This blog was written on Monday July 30th.
It was a Brexit week in which not much happened, except for the small matter of the EU’s chief negotiator, Michael Barnier, telling the new UK Brexit Secretary, Dominic Raab, that a key proposition in Theresa May’s Chequers plan would never be accepted by the EU.
You know the proposition, I’m referring to. The one where the UK says to the EU we’re leaving because we never liked you and you are holding us back; we are setting up as a rival business and we are going to do our own deals with the people you already have deals with or are doing deals with. But would it be OK if we collected monies owed to you by these guys? We promise, we’ll be honest and pass it on to you. All of it, every euro.
To nobody’s surprise, Barnier politely declined the UK’s offer. The UK is now working on plan E or F, not sure which.
I started writing about Brexit a year or so ago in response to questions I was being asked by the multinational companies we deal with. I have learnt a lot in that time, not just about Brexit but about British politics and about the EU, and about the almost complete lack of understanding of the EU, what drives it and how it works, on the part of the UK political class and commentariat.
As we head into a short Brexit summer break I thought I’d offer some personal reflections on some the things that have really struck me over the past year.
1. An unwritten constitution is not worth the paper it is not written on. Alone among EU members, the UK does not have a written constitution. UK politicians and experts will quickly tell you that the UK does have a constitution. It is just not written down. But if it is not written down who determines what it is and how do you know what it is? Who decides, and on what basis, if it has been breached?
Maybe this wouldn’t matter much in normal times, but Brexit times are not normal times. Brexit is a decision by the UK to consciously walk away from over 40 years of deep economic and institutional integration with the European Union. It has enormous economic consequences. Yet the decision was made on the basis of a referendum result of 52% to 48%, with the 52% representing just 37% of the total electorate.
Because of the absence of a written constitution, one particular answer by a minority of the total electorate on a particular day to an ill-defined question has been given sacred status, never to be questioned, never to be revisited, even if circumstances change. It has become as sacred as Magna Carta. Can a democracy not change its mind? But without a written constitution how do you decide?
At times it seems that the “British constitution” amounts to little more than whatever the government can get through the House of Commons. If a government has a majority it can do pretty much anything it wants. The UK’s current constitutional status might be summed up as the “sovereignty of the executive in parliament”. The past year has shown that checks and balances are absent in the extreme.
2. The EU is a rules based political and economic entity that is sui generis. The EU is neither a state nor a super-state. It is what it is, an organisation of 28 member states who have agreed to pool sovereignty on a range of issues in order to better advance their interests in a world of giants and emerging giants, the US, China, India and Russia (militarily if not economically in the last case). Not to mention emerging regional alliances in Africa and Asia.
Such a bloc can only work if it has a written “constitution”, treaties or sets of rules. Unlike the UK, it cannot make up its legal order on a day-to-day basis. The legal order that exists is the result of long and hard-fought internal negotiations stretching back to its founding in the late 1950s. It works because all the parties to it knows what it means and how it works. Where there are disputes about the existing rules, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) is there to resolve them.
The UK, with its unwritten constitution, has never been comfortable with the EU’s legal order, given the UK’s own “flexible” constitution. We can see that in play when it comes to the Brexit discussions, with constant cries from the UK that the EU is being “legalistic”, “inflexible” and “lacking in imagination”, AKA, “why can’t you be like us and just make it up as you go along”.
No doubt, the same people would go into meltdown if, for instance, Lords cricket ground relaxed its rule that gentlemen must wear a jacket and tie on entering the pavilion. Can you imagine them shouting at the umpire in a cricket match: “Yes, he was cleanly bowled out, but be flexible and imaginative. Don’t dismiss him. It is England after all.”
Rules exist to ensure that the game is played fairly.
3. For the EU Brexit is not a negotiation. It is damage limitation.
Two parties generally enter into a negotiation because they believe they can find a deal that will be better than their current situation. They work together to find mutually beneficial outcomes. That is not the case with Brexit. While the UK may be approaching the Brexit process as a negotiation the EU certainly is not. The EU does not believe that the UK leaving will be beneficial to either party. It will be damaging to both, but a lot more damaging to the UK than to the EU. Brexit increases costs. It does not deliver benefits.
Damage limitation is the EU’s objective. It has taken many years of long and painful negotiation for the EU to build the unique, integrated economic system of its customs union, common commercial policy and single market, within a framework of rules overseen by the CJEU. Why would it want to put that at risk for the benefit of a country that is walking away? Not only walking away but shouting over its shoulder as it does so what a useless outfit the EU is anyway.
