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Brexit: where the art of politics breaks down

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Politics is the art of compromise.  Whatever the issue, for the greater good of society no side can be ignored entirely and the winner cannot take all.  Everyone gets some of what they need and nobody gets everything they want.  It is a messy and often dissatisfactory process, but it is one that has stood us well for centuries.

Every now and again, however, an issue comes along to challenge the process.  Taking a country to war, for example, involves a binary choice – either you declare war or you do not.  And if you do, then those who opposed going to war have to be pushed aside.  Brexit is an equally binary (and existential) issue; although in a slightly more nuanced way.

Theresa May clearly intends balancing the two wings of the Tory Party while simultaneously keeping her DUP allies on board and, hopefully, not alienating too big a swathe of the British electorate.  But this assumes that all of these interests can be balanced.  They cannot.  What the recent policy fudge (it is wrong to call it an agreement when in its own terms, “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”) designed to move us onto trade negotiations actually reveals is the impossibility of a Brexit compromise.

Much is currently being made of the so-called “Canada Model” – the agreement on the trade of goods between Canada and the EU which took a brief (in trade negotiation terms) seven years to thrash out.  Apparently David Davis, Britain’s Brexit Secretary is currently touting the possibility of a “Canada-Plus-Plus” agreement that also covers banking and services (although this will probably go the way of the 51 detailed industry sector analyses that he now claims never existed).

The trouble with this lies in the deliberate obfuscation in the term “regulatory alignment” that is at the heart of Friday’s supposed breakthrough.  To the hard-line Brexiteers, regulatory alignment means a fairly loose mirroring of EU regulations.  To the EU27, however, regulatory alignment means nothing less than full compliance with EU law together with subjugation to the European Court.  Indeed, anything less than this leaves the EU27 with international trade agreement difficulties since it would involve affording the UK a special status not available to anyone else.

This is why leading Brexiteers like Iain Duncan Smith were quick to take to the airways to point out that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed; and to rehearse the argument that Britain would be better off leaving without a deal – the so-called “hard Brexit” option.

Much as I hate to agree with the obnoxious Duncan Smith, he has a point.  From a Brexiteer’s perspective, any deal that Theresa May is likely to agree with the EU27 will involve all of the downsides of membership of the Customs Union and the Single Market with none of the benefits.  That is, the UK will still be subject to EU legislation, will still be governed by the European Court, and will have to pay for the privilege.  The only real difference is that Britain will no longer be a member of the decision-making Council of Ministers; will no longer appoint Commissioners to sit in the administrative Commission; and will no longer elect Members to the European Parliament.

The only way you get to leave the EU is by leaving the Customs Union and the Single Market.  And as the Brexiteers point out, this is precisely what 52 percent of the UK electorate voted for last June.  In this sense, Theresa May is wilfully standing in the way of the implementation of the decision made by the British people last year.

That said, democracy only works provided no majority is empowered to prevent a minority from becoming a majority by lawful means.  The idea that the referendum result on 23 June 2016 is somehow set in stone is no more correct than the argument that the referendum on 5 June 1975 settled the matter once and for good.  The reality is that from the 6 June 1975 onward, the Brexit minority began campaigning to become the majority that it achieved last year.  Nor should we pay too much heed to the claim that “the referendum put a lid on the issue for a generation.”  Had Margaret Thatcher been as opposed to Europe in 1979 as she was by 1990, she would have taken Britain out of what was then the Common Market just four years after that referendum.  There is no reason why the British people should be prevented from overturning last year’s decision provided there is a clear majority in favour of doing so.

The problem for Theresa May as she contemplates the forthcoming trade negotiations is that she casually threw away her trump card on 2 October 2016 – the day she triggered Article 50 without understanding what it meant.  As Sir Ivan Rogers, the former UK permanent representative to the EU in Brussels recently explained to a Parliamentary Committee:

“I did say last autumn I would not agree unequivocally to invoke Article 50 unless you know how Article 50 is going to work because the moment you invoke Article 50, the 27 [other EU states] dictate the rules of the game and they will set up the rules of the game in the way that most suits them.

“My advice as a European negotiator was that that was a moment of key leverage and if you wanted to avoid being screwed on the negotiations in terms of the sequencing, you had to negotiate with the key European leaders and the key people at the top of the institutions and say: ‘I will invoke Article 50 but only under circumstances where I know exactly how it is going to operate and it’s got to operate like this otherwise this is not going work for me.’”

The deal that Mrs May will eventually negotiate will be the one that the European institutions decided long ago Britain was going to have; one that punishes the British people – not out of spite, but as a deterrent to any other EU state that might contemplate walking away. As I explained in October:

“Here the Brexiters fall into the trap of mistaking the institutions of the EU with various exporting companies within EU member states.  The assumption is that because French cheesemakers, Italian vineyards and German car factories stand to lose out if the UK is forced onto World Trade Organisation rules; that the EU institutions will be obliged to come to a favourable agreement.  More, however, is at stake than the fortunes of mere companies (which can be bailed out by the European Central Bank if need be).  The EU institutions will be fatally undermined if they allow a former member state to walk out with a good deal.  With the rise of hard line nationalist movements across Europe, the risk is that any number of member states might follow the UK out of the door unless leaving is made overly punitive.”

The idea that trade considerations will trump bureaucratic vested interest is fanciful.  As David Cameron’s referendum leaflet, delivered to every household in the UK ahead of the referendum, made clear:

“Some argue that we could strike a good deal quickly with the EU because they want to keep access to our market.  But the Government’s judgement is that it would be much harder than that – less than 8% of EU exports come to the UK while 44% of UK exports go to the EU. No other country has managed to secure significant access to the Single Market, without having to:

* follow EU rules over which they have no real say

* pay into the EU

* accept EU citizens living and working in their country.”

This is pretty much what is implied in the fudge that was concocted last Friday.  It is why it will not be long before the Tory Brexiteers and the Tory Remainers will be at each other’s’ throats again.  It is also why – although they will perform semantic cartwheels to avoid saying so – the Labour Party will eventually come around to supporting continued membership of the EU; there is no other viable outcome that does not so damage the UK economy that makes sense.

This, then, is why Brexit is a binary choice.  The fudge option doesn’t work for either side.  If the UK is to be subject to existing and future EU law, adjudicated by the European Court, and for which it will have to continue paying, it makes no sense to deliberately exclude ourselves from a seat at the decision-making table.  Remaining in the EU is far better than any deal Theresa May and the EU27 can arrive at.  For the Brexiteers, the same is true; no deal is indeed better than a bad deal, because any compromise deal will leave Britain subject to the EU.

This raises an obvious question – since the Brexiteers are in the driving seat for the time being, how long are they prepared to allow the negotiation charade to continue (and risk the Remainers becoming a clear majority) before they force the hapless May off the stage and pull Britain entirely out of the EU?

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