or EASA, are only now receiving media attention. Meanwhile the lies still pour incontinently out of the Brexiters, the latest and most egregious being that the General Election ‘proves’ that there is a huge majority who support hard Brexit.

We have now belatedly begun Brexit talks with the EU. That belatedness is itself a consequence of the reckless irresponsibility of the Brexiters in triggering Article 50 before holding an election, thus wasting three of the twenty-four months available. We do so with a declining economy, an unstable government, an inadequate negotiating team, a lack of clear and agreed negotiating objectives or detailed plans, a backdrop of having alienated those with whom we are negotiating, and a country still bitterly divided. Moreover there is neither in parliament nor – if recent opinion polls are correct – any longer a majority in the country for Brexit and certainly not a majority for hard Brexit. Yet still the Brexiters march us on, like First World War generals - high on gimcrack patriotism, plethorically flushed with self-righteous certainty, prideful of their own willed and wilful ignorance - urging the troops to one more big push, regardless of – no, glorying in - the resultant slaughter.

The causes of the First World War can be debated, but Brexit is without question an entirely self-inflicted disaster. All of it was avoidable, going right back to the entire way that the UK has related to the EU over many decades. More recently every step of the way – from the decision to hold a referendum right through to the way that May has, since her General Election humiliation, refused to soften her stance – we have been the victim of bad, stupid, and unnecessary decisions. It is still, even at this late hour, just possible that we can avoid catastrophe – there is much that is unpredictable about the coming years – and I fervently hope that we do. Precisely because of the botched election, in which Brexit was scarcely discussed, a space for some softening of the government’s White Paper position has opened. It seems increasingly likely that the form this takes will be years of transitional agreements and ongoing talks which will be unsatisfactory to leavers and remainers alike. That may be the best we can hope for. But even supposing that by some miracle a way emerges to simply continue as EU members and to drop this Brexit nonsense entirely, our country will never be the same again.