This blog was written on Monday April 30th, 2018
You can only understand Brexit if you understand that Brexit is not a rational economic calculation but is instead an ideology.
An ideology that can best be described, for want of a more elegant word, as “Angloism”. Angloism is a deep-seated set of beliefs with three main threads.
First, it holds that in joining the old Common Market the UK lost its sovereignty, the ability to take its own political decisions. This loss to the EU is seen by many Brexiteers as a betrayal of centuries of English tradition, of government through the “Crown in Parliament”. “Taking back Control” was about returning to this perceived happy state of affairs.
Secondly, it argues that the UK in general, but England in particular, is fundamentally different from mainland Europe. Its legal system is based on the common law, not the Napoleonic Code. Its economy is liberal and individualist, not corporatist and collectivist. And, not to be underestimated, its religions values are Protestant, not Catholic.Thirdly, and of critical importance in the context of Brexit, Angloism holds that the real future of the UK lies with “English-speaking” countries scattered around the world, many of them former colonies of the Empire and now members of the Commonwealth. By taking back control, recovering sovereignty, the UK will be free to forge links with “old and new friends”, through a free association of likeminded countries, with similar liberal free-market polities. That the “Anglosphere” does not exit other than as an imagined construct we will come back to later.
There is no suggestion that these beliefs are a contrivance, designed to hide other motives, even if that is the case with some individuals. This worldview is genuinely what motivates may well-intentioned Brexiteers. Wrong-headed it may be, but no more so than the “socialism in one country” beliefs of the current leadership of the Labour Party.
Key Brexiteer members of the UK government, Michael Gove and David Davis, captured aspects of the essence of Angloism in writings in the run-up to the referendum in 2016.
Gove argued that when it came to sovereignty:
“…our membership on the European Union prevents us being able to change huge swathes of law and stops us being able to choose who makes critical decisions which affect all our lives.”
Davis was forthright is setting out the opportunity Brexit would offer in reconnecting with the Anglosphere:
“This is an opportunity to renew our strong relationships with Commonwealth and Anglosphere countries. These parts of the world are growing faster than Europe. We share history, culture and language. We have family ties. We even share similar legal systems. The usual barriers to trade are largely absent.”
All of which helps to provide some context for last week’s debate in the UK about continued membership of the Customs Union.
A Customs Union sees its members impose common external tariffs against third countries while allowing tariff free trade within the union. A majority in both Houses of the UK parliament think leaving the Customs Union is a bad idea and votes in both the Lords and the Commons during the past week have shown that the Prime Minister, Theresa May, would struggle to get any deal that doesn’t involve Customs Union membership in some shape or form passed.
The dilemma facing Mrs May was neatly summed up by Michael Bloomberg, when he wrote
Theresa May’s government is still promising to quit Europe’s customs union when Brexit happens next year. The prime minister’s position is politically understandable, yet entirely indefensible.
Actually, it is worse than that.
Any move by May to stay within the orbit of the Customs Union is likely to lead to cabinet resignations as leaving the Custom Union has become the red line for hard Brexiteers. As Andrew Rawnsley of the Guardian notes:
“Boris Johnson selected that as the ditch he would die for when he said that remaining within a customs union “would leave the UK a colony of the EU”. In a speech a couple of months ago, Liam Fox termed it “a complete sell-out of Britain’s interests”.“
As Rawnsley comments:
“It is hard to see how either could stay in a cabinet that negotiated the very thing they have so passionately denounced.”
Which brings us back to our opening comment.
For true believers, Brexit is not about rational, economic calculations. It is an article of faith and one of the major tenets of that faith, as discussed above, is that the future of the UK lies with the Anglosphere, not with the European Union.
For Brexiteers, staying in the EU Customs Union would be the equivalent of living in sin. Profitable certainly, pleasurable maybe, but a sin nonetheless.
That sin would be the inability of the UK, because of Customs Union membership, to negotiate trade agreements with all of those Anglosphere and Commonwealth countries who are counting down the days to when the UK, free of the EU, can do so. Or so the Brexiteers believe, with little or no evidence to support their belief. But then most believers in isms don’t need hard evidence. Faith suffices.
And faith is all the Brexiteers have left.
Over the past year, study after study has shown that there is no business case for leaving the EU, still less for leaving the Single Market and Customs Union. Indeed, leaving the Single Market is to walk away from what Thatcher believed.
For Gove, Fox and Davis to stay in the Customs Union, in any configuration, would be a betrayal of all they have believed for the past 20 years. For Johnson, a betrayal of all he has believed for the past 20 minutes.
To give up belief in the wonders of global trade agreements would be akin to a Christian accepting that there is no heaven. And if there is no heaven, what’s the point to it all?
