Friday, 26 May 2017

Brexiters in denial: we didn't mean 'that' or 'you'

Because of the General Election there is not much Brexit news to write about, although there are daily reports of Brexit causing companies and sectors to be in difficulty or pulling out, losses of vital EU staff, falling growth, and rising inflation. In fact there is not a single example of something good happening which would not have happened had it not been for Brexit. Even the paltry crumb of comfort that the falling pound helps exports turns out to be minimal.

The General Election hiatus is also bad news in that it represents a waste of what everyone agrees is the already inadequate 24 month time frame for the Article 50 exit negotiations. It means that at least two of those months are being squandered. To put it another way; suppose that you had a vital task to complete and had just 12 days to do it. You and everyone else knows that 12 days is way too little. So you begin your 12 days by spending a day in bed. That’s what Britain is doing.

It’s not as if there was any compulsion to trigger A50 at the end of March. It was the government’s choice to do that, and then almost immediately call an election. In some peculiar way we seem to have decided, both as a nation and in our government, to start doing incredibly stupid, self-damaging things.

Anyway, since we are in that hiatus, I am going to write more today about Brexiter logic – or, rather, illogic – because I think it is going to become an increasingly important issue once the negotiations start. I’ve written before about Brexiter illogic in terms of them thinking any piece of evidence to ‘prove’ that they were right. That’s quite easy to demonstrate from the public statements of leading Brexiters, but here I want to talk about something much more nebulous, which I’ve observed mainly in online discussion forums and social media.

There is the strange sense from those who argue most vociferously for Brexit that, somehow, Brexit won’t change anything. For example, I’ve seen Brexiters ridicule the idea that leaving the EU could mean needing visas to travel to the EU or that it could mean restrictions on air travel within the EU. Or that security cooperation with EU countries would be diminished. Or that European fruit and vegetables might be less easily sourced. Or that British people would face restrictions on retiring in EU countries. Or, possibly the most ubiquitous since the referendum, leave voters saying to their friends and neighbours from EU countries: ‘oh, but we didn’t mean you when we said there were too many immigrants’.

I don’t think that these things are necessarily to do with the idea that Britain can ‘cherrypick’ some parts of the EU that they like. Rather, what underlies such sentiments is two related things. One is a taking for granted of the familiar accoutrements of modern life without realising that they are the product of extensive, albeit largely invisible, institutional arrangements. So of course ‘nowadays’ planes fly us to wherever we want without restrictions, as if this were not the outcome of complex agreements such as the European Common Aviation Area (ECAA), and ‘of course’ we can travel visa-free in Europe, as if that were not the outcome of freedom of movement rights.

In some ways, Brexiters, who despise Euro technocrats and bureaucrats and rail against extra-national decision making, also treat it as an act of nature that there are Europe-wide regulatory systems which, on Brexit, British citizens will be excluded from. The related underlying issue is that for many Brexiters the vote to ‘take back control’, with all its emotional resonance, was not thought about in concrete legal or institutional terms but as a kind of symbolic, feel-good act. That, indeed, is the implication of the Brexit White Paper which affirms (para 2.1) that sovereignty was never lost by EU membership but that “it has not always felt like that”.

The problem is that both the assumption that familiar freedoms are an act of nature and the symbolism of taking back control are now in collision with the reality of leaving the legal institutions of the EU. This isn’t going to be a matter of assumption or symbolism: it will have hard, concrete effects. It will be no good saying to your EU neighbour that ‘you didn’t mean her’ when she quits her job as a Paediatric Consultant and your child is ill. It will be no good saying that ‘of course, they will never introduce visas to go on holiday to Spain’ when you have chosen not to be a part of ‘them’.

One reason why this situation has come about is because of the way that the Leave campaign chose to respond to what they invariably called ‘Project Fear’. Rather than accept that there would be adverse consequences of leaving the EU but that these were, in their view, worth accepting, the leave campaign hyperbolized so as to dismiss those consequences. Thus, to take the most obvious example, when remainers talked about the EU’s role in keeping peace in Europe, the leavers said ‘ah, so World War Three will break out if we leave’ – making a perfectly reasonable claim into a ludicrous one that could then be dismissed. It was the same with travel. When remain warned about restrictions, leave hyperbolized that to say ‘ah, so you’ll never be able to go on holiday if we leave’. The legacy of that, now, is that when WW3 has not broken out and the end of foreign travel is not in prospect, Brexiters taunt remainers with the claims that the latter never, in fact, made. But that in turn means that Brexiters still believe that leaving the EU doesn’t make any difference at all.

