This blogpost was written on Wed Feb 27, 2019
With each passing day it becomes clearer and clearer that far too many politicians in the UK, including the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, think Brexit is some form of game of political point scoring, with little or no thought for the immense damage to lives and livelihoods that will ensue.
On Monday of this week the leadership of the Labour Party, still reeling from the defections of nine MPs last week to the independent benches, announced that it planned to table a motion in the House of Commons calling for a different Brexit deal than the one Theresa May has agreed with Brussels. If the plans it brings forward are voted down in the Commons Labour may then call for a second referendum.
So, what are these Labour plans?
Apparently, the party wants a “future relationship” which would see the UK in “a” customs arrangement with the EU, but the UK would not actually be a member of the existing EU customs union. It would be a bespoke union between the UK and the EU. As part of this arrangement the UK would have a decision-making role when it came to future trade deals being negotiated by the EU.
Now, I cannot see the EU saying to the UK: “Sure, no problem, you can have more of a say on our future trade negotiations than you had when you were a member. What a great idea. Maybe we should give other non-members a say as well. Barnier, why don’t you get Turkey on the phone?”
It also appears that Labour would like a “close relationship” with the EU’s single market. I suspect this means that Labour would like all the benefits of the single market but without the bits the current Labour leadership doesn’t like. Such as the rules on state aid which limit the ability of governments to prop up certain industries when those industries are faced with more savvy competitors from elsewhere.
Put Labour’s ideas on a customs union together with its “friends with benefits” single market proposals and you have its “jobs first Brexit”. In reality, it is little more than “cakism” with red icing. However, if it ever formed the basis of future negotiations with the EU, the EU would soon make it clear that if Labour wanted the benefits of the customs union and the single market then it would have to accept all the obligations as well. There are no cherries to be picked.
But it is never going to come to that. For a start, Labour is not in government so won’t be presenting any proposals to the EU anytime soon. Secondly, the chances of the House of Commons voting for this package are slight to non-existent.
However, that is not what this is about. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, is as committed to Brexit as the hardest of Brexiteers. He has never voted positively for the EU in his entire political life. In fact, he has denounced the EU time and time again as a neo-liberal, imperialist, war machine.
Corbyn wants the UK out of the EU. But he wants the Tories to take the hit when it all goes wrong, as it will (see here). He wants to be able to pin the economic damage and the lost jobs and the wrecked lives on the Tories.
“It was the Tories’ Brexit that did it. We had a plan for a “jobs-first Brexit”. They voted it down. They wouldn’t even let us put it to the people in a referendum”.
In truth, unlike the vast majority of Labour Party members, Corbyn and his team do not want a second referendum. The stratagem that they have now come up with gives them the best of both worlds. They can later claim: we put forward a plan but the Tories blocked us. We just didn’t have the votes. What could we do?
Such game playing only works because, with one or two exceptions, the UK political class never took the time to understand the EU in general, or what the Article 50 (A50) exit procedure involved in particular.
Now, if you want to know how the UK has consistently failed to understand the EU, its raison d’etre, what drives it, and why its leaders think and act they way they do then read Kevin O’Rourke’s, Brexit, A Brief History.
I have written before, here for instance, that with the exception of the Brexit ultras who want out of the EU at any price, the problem that the majority of MPs have with the Withdrawal Agreement is that it does not specify in detail the future relationship between the EU and the UK. That is not the fault of the EU. It is down to the UK.
During the referendum campaign in 2016 the Leave campaign refused, deliberately, to sketch out what relationship it wanted in the future between the UK and the EU because it believed that if it did so it would split the Leave coalition. The people voted for a “black box Brexit” – you only got to see what was in the box after you voted.
Subsequently, when she became prime minister, Theresa May set down a series of red lines: out of the customs union, out of the single market, out of the jurisdiction of the European Court and an end to “vast” payments into the EU budget.
In response, the EU offered the UK a deal. Pay your bills, guarantee citizens’ rights and commit to ensuring no return of a border on the island of Ireland. In return, we are open to negotiating a future relationship deal but it must be one that respects the integrity of the EU’s economic order. You can’t have benefits without obligations. There are no special deals for leavers and ex-members. But you can’t negotiate the details of that deal until after you have left.
That’s the Brexit paradox. You only get to know what Brexit really means after you have left.
The EU went beyond what was required by Article 50. There is no mention in that article of a transition period. A country gives notice that it wants to leave the EU and does so two years at the latest after giving the notice. But sometime back in 2017 the UK realised that it would be in no position to leave the EU completely in March 2019. You can’t unpick over 40 years of integration in just two years.