So, what happens next?
Tomorrow is May 1st. That just leaves two months until the next meeting of the European Council (heads of government of the EU28) and just over three and a half months to the following meeting on October 18 and 19.
Roughly six months in total for the legal terms of the Withdrawal Agreement between the EU and the UK, including the Transition Arrangement planned to run from March 30th 2019 until December 31, 2020, to be finalised.
Standing in the way of finalising the Withdraw Agreement (WA) are two issues: the question of the reappearance of a hard border on the island of Ireland between Ireland, which will remain a member of the EU, and Northern Ireland, part of the UK, and, therefore, due to leave the EU as part of Brexit. The second issue, which touches directly of the Ireland issue, is the nature of the trading relationship between the EU and the UK after Brexit.
As we have previously written in this Briefing, the fact that both Ireland and Northern Ireland are currently members of the EU’s Customs Union and Single Market, coupled with the decades-old Common Travel Area between Ireland, Northern Ireland and the UK, makes a border unnecessary.
Given the deep cultural and political significance of any sort of “hard” border on the island, all parties, the Irish and UK governments, along with the EU, are committed to avoiding its reintroduction as a result of Brexit.
The problem is that the UK government’s repeatedly stated position that with Brexit the UK will also leave the Customs Union and the Single Market makes any deal on Ireland well-nigh impossible. According to the Financial Times
“So where does [the border] go?” asked one exasperated senior EU official. “It is as simple as this: on the basis of the red lines we have, there is no solution.”
Anticipating this, the EU insisted on a “backstop” in the provisional Withdrawal Agreement agreed last December which, in the absence of any other solution, committed the UK to agreeing continued, regulatory alignment between Ireland and Northern Ireland after Brexit, i.e. de facto continued membership of the EU’s Custom Union and Single Market.
No sooner had this text been agreed that the UK suffered “negotiator’s remorse”, a condition which afflicts negotiators who agree some language at a minute to midnight to get a deal over the line only to wake up the next morning and realise the implications of what they have actually agreed. In this case, the backstop would mean no border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, but there could be a border for goods, but not people, between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
Now the obvious way for the UK to avoid this situation is to stay in the Single Market and the Customs Union.
It has to be both. Assertions made by many UK politicians during recent weeks that membership of the Customs Union alone would suffice are just wrong.
But, as we have seen, quitting the Customs Union goes to the heart of what Brexit is about: forging a future for the UK away from Europe: Global Britain as opposed to European Britain.
But no matter how deep the faith, the assertions of Angloism are found wanting when tested against hard reality, as Chris Grey argues forcible here.
The economic dimension of the European Union, the structure and rules of the Customs Union and Single Market, have been built up painstakingly over may years, among countries that live cheek-by-jowl and, contrary to Brexit assertions about UK exceptionalism, share a common cultural heritage.
It is the dense web of rules and regulations that allow EU members to trade seamlessly with one another. They also make possible life as we know it today for ordinary European citizens: easy of travel; the right to live and work elsewhere in the EU; health coverage across the Union; the absence of roaming changes and strong personal data protection laws.
The problem for Brexiteers is that when it comes to alternatives to the European Union in general, or to the Single Market and Customs Union in particular, to borrow some words from the writer Gertrude Stein, there is no there there.
Whatever about affinities of culture and language between Anglosphere countries there is no economic structure which links them together, no one body with which the UK can go and negotiate arrangements to replace the trade it will inevitably forego with the EU. Not to mention the fact that they are scattered to the four corners of the globe.
Negotiations will have to be conducted slowly, one by one, country by country. But first the UK has to try to roll-over the trade deals the EU already has with third countries. Easier said than done for as James Ashton-Bell of the CBI told the newspaper Business Insider :
“The UK fundamentally lacks the experience or the bandwidth to conduct 20 or more trade renegotiations in parallel to complete before the potential cliff edge of January 2021… The potential of a cliff edge for these agreements is very real, and potentially hugely damaging at both firm-level and for entire sectors of the UK economy. It could wipe some out overnight. Some export-reliant companies could literally go bankrupt.”
So, to repeat, what happens next? Quite frankly, as of today, April 30th, no one can say.
Two weeks ago who would have predicted that Amber Rudd would have resigned as Home Secretary, as a result of the fallout over the Windrush scandal? Who saw that coming?
As we said earlier, there is no majority in the UK Parliament to leave the Customs Union and the Single Market. But there are those in the Cabinet determined to do so, backed by a vocal and hardline group of Conservative MPs.
Negotiations between now and the June on the Irish border issue could bring matters to a head.
Anything could happen and probably will.