From this mixture of lack of realism about EU institutions, symbolic understanding of leaving, and dishonesty about the consequences of leaving flows a great danger. As the realities of what Brexit means kick in, the leaver mindset that leaving ‘didn’t mean that’ or ‘shouldn’t mean that’ or ‘needn’t mean that’ is morphing into a belief that ‘the EU is making it mean something that it doesn’t, or shouldn’t or needn’t’. So whereas a rational response would be to say that by voting to leave leavers have chosen the consequences, what is emerging is the punishment narrative that Brexiters are already beginning to deploy to avoid taking responsibility for the consequences of their decision.

Although I have said that the sentiments discussed in this post are more obvious amongst grassroots Brexiters than their leaders, traces are visible amongst those leaders. For example, Nigel Farage recently ranted about the idea that British people would no longer be able to travel to Europe in response to point made by Guy Verhofstadt that Brexit would be likely to mean restrictions to travel. On the one hand, it was a hyperbolization (it wasn’t the effect claimed), on the other it was used to imply that, despite Brexit, ‘nothing would change’. Similarly, David Davis has recently opined that key EU regulatory agencies, the European Medicines Agency and the European Banking Authority, could stay in London post-Brexit (as if Brexit ‘made no difference’) whilst the Brexit press depicts the loss of those agencies as ‘Brexit Punishment’ (as if Britain hadn’t chosen to leave the EU or ‘didn’t mean that’ when it did).

Once this unnecessary election is over the Article 50 negotiations will start and the consequences of Brexit will become ever clearer and the cries of ‘EU punishment’ will get ever louder. It will then be vital to remind leave voters that whatever they may have thought that voting to leave the EU meant, what it actually meant – it seems extraordinary to have to write this - was something very simple: leaving the EU. It will be a rich irony, given the months in which this absurd slogan was deployed to scarify remainers, that Brexiters will need to learn the rather brutal truth that, indeed, Brexit means Brexit.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

What size of Tory majority should remainers hope for?

The best outcome of the election from a remainer point of view is obvious: a parliament with a majority of SNP, LibDems, Greens and Plaid Cymru. Arguably, and with many caveats, the next best thing would be a Labour majority because although Labour are pusillanimous and confused about Brexit, and have a leader who appears to be at best uninterested in and at worst in favour of Brexit, there would be many anti-Brexit MPs in place.

But if we assume that both these scenarios are highly unlikely and that the result is almost certain to be a Tory majority then the question is: what size of Tory majority is best for remainers? Given the current tightening of the opinion polls the range of possibilities now looks to be quite wide, between 40 and over 100. Judged solely from the point of view of being against Brexit, which is better?

Let’s leave aside Theresa May’s wholly spurious argument – which even she cannot believe – that a large majority will in some way help Britain to ‘get a good deal’ by ‘strengthening her hand’ in negotiations. That has rightly been denounced as nonsense from all sides to the Brexit spectrum because the EU will simply be negotiating with the British government, without regard for or interest in its domestic majority. If anything, a small majority can help in negotiations because, as the astute Tory journalist Ian Birrell argues, it enables the government to argue that it could not get the deal through parliament. But, really, it’s irrelevant except as an electoral ploy.

For remainers, the main argument for favouring a large Tory majority is the possibility which I floated in a previous post, and which some media commentators have also advanced but others vehemently rejected, that this would enable the government to be less controlled by ultra-Brexit Tory backbenchers. There are several assumptions in that, first and foremost that May’s government will, if unhampered by the ultras, seek to advance a pragmatic Brexit. That means, so far have we gone from any kind of sense, avoiding a ‘no deal’ crash out. There are some signs that this assumption is valid, since the Tory manifesto seems to accept that there will have to be compromises, the payment of some kind of ‘exit bill’, and is muted on CJEU jurisdiction. But it cannot be taken for granted, since May’s position is so unclear.

The other assumption is that the new intake in the event of the big Tory majority would not augment the numbers of (ultra) Brexiters. This assumption is also, I think, a reasonable one if the first assumption is also correct. If it is the case that May will seek to avoid an ultra Brexit then the new intake is likely to go along with that. Firstly because there is some evidence that Conservative Central HQ have sought to parachute May loyalists into safe seats to detriment of Brexiters (Daniel Hannan’s failure to be selected in Aldershot being a high profile example). Secondly because, in any case, new and ambitious MPs are always more biddable than old salt Brexiters like Redwood, Cash and Duncan Smith, whatever their personal views may be.

An additional argument for a large Tory majority is that it would be more likely to lead to a new Labour leader, who might be more anti-Brexit than Corbyn. Yvette Cooper, Clive Lewis, Chuka Umanna or Keir Starmer are all possibilities. But, of course, even if that happened it would have little effect, at least in the crucial period of the Article 50 negotiations.

