Boris Johnson, Brexit, British Government, Brussels

#Brexit: Breaking Bad

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Brexit is breaking bad. There are no grounds for thinking that there will be any deal between the EU and the UK concluded before the end of this year. Businesses and individuals would be well advised to prepare for a situation where trade between the UK and the EU is conducted from January 2021 onwards on minimalist World Trade Organization (WTO) terms, with all that will mean for border delays, paperwork and new bureaucracies.

All those other areas of life that are dependent on EU/UK agreements, such as air and road transport, data transfers, business travel, tourism and countless others will be dealt with by stop-gap measures, if at all. Google has already decided to move all its UK users data to the US. The chances of the UK getting an “data adequacy” decision from the EU recedes by the day.

I am not alone in thinking this. As the respected UK journalist, Andrew Neil, commented

Now studied both the UK and the EU negotiating positions. They are on different planets. There will be a huge bust up by Spring. Whether it can be put together again unclear. I reckon no higher than 50:50. Johnson government will not agree to continued alignment with EU rules.

Why such a dire and gloomy prediction? Because since Boris Johnson won the 2019 UK general election it has become clearer by the day than for Johnson and his inner team Brexit is, above all, a political project before it is economic.

At the heart of this political project is the concept of “taking back control”. This, of course, was the campaign slogan of the Leave side in the 2016 referendum and was widely understood as the UK “taking back control” of its laws, money and borders from the EU. However, for Johnson, “taking back control” appears to go beyond that. It is, in reality, about the UK executive taking back control from parliament, the judges, and any other institution capable of holding the executive to account.

“Taking back control” means government without constraint. In the words of the late Lord Hailsham, himself a Conservative, it is a return to government as an “elective dictatorship”. (“Elective dictatorship”. The Listener: 496–500. 21 October 1976).

Brexit might be described as a push for “executive sovereignty” hidden within the language of “national sovereignty”. As such, the interests of businesses are incidental, and if the economy takes a massive hit, well then that is collateral damage, roadkill on the sovereign highway. As Simon Fraser, a former permanent secretary at the UK Foreign Office puts it, the UK government is now asserting “the indivisible sovereignty of the European nation state & the primacy of political identity over the market.”

That much was made clear by Johnson’s Brexit negotiator, David Frost (Photo above), in a speech in Brussels last week. In a key passage he said:

A second fundamental is that we bring to the negotiations not some clever tactical positioning but the fundamentals of what it means to be an independent country. It is central to our vision that we must have the ability to set laws that suit us – to claim the right that every other non-EU country in the world has. So to think that we might accept EU supervision on so-called level playing field issues simply fails to see the point of what we are doing. That isn’t a simple negotiating position which might move under pressure – it is the point of the whole project. That’s also why we are not going to extend the transition period beyond the end of this year. At the end of this year, we would recover our political and economic independence in full – why would we want to postpone it? That is the point of Brexit.

Frost also made it clear that there were no circumstances in which the UK would ask for an extension of the transition period beyond the end of this year.

For its part, the EU has time and again said that there can be no trade deal, beyond the bare minimum, without agreement on a “level playing field”, covering, among others, labour, social and environmental laws.

When two parties begin a negotiation from such radically different starting positions then any agreement will be hard come by, as Andrew Neil rightly points out. Any suggestion that an agreement could be reached before the end of 2020 seems completely unrealistic.

Frost clearly accepts that the Johnson government’s approach will lead to border frictions and supply chain disruptions.

We aren’t frightened by suggestions there is going to be friction, there is going to be greater barriers. We know that and have factored this in and we look further forward – to the gains of the future.

As such, Frost was echoing comments made some weeks previously by the cabinet minister, Michael Gove.

The decision by the UK government to severely curtail EU immigration into the UK from the EU from January 2021, with the ending of free movement is of a piece with the elevation of political concerns over economic realities. While we do not share the totality of his analysis, Tom Kibasi makes the point well here.

Frost’s speech is full of heroic assumptions about Brexit. He believes that that the downsides are overstated, and the potential upsides too easily dismissed, though he does concede that while the downsides will hit immediately it will be the “medium term” before the upsides begin to break through. Pain today, jam tomorrow.

As we have asked in previous briefings, has any government ever before set out to knowingly put barriers to trade in place where none now exist? What will such new barriers mean? We’ll know soon enough, and how things work out will be dependent on whatever deal, if any, is done between the EU and the UK. As we have already said, in this regard we are anticipating the worst.

But there is another thread running through Frost´s speech will be of concern to many on the EU side. For some of the language used by the Brexit negotiator seems to suggest that he and others believe that the EU should not exist at all. The concern will be that a post-Brexit Britain, run by a Conservative government animated by English nationalism, will actively seek to undermine the EU

For a start, note the title of his speech Reflections on the Revolutions in Europe. A play on the Irishman Edmund Burke´s Reflections on the Revolution in France, who Frost claims as English, but let that pass. What Frost is trying to suggest is that, somehow or other, Brexit is comparable to the French Revolution in its impact on Europe.

Frost identifies the creation of the EU as a “first” revolution. “A new governmental system overlaid on an old one”, he says, “purportedly a Europe of nation states, but in reality the paradigm of a new system of transnational collective governance.”

But it with the “second revolution” that he is most occupied:

The second revolution is of course the reaction to the first – the reappearance on the political scene not just of national feeling but also of the wish for national decision-making and the revival of the nation state. Brexit is the most obvious example for that, but who can deny that we see something a bit like it in different forms across the whole Continent of Europe? I don’t think it is right to dismiss this just as a reaction to austerity or economic problems or a passing phase, or something to be ‘seen off’ over time. I believe it is something deeper. Actually, I don’t find it surprising – if you can’t change policies by voting, as you increasingly can’t in this situation – then opposition becomes expressed as opposition to the system itself.