In the Brexit discussions with the UK the EU is defending what it has built. None of the other 27 want to put the system at risk. Why would they? Faults and all, it works for them. What the UK is trying to do is to unpick the system for the sole benefit of the UK. When the EU won’t bend UK commentators from both the left and the right accuse the EU of “punishing” the UK and insist the EU must compromise so as to help the UK out of the hole of its own digging. As if you must let someone squat in one of your bedrooms after they had deliberately made themselves homeless when there was no need for them to do so. When you say no, they shout that their homelessness is now you fault because you are being too proprietorial over your own house.
4. The world in which we live is a social construct
I had a heart attack last March. Afterwards I wrote about how my life had been saved by ease of access to the Belgium medical system because of my EU citizenship (here), made possible by the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). In that piece I wrote about all of the little things that we take for granted that are only made possible because of the EU: visa free travel in Europe; driving in EU countries solely on your home licence; an end to mobile roaming charges; taking your dog with you on holidays because of the pet passport scheme. These things didn’t just happen. They are there because the 28 member states of the EU agreed through the EU to put them there.
The same with the big things. Trucks pass seamlessly through Dover because of the EU’s single market rules. Planes can criss-cross Europe because of EU agreements that allow them to do so. If pets have passports, so do financial firms. Not to mention the web of rules on food, chemicals, plants, almost everything you care to mention that make our lives better and safer.
It seems to me that Brexit was largely sold on the basis that leaving the EU would put an end to migration from the EU to the UK and that the UK would save the £350m a week that it allegedly sent to the EU and spend it on the NHS instead. Nothing else would change because the UK would be able to negotiate such a great deal with the EU. After all, as Michael Gove said, the UK would “hold all the cards” in its dealing s with the EU when Brexit was voted through. Anyone hear Gove say anything on this since?
It has turned out to be the exact opposite. Migration into the UK is unlikely to change because of labour market needs and there is no £350m a week, not only because of existing and ongoing financial commitments to the EU but also because of diminished economic growth. Everything else will change because as of today everything else is largely dependent on the EU’s web of rules. Our European world is a social construct. It didn’t just come out of nowhere.
It’s like you bought a house from “Boris the builder” off the plans but when you actually see the house being built it turns out to look nothing like the house you were promised.
- There is no status quo ante. There is no going home again.
I often get the impression that a lot of UK politicians are working on the assumption that the sooner they get this “Brexit thing” over and done with the sooner politics can get back to normal. I believe they are wrong. Brexit has broken British politics and things will never be the same again.
No matter the terms of the Brexit agreement, Brexit will never be over. It can’t be. It’s a bit like trying to say that you want Planet Earth to opt out of the solar system. You may convince yourself that it has but it will still never escape the heat of the sun.
For a start, it will take the UK years to build the infrastructure and regulatory systems necessary to exist outside of the single market and the customs union. Systems and infrastructure cost money, lots of money. Money that could have gone elsewhere. What political arguments will swirl around the cost of several thousand new customs officials or the building of lorry parks at Dover and elsewhere when that money could have gone on the NHS, social housing or schools? What happens when the magic trade deals that are to justify the price that must be paid to reclaim sovereignty fail to materialise?
What happens, and it will, when manufacturing industries that depend on just-in-time Europe-wide supply chain start to wind down and jobs go south or the tax take from the financial sector declines as work is moved out of the UK? Unless all reputable economists are wrong then Brexit will increase government costs and depress revenues. To use another analogy. It’s a bit like leaving a golf club so you can build you own and then being surprised when you realise how much is costs to do so. But even the Labour Party seems to have forgotten the benefits of collectivism, which is what the EU is, a collective European endeavour that lowers costs and increases clout.
British politics will split, in fact I think it already has, between those who believe “Britain alone” is worth any cost and those who believe that regained sovereignty is imaginary and nothing more than snake oil, not worth a penny.
The arguments about Brexit are only beginning. It is unlikely they will ever end. Anyone who thinks that UK politics will never change because of the “first past the post” electoral system is probably wrong. Just like real earthquakes, political earthquakes have the power to sweep away all in their path. And that includes the “precious” unity of the United Kingdom.
- There are no Brexit “experts”
As of today (July 30th) no one can tell you with any degree of authority how the Brexit process will unfold over the next six months, let along the next several years. The best that anyone can do is to point to the issues in play and to name the players in the game. But because this game has never been played before and none of the players have “form” no one can say how the game will play out. To tell the truth, no one even knows fully what the rules of the game are, if any, and how to tell if one side is ahead or behind, or even when the game will end. Could it go to penalties? Could team captains be substituted halfway through the second half?
Brexit “experts” are best compared to match commentators. They can tell you who is on the pitch, and what happened in the first half. They can analyse and comment on play and offer a judgement as to who played well and who didn’t. But, just like match commentators, Brexit experts have absolutely no idea how the second half will go.
At this point it is fairly clear: if Brussels is Barcelona, then Brexit Britain is Barmy United, a Saturday pub team.
Enjoy the summer because afterwards you had better prepare for the worst.