A smaller Tory majority, by contrast, might be good from an anti-Brexit perspective in that it would bring into play whatever is left of the Tory remainers. Admittedly, they have been utterly feeble so far (with the honourable exception of Ken Clarke, who will most likely be in the next Parliament) but they might be emboldened by the combination of a small majority and the unfolding, inevitable, rising tangible costs of Brexit. Moreover, a smaller majority would make it much harder for May to claim – as she and the Brexit press clearly want to – an overwhelming Brexit mandate in which all opposition is deemed to be ‘sabotage’ and against the ‘will of the people’. That would be important not just, or even primarily, in terms of parliamentary arithmetic but in terms of the legitimacy of wider voices in civil society, business, academia and so on. It would make the Brexit McCarthyism that I have posted about previously a bit less potent.

Embedded within that is a peculiar unintended consequence of the way that the Tories called the election and the manner in which they have so far fought it. From the beginning, the assumption was that a huge majority was all but certain. This means, though, that a perfectly strong result, and one much better than achieved by Cameron in 2015 – a majority of 40, say – would in some sense be construed as a failure. In fact, given the extravagant predictions, anything less than a 100 majority will be a kind of a let-down. At the same time, the vagueness of the Tory manifesto both in general (the lack of costings) and on Brexit in particular, which might give freedom of action if the majority is large, will sap legitimacy if the majority if small. For Brexit that could matter especially in the pro-remain House of Lords, which would be wary of defying a landslide Commons majority and/or very specific manifesto pledges.

I am still not sure what the answer to this question is, partly because there are so many other imponderables – for example, a small Tory majority with a much enhanced LibDem representation might be quite different to a larger Tory majority with less LibDems, and the extent to which the SNP hold their seats will matter, as will the vote in Northern Ireland. But with all that said I suppose that the least-worst outcome is a small Tory majority which could at least strike some kind of deal with the EU and get it through parliament in defiance of the Tory ultra Brexiters with the support of the other parties. That shows, though, how shrivelled and limited the options for Britain now are: none of them are good, it is just a matter of the bad, the worse or the catastrophic.

A final thought, about what may well become a big issue in the future. Suppose that the next Tory government negotiate a deal which contains some compromises on issues like free movement of people, ECJ jurisdiction and budget payments. It would, of course, be a far less good deal than staying in the EU or even than a soft Brexit of staying in the single market. But it would be better than the ultra-Brexit ‘no deal’. In that scenario, the agreed deal would have to be ratified by the European Parliament, in what could well be a close vote. UKIP would by that date be (presumably) irrelevant within UK politics, having been outflanked by May in this election, but would still have MEPs. Is it, then, possible that they would join what could be a successful vote to veto the deal? And, if so, what an irony that a Brexit endorsed by the British parliament might be undone by the European Parliament courtesy of UKIP.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

The Brexit election: but what about Brexit?

Theresa May framed the calling of the general election in terms of Brexit, but what is truly remarkable is in how little it is actually being discussed. You have to take a step back to see just how peculiar this is. Whatever side you were on in the referendum, leaving the EU is the biggest national event since the Second World War – far bigger than the decision to join – and it’s also possibly the most unusual political event in any developed democracy in living memory. When else has such a country decided unilaterally to re-write almost all its foreign and economic policy, and to seek to simultaneously detach and re-attach itself on unknown terms to the global trade system?

In those circumstances, one might expect an intense debate about the ins and outs of what Brexit will mean and how it will be pursued. It is no good saying that this was settled by last year’s referendum. That vote, whatever else can be said about it, only opened up new issues. It was a vote to leave the EU, certainly, but it was not a vote for anything else in particular. The way it is now taken forward will affect every single area of daily life, from air travel through to nuclear waste disposal, and every industry from fishing to computer game design. And the very existence of the country as a United Kingdom will be called into question.

So where is the detailed discussion of different options and their consequences? What exactly does the government’s White Paper Brexit plan, endorsed in the Tory manifesto, mean? Is ‘no deal better than a bad deal’? How would a ‘bad deal’ be defined? What does a ‘no deal’ scenario look like? Most extraordinary of all, where is the discussion of the costs of the Brexit plan? Every single other policy, from whatever party, is relentlessly scrutinised for affordability. How will this or that spending pledge be paid for? Yet no questions at all are asked about the cost of Brexit, even though in any realistic scenario it will be in the high billions of pounds, with reductions of GDP/capita in the range of 6.3% to 9.5% according to an authoritative study by MIT. Even halve the lowest estimate, and that is an economic disaster in prospect; at the higher end, which might by the same token be an under-estimate, it will be a catastrophe.

