This blogpost was written on Dec 19, 2018
We head into the holiday season with Brexit appearing to be in some form of holding pattern. Brussels has said that the Withdrawal Agreement on the table is all there is and will not be renegotiated. On the other hand, Theresa May is telling MPs that she will secure additional political and legal guarantees that the backstop will be temporary and that the UK will not be trapped in a customs union with the EU.
They both can’t be right.
If to prove that she knows she isn’t right May’s government has stepped up “no deal” planning, which most businesses think insane but then, where Brexit is concerned, rationality, like Elvis, left the building a long time ago. When it comes to Brexit, as Groucho Marx might have said, there is no “sanity clause”.
So, as we wait for the New Year and the final run-in to Brexit on March 29th next, I offer these random thoughts on where we are and why we are here.
The Withdrawal Agreement is all there is: As I wrote last week, the UK really only has two choices. Leave the EU or remain in the EU. Personally, I would much prefer the UK to remain, but as long as the government and the Labour leadership are committed to Brexit then is seems inevitable that the UK will leave on March 29th, 2019.
If the UK does leave, then the question becomes on what terms does it leave?
The choice is the deal that is on the table or no deal. The legally binding part of the package, the Withdrawal Agreement, takes care of the UK’s continuing financial obligations, citizens’ rights and the Irish backstop. Just as important, the Withdrawal Agreement provides for a transition period, vital for businesses, that runs to December 2020, but could be extended to December 2022.
The Political Declaration, which sets a direction of travel that would see the end of freedom of movement (which seems to be the particular obsession of the Prime Minister and some in the Labour leadership), and the UK negotiating its own trade deals, is aspirational and can be changed as events unfold. The future relationship will be negotiated in detail during the transition. Nothing is set in stone.
The EU spelt out its step-by-step approach to the negotiations immediately after the UK referendum and has remained consistent ever since. If UK politicians are complaining that the Withdrawal “package” is not explicit enough about the future relationship between the UK and the EU then they have not being paying attention.
With regard to the Irish backstop, it does not get triggered until the end of the transition period. It will then only come into force if a future agreement between the EU and the UK fails to eliminate the need for border infrastructure and/or “technological solutions” have not been developed.
Given it could take close on four years to negotiate and a lot can change politically during that time, why make a possible future backstop a deal breaker at this time?
If Brexiteers think technology can do the job, what’s to worry about?
Rather than try to convince the EU to drop the backstop, which it is not going to do, would the UK government not be better served trying to get the Stormont Assembly back working, so letting the representatives of the people of Norther Ireland have their say?
There are voices in Northern Ireland other than those of the DUP. But then, there are many in UK politics who believe that they know what is best for Northern Ireland, better than the people of Northern Ireland themselves.
While “remain” is the better option, if the UK leaves the EU, then the package on offer is as good as it gets. Leaving with “no deal” or a so-called “managed no-deal” will inflict untold damage on the UK economy. Europe will also suffer, and Ireland particularly so, but most of the damage will be on the UK side. By the way, as best I can work out a “managed no-deal” is a negotiated deal with the EU to let the UK leave with no-deal and free of all obligations, but still having the benefit of a transition period. But then, it is the season of Santa Claus and make-believe.
I suspect that during the early part of 2019 the penny will drop slowly that the Withdrawal Agreement is all there is.
It is difficult to make a positive out of a negative: The Brexit leave campaign was a negative campaign: let’s just leave the European Union. Any attempt to define what leaving the European Union would mean in practical terms was consciously supressed by the campaign organisers on the grounds that it could cause divisions among Brexit supporters. You could say that the Brexit campaign was run on the basis of deliberately not telling people what Brexit meant.
As we have written, repeatedly, in these BEERG Brexit Briefings, leading Brexiteers told the electorate that leaving would be easy, a piece of cake, all upside and no downside. Over before you knew it and, at the end of the day, the UK would still have all the benefits of EU membership and none of the obligations.
When you sell people an easy negative it is subsequently very difficult to turn that negative into a positive. What does leaving the EU actually mean? How can you unpick over forty years of deep social and economic integration without costs?
You can’t. It is as simple as that.
Think of all those things that impact our daily lives that have their roots in EU membership. Cheap flights that crisscross Europe, made possible by EU agreements that facilitated the growth of airlines such as Ryanair and easyJet. A pleasant retirement in Spain because your medical costs were covered through your European Health Insurance Card. Roaming charges cut. Visa-free travel. Not to mention labour, environmental, product safety and food quality standards, all of which have worked to eliminate risk and improve the quality of life.
These things sit on top of a deep, integrated, internal economy built on the foundations of the Customs Union and the Single Market. For example, people all too easily forget how the UK car industry was shredded in the 1970s and 1980s by unthinking union militancy only to be rebuilt under foreign ownership within the framework of the internal market.
Can anyone really believe that when transnational value chains, most of which are regional rather than global, get fouled up by border delays those car manufacturers are going to stay around for long?
