As the Conservative Party contest to select a new party leader, who will also become Britain’s next prime minister, drags itself through these hot, dog days of August, Brexit barely gets a mention.
Except for the repeated assertion from both contenders, Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, and Rishi Sunak, a former chancellor, that a bill currently before parliament will magically solve all issues associated with the Northern Ireland Protocol. Everyone who is not a member of the Tory Party knows it will result in a trade war with the EU and ice-cold relations with the US. (See here for an explanation of the Northern Ireland issue by Anand Menon from The UK in a Changing Europe think-tank).
It is the last thing the UK needs as it faces into a winter of unprecedented energy price hikes, a cost-of-living crisis, and pressure on health and social services. Inflation is now predicted to hit 18% next January. Continue reading →
Over the holiday break I read Gavin Barwell’s Chief of Staff, Notes from Downing Street. As a tale of intrigue, vengeance, backstabbing, delusions (multiple) and incompetence (widespread) it could hardly be bettered.
As you read through the book one thing becomes clear, beyond doubt. The Brexit fights in the cabinet and the wider Tory party that Barwell documents were fights for the ideological soul of the party.
For the most ardent Brexiters, leaving the EU was a means to an end. The end was the completion of what the regarded as the Thatcher revolution, a revolution to turn the UK into a low tax, lightly regulated, entrepreneurial driven economy. Shaking off the shackles of Brussels would allow this to happen. Britannia Unbound. Nigel Farage, one of the main drivers of Brexit, said as much a couple of days ago in an article in the Daily Telegraph, which called for a Thatcher-like leader to replace Boris Johnson.
Ranged against the ultra-Brexiters were the economic pragmatists, Tories who accepted the decision to leave the EU but wanted to do so in such a way as to minimise economic damage. But they were never certain how to do this. They were groping in the dark. Because no country had ever left a prosperous trade bloc before, recreating a border with that bloc which would put new barriers to trade in place, while trying to ensure that there would be no economic costs to so doing. Keep all the benefits, avoid all the obligations. Johnson was not the only one who believed that there was cake to be had for free. They all did.
It is almost an iron law of politics that where there is doubt and uncertainty extremists will be only too willing to claim that they, and they alone, have the answers. The pendulum of politics will swing in their direction. This is what happened with Brexit.
This is the first BEERG Brexit Blog I have posted here since my last “semi-final” one about three months back. As I said in June/July I do not intend to continue with the regular almost weekly briefings, but I may occasionally post some more reflective pieces here, from time to time.
An American friend asked me recently: “Tom, do you think the UK will re-join the EU in the near future?”
My answer was simple. No, not now, and not for a very long time. If ever. But surely, they said, if Labour gets into government it will start talking to the EU? Its members are pro-EU. Yes, it will, but it will not look to re-join. Quite frankly, Labour does not know what it wants. It has no European policy worth talking of.
It walks in fear in the shadow of Brexit. Brexit has framed the debate
Since the end of WWII, when European integration began to be seriously discussed as a way to avoid further wars between the great nations of the continent, one or other of the two major UK parties, the Conservatives and Labour, at one time or other, was broadly in favour of closer European cooperation. However, even when well disposed, they were generally opposed to the limited pooling of sovereignty that continental Europeans appeared to be considering.
This is my last regular Brexit Briefing… though I reserve the right to publish the occasional update over the months ahead.
Because this is the last of the regular (by regular I mean almost weekly) briefings, it is longer than usual. Over the past 5 years I have written about 130 briefings that follow the twists and turns of the Brexit saga, as various UK actors came and went upon the stage, generally full of sound and fury, but often signifying little.
My little offerings were nothing compared to those of Chris Grey or Tony Connelly but people seemed to like them, for all their shortcomings.
Brexit and Borders
For all the twists and turns, for all the complications, the story of Brexit is a simple story of the UK trying to have its cake and eat it, of trying to have all the benefits of access to the internal European market with none of the obligations. This it has singularly failed to achieve. For the first time since WWII a western European country has decided to rebuild business, trade and travel borders between itself and its single biggest export market in the name of a reasserted national sovereignty.
