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Trapped in Brexit’s web

Image: Servando Miramontes

Yesterday – we are told – Chancellor Phillip Hammond and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell held meaningful talks about the way ahead on Brexit.  Everyone – we are assured – is taking the cross-party talks seriously.  None – they tell us – wishes to allow petty personal or party concerns to stand in the way of resolving the worst political crisis in living memory.  And yet, somehow, nothing ever seems to be resolved.

In my imagination, unseen by the lenses of mass media, the pair sits in sullen silence on either side of the old Downing Street grandfather clock, whose pendulum slowly counts down the seconds – tick-tock, tick-tock – until they can reasonably get up and leave.  Every now and then, one of them attempts to break the silence, clearing his throat in readiness to speak; only to utter a sigh as he realises that there is nothing to be said.  Like two characters in a Beckett play, they are unable to escape a situation over which they are powerless…  All they can do is to wait.

The reason the various talks held between various representatives of government and opposition have failed to reach a conclusion is because there is no conclusion to be reached.  Brexit was never meant to happen, therefore Brexit will never happen.  The fact that – despite the hectoring of their elders and betters – a majority of British voters opted to leave the European Union changed only the nature of the settlement, not its outcome.  Had the voters chosen to remain, even by the tiniest of margins, the political establishment would have claimed the issue to have been dealt with for a generation.  Their failure to do as they were told forced the establishment to cobble together a Plan B; which was essentially a reversal of the Swiss relationship with the EU, in which Switzerland is always going to join the EU at some unspecified future date, but somehow never manages to get around to it.

The transition deal reached between Theresa May and the EU was designed to kick Brexit into the long grass.  As David Graeber pointed out eighteen months ago:

“I don’t think that they were ever serious about [Brexit]. I think that they were just trying to distract attention. People pointed out that most of the things that they would be doing if they were really serious they haven’t done, they haven’t done anything to hire new customs officials, they haven’t done anything to build the building or even buy the land to put the buildings on what they would have to have if they had a hard border.”

The fact that Britain’s former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab only appeared to discover that there was a body of water between Dover and Calais six months ago points to a serious lack of consideration of even the basic requirements of a Brexit based on Theresa May’s stated “red lines.”  As Dominic Cummings, Campaign Director of Vote Leave wrote in an angry open letter to Tory MPs and donors last year:

“The government’s nominal policy, which it put in its manifesto and has repeated many times, is to leave the Single Market and Customs Union and the jurisdiction of the ECJ.

“This requires preparing to be a ‘third country’ for the purposes of EU law. It requires building all the infrastructure and facilities that are normal around the world to manage trade.

“This process should have started BEFORE triggering A50 but the government has irretrievably botched this.

“Having botched it, it could have partially recovered its blunder by starting to do it afterwards.

“No such action has been taken.

“Downing Street, the Treasury, the Cabinet Office and the Cabinet have made no such preparations and there is no intention of starting…

“The Government effectively has no credible policy and the whole world knows it. By not taking the basic steps any sane Government should have taken from 24 June 2016, including providing itself with world class legal advice, it’s ‘strategy’ has imploded.”

Here we find the single fact about Brexit upon which just about everybody except Theresa May is in agreement with – triggering Article 50 without understanding what it meant is what has plunged Britain into a Brexit trap from which there is no obvious escape route.  The latest expert to endorse and clarify this is Pascal Lamy, former head of the World Trade Organisation.  Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme, Lamy explained:

“My view is that we may have made the wrong choice in deciding that we would negotiate first the Withdrawal Agreement – which is a sort of divorce agreement – and then the rest.

“She [Theresa May] was in a hurry, she was under huge pressure from Boris Johnson, Brexiters and the rest and she said ‘Brexit is Brexit, we will Brexit’.

“They rushed into this first stage without understanding that this huge unclarity on the next stage would have a big bearing on the discussion.”

In other words, MPs cannot sign up to the transitional agreement stuck between May and EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier because they have no idea what the final destination will be.  And without knowing this, the hard right European Research Group are correct to warn that Britain could end up as a kind of vassal state; subject to EU regulation but no longer part of the decision-making process, and dependent upon EU agreement to end the transitional process.

This, of course, is precisely what Theresa May sought to achieve.  In effect, since it is impossible to make everyone happy about Brexit, the next best thing is to make everybody equally unhappy.  An indefinite (i.e., permanent) transition is offensive to Leave supporters because it leaves the UK subject to EU rules while no longer being able to influence them.  For more or less the same reason it is offensive to Remain voters because the only thing Britain will have left is the various seats that it used to have at the decision-making table.  What it does allow, of course, is the continuation of economic business as usual.  The City of London will continue fleecing the people of Europe while the corporations can continue using free movement of capital rules to avoid paying their taxes.  Ordinary Britons will still be able to go on holiday to the Mediterranean without the inconvenience of having to get a visa; and EU nationals living in the UK will continue to be free to do so.  The Good Friday Agreement will be saved and the Irish economy will be spared being dragged down along with the UK, because the frictionless single market will remain in place.

There is a certain logic to this attempt to surreptitiously engineer a permanent transition, since it is preferable to any of the alternatives currently on the table.  MPs have effectively ruled out every potential version of Brexit – including May’s deal itself; which, because of May’s “red lines” can only lead to a hard Brexit with – at best – the kind of trade deal currently enjoyed by Canada and South Korea:

Brexit info graphic

But this only deepens the crisis by neutering the government’s ability to govern (which is by no means a bad thing – my main objection is that they are still being paid).  MPs dare not approve the transitional agreement for fear of where it might lead; even though it is actually designed to lead nowhere.  May’s only response – despite all of the talk of cross-party negotiations – has to be to continue microwaving her decaying deal and re-serving it every couple of months in the hope that MPs will finally eat it.  But few within the “Westminster Village” believe this is likely.  Far more likely is that May will attempt to run down the clock again in the hope that an October crisis will force MPs to agree to her deal in a way that they have already failed to do three times (giving May the worst and third worst Parliamentary defeats in history).

The EU27 could – but apparently will not – bring this sorry charade to an end simply by refusing to extend Article 50 any further.  Except, of course that their interests are also served by an unresolved permanent transition in which the UK is always going to leave in the future but somehow never gets around to it.  Obviously they would prefer this to be achieved via the deal negotiated by Barnier, since this would remove the British wreckers from the Parliament, the Commission and the Council of Ministers.  But extending Article 50 into the indefinite future is the next best thing.

The British people – who will not be consulted a second time because they have shown the establishment that they cannot be trusted to vote the right way – find themselves caught in a Brexit web from which there can be no escape.  Even in “normal times” (i.e., those prior to 2008) it used to take skilled and experienced trade negotiators (which Britain does not have) decades to hammer out the terms of a trade treaty.  In the deteriorating economic landscape that faces us, and in the hands of politicians who would struggle to negotiate £100 off the price of a used car, we can expect this unresolved Brexit to rumble on for decades… assuming the UK does not collapse into obscurity in the interim.

As you made it to the end…

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