A senior executive from a UK-based car manufacturer told me last week that, given their size and resources, they could develop systems to deal with increased checks and paperwork. Their concern was that while their trucks would be “good to go” at EU/UK frontiers would all the other trucks in the queue in front of them also be “good to go”? The question answers itself.
So, it is no wonder that as we head into 2019, with just three months to go to “Brexit Day” on March 29th, 2019, that the UK still has not worked out its direction of travel, still less have a road map. When you just bundle the family into the car and tell them “we are moving” it is difficult to know which way to turn when you get to the end of the street and don’t know where you are going.
We’ll still be involved, of course we will. A striking aspect of UK discourse on Brexit is the belief, exhibited by many on all sides of the argument, that after Brexit the UK will still be involved, somehow or other, in EU discussions and decision making. It is a mindset that just hasn’t fully accepted that leave actually means leaving, that the UK is on the way to becoming a “third country”, outside looking in. The British are just not treated that way.
Every time EU leaders meet and the UK Prime Minister is not there it will be a reminder that the UK no longer has a seat at the top European tables. Some console themselves by saying it doesn’t matter as the EU is going to fall apart completely any day now. But the same voices have been saying that about the EU for as long as I have been reading UK newspapers, well over fifty years. But for others, the shock of exclusion will cause real pain.
Take as an example of not being in the room, decisions around data transfers between the EU and the UK. As Sir Ivan Rogers, the former UK ambassador to the EU, noted in a speech at Liverpool University last week:
… cross border data flows are completely central to free trade and prosperity… The EU here is a global player – a global rule maker – able and willing effectively to impose its values, rules and standards extraterritorially.
So important is this issue that Theresa May, the UK Prime Minister said in her Mansion House speech:
That is why we will be seeking more than just an adequacy arrangement and want to see an appropriate ongoing role for the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office. This will ensure UK businesses are effectively represented under the EU’s new ‘One-stop shop’ mechanism for resolving data protection disputes.
To decode May’s words: “Would it be possible for us to act as if the UK has not left the EU and, therefore, our Information Commissioner gets to play a continuing role in the shaping of EU data laws? You all know what a splendid chap he is.”
The same approach can be found across a range of policy areas, with the UK wanting to be both on the inside and the outside at the same time. I suspect the EU will be more than happy to have a chat with the UK on lots of issues, but when the meeting room door finally closes the UK will be on the outside. Brexit Billy no-friends.
Speaking of being on the outside and losing voice and influence, how long before questions get raised about the UK’s seat on the UN Security Council? France can say it is speaking on behalf of the EU but the UK in future can only speak for itself. While the UK has the seat for historic reasons what justifies it in the future, especially as the UK’s economy gets overtaken by those of big, growing nations? See here
Ireland is a separate, sovereign nation and an EU member state: It sometimes seems to come as a surprise to many in the UK political establishment, and the commentariat, that Ireland (not Éire, The Irish Republic or the Republic of Ireland) is a separate, sovereign nation with its own interests to protect.
There is a blithe assumption that Ireland should subordinate its interests to those of the UK. A rather bizarre example of this mindset is to be found in a recent Spectator article by Brendan O’Neill, himself of Irish heritage. He writes:
The way Varadkar, the Taoiseach, talks about Britain is astonishing. It is motored by the elitist, practically imperial belief that what is good for his government – his foreign government – is more important than what the British people themselves, in their millions, voted for,
Change Varadkar for Macron or Merkel and you could make the same point about France or Germany. How dare any government put its own interest above the sacred Brexit vote of the British people. But Ireland rankles in a way that France or Germany do not.
After all, it was Irish independence in 1922 that began the slow, 20th century dismantlement of the British Empire. Indeed, you can draw a straight line from 1922 and the partition of Ireland to the Brexit backstop. Partition led to years of violence. The Good Friday Agreement brought that to an end. The backstop is designed to make sure it stays that way.
Not only are certain English politicians annoyed that Ireland “no longer knows its place” but, by a twist of fate, as Ivan Rogers puts it, Brexit may be the first Anglo-Irish negotiation in history:
…where the greater leverage is not on London’s side of the table. And the vituperation aimed at Dublin politicians tells one just how well that has gone down with politicians and apparatchiks who had not bothered to work out that this was no longer a bilateral business, and are now appalled to find they are cornered.
For, as Rogers said in his Liverpool lecture:
…the solidarity of the club members will ALWAYS be with each other, not with you. We have seen that over the backstop issue over the last 18 months. The 26 supported Dublin, not London. They still do. Nothing the Prime Minister now bids for will change that.
Finally, I write this from outside Barcelona. We were planning to head home to northern France on Saturday, arriving Sunday. We thought about bringing it forward to Friday to avoid another wave of protests by the jaunistas in France on Saturday but discovered this afternoon that Barcelona is in lockdown on Friday because of political demonstrations. This Saturday, the gilets jaune are planning blockades at all major frontiers between France and its neighbours. We may be stuck here in the Spanish sunshine for Christmas. What a bad break.
Ah well, at least I am Irish and when things get resolved in France and Spain I won’t have to worry about visas to travel home.