What will the effect on employment be? How will the tax take be affected? What is the impact on that totemic issue of recent years, the fiscal deficit? What about the balance of payments? Will the UK’s credit rating be affected? Will sterling’s status as a reserve currency be affected? And what about the value of sterling, anyway? Brexit has seen a huge currency depreciation which at any other time would have been a massive election issue. So why isn’t it being talked about except, sporadically, in muted terms of rising inflation?

Beyond the economics, where is the discussion of what foreign policy looks like post-Brexit? Trump’s election, itself one of the biggest issues of recent times, even were Brexit not happening, in combination with Brexit means that Britain’s place in the world and its core alliances are all in flux. But this has barely been mentioned by any party. For that matter, one might think that the fate of the over one million Britons living in the EU and who are directly affected by Brexit would merit some significant debate – not least since at least some of them have a vote in this election. But they are hardly discussed.

That this bizarre situation is being allowed to exist is partly a matter of the failure of journalists to ask any of these questions. It is also the responsibility of the two main political parties themselves (the LibDems are certainly making Brexit central, but focus mainly on the case for a second referendum). The Tories are content to let the only Brexit-related issue be which of May or Corbyn will be able to negotiate ‘the best deal’ – with no sense whatsoever of what that deal would be. Instead, the Tory manifesto re-iterates the White Paper commitments to a form of Brexit that was neither voted for in the Referendum nor advocated by many leading leavers. That is, to leave the single market and customs union, prioritising immigration control. But there is no explanation of why this is the preferred approach, how it will work in practice even if achieved, nor what costs – financial or otherwise – it will entail, and no one bothers to ask. So, for example, the news of Tory manifesto launch was dominated by discussion of social care funding. Yet the very viability of the care system, which is heavily dependent on EU workers, is in peril because of Brexit.

Labour are simply in a mess on Brexit, without a policy position that makes any sense at all. Their manifesto statement about wanting to retain the “benefits” of the single market and customs union but without being members of either is meaningless and in consequence so are the rest of their pieties about the kind of deal they would seek if in government or even support if in opposition. Nor are they asking any significant questions of the Tories about their policy in a misguided attempt to assert that the election is not, in fact, anything much to do with Brexit. Yet all of the issues that they are mainlining on will inevitably be hugely affected by Brexit, the NHS being just one obvious example. They are not even making the point that the outgoing Tory administration has foisted the greatest instability in living memory on the UK and yet are now insisting that only the Tory party can provide ‘strong and stable’ leadership. Nor do they mention how by calling this election Theresa May has blown two out of the already tiny twenty-four month time frame for the Article 50 negotiations.

The most extraordinary things about all this is that the only half-way intellectually respectable justification put forward for Brexit was that it would mean that the British electorate could choose and dispose of its political direction of travel via the general election ballot box. But what is now in prospect is the use of that ballot box to endorse a scarcely specified, barely discussed and yet central, historic policy. Although commentators are saying that this is the first election in recent times where there has been a very clear distinction between the main parties, on the core issue of Brexit they are both committed to a virtually identical hard Brexit.

This matters hugely, because on the basis of the result – presumably, a large win for the Tories - a mandate will be claimed to enact Brexit pretty much as they want. Included in the Tory manifesto is, again, the phrase that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ – giving cover for an outcome absolutely at odds with what voters were led to expect during the referendum campaign. Yet in her manifesto launch speech the PM said that the consequences of not getting the right deal would be “dire”. So what are voters endorsing if they vote to allow ‘no deal’ to be an option?

And it is certainly not just remainers who should worry about this. It is perfectly conceivable, and consistent with the manifesto, for Brexit to entail, possibly in backdoor form, many of the regulatory and legal institutions of the EU. In fact, if that does not happen then the stated preferred aim of creating a ‘deep and special partnership’ with the EU is unachievable. It’s noteworthy that the manifesto is not even explicit about leaving the ECJ (which isn’t mentioned directly). So what are voters endorsing if they vote to allow this ‘deep and special partnership’ to be an option?

So we have an election ostensibly about, and in the middle of, the biggest strategic and economic change that this country has made in the lifetime of most voters, and with consequences which will last for decades, but the actual nature of that change is barely being talked about, certainly not at any level of detail. With this farcical election on top of a farcical referendum we drift every more rapidly not, in fact, to the jolly, trouser-dropping British farce with which this all started, but to the theatre of the absurd: nihilistic, incomprehensible, dark and slightly mad.