The extent to which these borders have been rebuilt has been hidden from full view by Covid and the severe restrictions on international travel. But as the tide of Covid recedes, the nakedness of the new restrictions will quickly become clear. Landing at an EU airport British travellers will no longer be in the fast-track “EU citizens” queue and will need their passports to be valid for a further six months.
They may also be asked to show proof of health insurance and the financial means to cover their stay. It will become increasingly difficult to organise last-minute business trips, on which a great deal of services exports depend. Queueing always takes time, eats into your holiday, adds costs to your business trip.
Over the past week I have been organising a webinar for BEERG members on the proposed EU Directive on gender pay transparency. The proposed Directive aims
“…to strengthen the application of the principle of equal pay for equal work or work of equal value between men and women through pay transparency and enforcement mechanisms”. (See the EU proposal here)
While writing the webinar announcement, I noted that:
“this would be the first EU employment law Directive that, once adopted, would not apply to post-Brexit Britain.”
As I wrote this sentence a thought occurred to me: Is this entirely true? From this thought sprung two important questions:
Could the new Directive apply in Northern Ireland because of the Protocol?
And, if so, how could that be done?
Now, let me say straightaway that I have no idea what the answers to these two questions might be. And, I am fairly certain, nor does anyone else. That’s because we have never been here before.
In a speech delivered last week, John Whittingdale MP, the United Kingdom’s Minister of State for Media and Data, told a conference of Privacy Laws & Business that he welcomed:
… the European Commission’s February publication of draft data adequacy decisions for the UK, which rightly reflect our high data protection standards and paves the way for their formal approval.
The draft decisions will now be shared with the European Data Protection Board for a non-binding opinion and the European Parliament before being presented to Member States for formal approval. I urge the EU to fulfil its commitment in the agreed declaration and complete the process promptly.
Whittingdale’s comments came at the end of a speech in which he talked about the UK’s plans to use data to drive economic development. He also talked about the UK’s plans to expand the list of countries to which the UK will grant a “data adequacy” decision, which means that personal data can be seamlessly transferred to such countries from the UK.
Because it can never be done. Not for as long as the UK sits 50km off the European mainland and does 50% of its business with Europe. Not when the island of Ireland sits behind it – and the north east corner of that island is contested political ground.
Brexiteers may wish the UK was in the middle of the Pacific, as far away from Europe as possible, but that is not going to happen any time soon. Actually, it is never going to happen.
Brexit, for the Brexiteers, is a labour of Sisyphus. Just when they think they have pushed the boulder of absolute sovereignty to the top of the hill it rolls back again to the bottom requiring yet another heave to get Brexit over the line.
January 31. A full month into full Brexit. The UK is now completely out of the EU, out of its political, economic, and commercial structures. In Brussels jargon, it is a “third country”. Freedom of movement between the EU and the UK is now a thing of the past. New border barriers are in place, or soon will be. People, goods, service, and data now need permissions to cross this new border.
The new border barriers have come as a shock to many in the UK who seemed to think that a “free trade agreement” between the EU and the UK would leave things much as they were before. When you have spent much of your adult life living in the open European space that the EU has created through a mesh of agreements between its member states you can easily come to assume that this open space is the natural order of things. Except that it is not.
It was back in 1972. I had joined the Workers Union of Ireland, now part of SIPTU, as a trainee official. Full of naïve, student radicalism. Impatient to change the world.
I was assigned to learn my trade with an old-time official named Paddy.
Paddy was had risen through the union ranks from a shop-floor worker, to shop-steward, to full-time official. He was no intellectual, but he was full of what we would nowadays call “street-smarts”. An old-fashioned, working class union official whose heroes were Larkin, Connolly, and Bevan. Marx and Lenin didn’t come into it.
At the time, Paddy was in discussions about the renewal of a two-year agreement with a major food company. I was the junior bag carrier.