Pragmatically, the EU offered the UK a transition period during which the UK would agree to act as if it were a de facto EU member, follow all the rules, including new ones, and meet budget obligations. During the transition, to run from March 2019 to December 2020, nothing would change. The EU has also offered a longer transition to December 2022, if necessary.
However, while the UK would have to follow all the rules during transition it would have no voice in EU governance structures. In this world, there is a price to be paid for everything. Cue howls of rage that this arrangement would make the UK a “vassal state”.
During the transition the EU and the UK will negotiate the substance of their future relationship. There is a continuum of possibilities. At one end, there could be a unique deal which would see the UK stay in the EU customs union and single market, meaning no adverse impact on trade between the two in either goods or services. For this, the UK would have to follow all relevant EU rules, now and in the future, including free movement. It would have no voice in the making of these rules. Hard to take for a country which was used to imposing its rules on other countries when it had an empire
Further, the UK would not be free to cut its own trade deals with other parties. Not that there is much benefit to be had from deals with faraway places compared to the losses that will be incurred from putting new barriers in place between the UK and the EU. But the freedom to negotiate such deals seems to have now become the holy grail of Brexit, the thing that will make all the pain go away.
At the other end of the continuum is a “common or garden” trade deal. Trade would neither be free nor frictionless. What you would have would be the “Great Wall of Dover” (and Calais), with delays, paperwork and inspections the order of the day. Inevitably, industry and services will ask themselves why they are on the UK side of the wall, with all the difficulties that have to be negotiated to access the bigger market on the other side. The EU will not make it easy for them. Why should it?
Anyone who thinks that London will remain the financial capital of Europe if the UK is completely outside the EU wants to wake up and smell the coffee. Like manufacturing, financial services will drain away, not overnight but over time. Nothing personal, just business.
All of which brings me to the Irish backstop. The backstop is the fall-back to ensure that there is no return to border infrastructure on the island. Irish people, north and south, do not want the return of a border. They see it for what it would be. A scar on the soul of the land. Scars can cause hurt and bring bleeding.
The need for the backstop arises out of Theresa May’s redlines. Common Irish and UK membership of the European Union’s single market and customs union, along with the common travel area within and between the two islands, meant that people, traffic and goods could move across the island without the need for stop, search or inspection. But if Brexit is driven by a desire to take back control of your borders then you build borders where now there are none. That is the logic of your position.
The backstop argument, however, is only a proxy for arguments about the wider, long-term EU/UK relationship. I strongly suspect that a sizeable majority of the MPs in Westminster, like the majority of the UK population, really have very few feelings for Northern Ireland. If there was to be an election tomorrow and were the DUP no longer to be in the pivotal position it is today that would soon become evident. When it comes to the backstop the DUP are in a minority in Northern Ireland. There is no end date to Brexit. One day, the DUP will be in a minority in the House of Commons.
So, here is where we are.
The EU has offered the departing UK a deal, the Withdrawal Agreement. Sign off on that and you have left the EU. Thereafter, during the transition period, when you are no longer an EU member and cannot cause mischief because you are out of our decision-making processes, we will negotiate your future relationship with us. Short of giving you the benefits of membership without the obligations, we are open to seeing what we can put together. But no matter what, it will not be what it is now. Breaking up is always hard to do.
The EU sees the Withdrawal Agreement that is on the table as a reasonable agreement that has gone beyond where it wanted to go when the process began.
In Westminster it is seen as “May’s deal”. The problem is not the word “deal”, it is “May”. She never crossed a bridge that she did not burn behind her. She has courted her enemies and destroyed her friends. She now finds herself surrounded by enemies and bereft of friends. What should be seen as a good deal in bad circumstances is now universally despised in Westminster because it is ascribed to May.
In the weeks ahead Theresa May might find a way to get parliament to vote for the Withdrawal Agreement. If so, it will do so through gritted teeth and without joy. If the Withdrawal Agreement is voted through that will not be the end. It will just be the end of the prelude.
Years of negotiation between the EU and the UK lie ahead. Because these will be divorce negotiations, they will be bitter and twisted. When you tell someone you are leaving because they are no longer good enough for you, what do you expect?
One final point. I have written more than once that I do not believe that Brexit is in the best interests of either the UK nor the EU27. It would be best for all if a way could be found to rethink Brexit, not least for the reasons outlined by Martin Wolf in the Financial Times here. But I just don’t see that happening.
If the UK goes ahead and leaves the EU then, other than a no-deal Brexit, the offer on the table from the EU is all there will be. There is no alternative.