As you read through Frost’s speech it becomes clearer by the paragraph that he believes that the UK is best off out of the EU because it will now be able to make its own decisions to suit its own circumstances. He simply fails to see any “value added” in EU membership, in the idea that European countries collaborating together in a deep and organised way, makes sense in a world potentially dominated by giants like the US and China.

In the 1950s, UK government policy was to oppose the establishment of the original “common market”, what later became the European Union, The UK´s representative to the founding negotiations left when it became clear that Britain could not be part of what was being planned. Legend has it that as he left, Russell Bretherton, the civil servant sent instead of a government minister to a meeting of foreign ministers, turned to his counterparts and said:

“Gentleman, you are trying to negotiate something you will never be able to negotiate. But, if negotiated, it will not be ratified. And if ratified, it will not work. Au revoir et bonne chance.”

Whether or not they were ever actually said, the remarks are widely believed to have been said, and in many ways sum up what many in the UK have always thought: that the EU should never have been created, was always doomed to fail, and will fall apart at any minute. You can read articles to this effect practically any day in the Daily Telegraph.

The post-war Labour politician Nye Bevan once said: “You don’t have to gaze into a crystal ball when you can read an open book.” The “open book” is Michael Gove`s speech of April 2016. Today, Gove is one of the most powerful cabinet ministers in Johnson´s government.

Like Frost´s Brussels speech Gove´s speech is also full of heroic assumptions. This was the speech in which he said that the “day after we vote to leave we hold all the cards and we can choose the path we want.” He also said that the UK should be in no hurry to trigger the Article 50 process and that before doing so “…Preliminary, informal, conversations would take place with the EU to explore how best to proceed.” We know how all that worked out.

It was also in this speech that Gove made the disingenuous claim that

There is a free trade zone stretching from Iceland to Turkey that all European nations have access to, regardless of whether they are in or out of the euro or EU. After we vote to leave we will remain in this zone. The suggestion that Bosnia, Serbia, Albania and the Ukraine would remain part of this free trade area – and Britain would be on the outside with just Belarus – is as credible as Jean-Claude Juncker joining UKIP…. Agreeing to maintain this continental free trade zone is the simple course and emphatically in everyone’s interests.

Of course, there is no such zone. But it is worth reading the speech in full because, in the words of the song, it is a “long, long way from there to here”, from what Gove was predicting in 2016 to what he is now telling businesses is going to happen from January 2021 onwards.

But what I want to highlight is Gove´s remarks on the “domino effect” on the EU that he believed would result from Brexit. Given his unbounded belief that Brexit would be all sunny uplands, he said:

What will enrage, and disorientate, EU elites is the UK’s success outside the Union. Regaining control over our laws, taxes and borders and forging new trade deals while also shedding unnecessary regulation will enhance our competitive advantage over other EU nations. Our superior growth rate, and better growth prospects, will only strengthen. Our attractiveness to inward investors and our influence on the world stage will only grow. 

More importantly, Brexit Britain burning brightly, while it would “provoke both angst and even resentment among EU elites” would “send a very different message to the EU’s peoples.”

They will see that a different Europe is possible. It is possible to regain democratic control of your own country and currency, to trade and co-operate with other EU nations without surrendering fundamental sovereignty to a remote and unelected bureaucracy. And, by following that path, your people are richer, your influence for good greater, your future brighter.

Gove imagined Brexit would spark a democratic revolution across Europe.

So – yes there will be “contagion” if Britain leaves the EU. But what will be catching is democracy. There will be a new demand for more effective institutions to enable the more flexible kind of international cooperation we will need as technological and economic forces transform the world.

Gove went on to say:

For Britain, voting to leave will be a galvanising, liberating, empowering moment of patriotic renewal… But for Europe, Britain voting to leave will be the beginning of something potentially even more exciting – the democratic liberation of a whole Continent … If we vote to leave we will have – in the words of a former British Prime Minister – saved our country by our exertions and Europe by our example.

There is no other reasonable way to read these passages other than as a call for the disintegration of the EU. For other countries to follow the Brexit path and reclaim their national sovereignty, which Gove believes to have been lost to the EU.

Four years on from June 2016 there has been no domino effect. In fact, the evidence suggests the contrary and that the peoples of Europe are more supportive of the EU than ever. Which is not to say that the EU is not without its problems. It is riven with them. But, for that matter, so is America and China and no one is suggesting that the answer to these problems is the breakup of the US or China.

If anything, the next breakup could be of the UK itself. The Johnson government, in the grip of English nationalism, will do well to keep Scotland in the Union and Norther Ireland will march to its own dynamics.

Does Gove, who now, more than in 2016, sits at the heart of the UK’s government still believe that Brexit will and, more importantly, should lead to the breakup of the EU? If so, is his view shared by others in the UK government?

Michael Gove and others who think as he does are perfectly entitled to hold the views they do. There is nothing undemocratic or illegitimate about these views.

Believing that Europe would be better off as a collection of fully sovereign nation states cooperating on a case by case basis was where the UK began its European journey back in the early 1950s.  It is just that the rest of Europe did not agree then and does not agree now.

But Gove´s views will make the negotiation of any deal between the EU and the UK all the more difficult. When one party to a negotiation believes that the other party should not even exist, it can make discussions fraught.

The Brexit negotiations between the EU and the UK will not just be about trade issues, such as tariffs, quotas, rules of origin and all the other mundane stuff that go into such talks. They will be infused by very different, and opposing, ideological views about the role of sovereignty and the European Union in our shared European space.

Negotiations around existential issues of this nature to not lend themselves to easy solutions.

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