Addenda (19 May 2017):

1. Comments now disabled on this blog due to volumes of spam
2. My briefing, 'The Business of Brexit: What happens next?' is now available.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Brexiter (il)logic and where it could lead us

One of the most dangerous things about Brexiters is the constant re-invention of their claims. So each time one claim is falsified, it is used as ‘evidence’ that they were right after all. Equally, they use completely contradictory claims to ‘prove’ that they are right.

There are numerous examples of this. Sometimes, although now decreasingly, they say that the EU is bound to give the UK a good deal because we are (or were, before the referendum) the world’s fifth largest economy. But at the same time they criticise the EU for not having trade deals with the world’s largest economies. Sometimes they say that a deal can be done quickly. But at the same time they criticise the EU for being slow and lumbering in decision making. Sometimes they accuse the EU of riding roughshod over nation states. But when the Wallonian regional parliament seemed to be scuppering the EU-Canada trade deal they said this proved that the EU couldn’t act decisively.

Or take another set of issues. Prior to the referendum, whenever the situation of British people living in the EU was raised, they blithely said that nothing would change; now that the situation of those people is in doubt they say it proves the EU is heartless. On freedom of movement of British people generally they said that leaving the EU would make no difference as people had moved to other countries long before the EU existed. So freedom of movement rules don’t matter. Except that when talking about immigration, those same rules mean we can’t control our borders.

The overall paradigm is, first, a series of claims about how easy and/or beneficial Brexit will be, so we should leave. Then as the claims meet reality they are not abandoned, but used to claim that the EU is punishing Britain, so we should leave. Intellectually, this is completely moribund. No amount of evidence or rational argument can touch it. In fact, I think that one reason why the Remain campaign failed in the referendum was that it tried to counter the Brexiters’ claims in that way, and did not have any kind of emotionally or rhetorically powerful narrative of its own. And that, in turn, was because even most remain campaigners approached the EU in purely transactional terms, and had done for many years.

That is neither here nor there now: the referendum was lost. What is very much still relevant is that the same hermetically-sealed, evidence-proof and argument-proof logic now drives government policy. And it drives it in one direction only: towards a more and more calamitous form of Brexit. Each time reality demolishes one of their claims (the most ubiquitous, perhaps, and the most absurd, certainly, being that German car makers would ensure a good deal in double quick time) the Brexiters do not acknowledge that they were wrong, but move on to a harder position. So, first, we can somehow be in the single market but with no strings attached. That’s proved wrong. So it will be a trade deal. Now that that is looking increasingly difficult they move to saying that no deal would be perfectly fine. And, in any case, it’s all the EU’s fault and ‘just goes to prove’ that we are right to leave.

There’s no way out of this kind of thinking. It is completely circular and unfalsifiable. There is no imaginable event that could shake it. Suppose the UK gets a great deal? It proves we were right to leave! Suppose we don’t? It proves we were right to leave! The same cannot be said of remainers’ logic. No doubt we are all prone to confirmation bias in the evidence we notice and put value on. But it is very easy to imagine an event that could shake remainers’ logic. If there were, indeed, a great deal for the UK – one that was as good as or even better than being in the EU - then that would be it. Remain would be completely discredited.

So once you buy into Brexiter logic, there’s no going back and there’s also only one way of going forward. Harder and harder. Nothing can be said, nothing can happen that will make a difference. And that Brexiter logic has now – so far as can be seen, although it is still just possible this will change – captured government right up to and including Theresa May.

That is incredibly dangerous because it is beginning to look as if the government is prepared to walk out of the EU with no deal; and even that it might be prepared to renege on its existing commitments. If that happened, it would make Britain virtually a pariah state, untrusted by other countries and unable to make agreements with them in the future. Even more dangerous, any ‘no deal’ scenario would be likely to provoke a nationalist frenzy in which internal ‘fifth columnists’ would be identified and hunted down as traitors. Who can doubt that we have a press prepared to endorse that? We can already see this possibility in some of the rhetoric of Brexiters, and it is inherent in, precisely, a logic that is impervious to reason. In those circumstances, opposition can, indeed, only be understood as sabotage.

Until recently, this would have seemed an entirely unimaginable scenario, but so too would that which we are in. It’s less than a year ago that many Brexiters were advocating single market membership, and it’s only a few months since a no deal exit was unthinkable whereas now it is being openly championed by many leading Brexiters. In the meantime, despite their victory, they seem to be as angry as ever they were, and that anger is directed at remainers – partly for lacking the true faith but also, I suspect, from a deep but unacknowledged fear that they have made a terrible mistake. As they push harder and harder towards a mirage, with worse and worse consequences, they will get angrier and angrier with those of us who remind them of the insanity of what they are doing.

Unless something very unexpected happens in the forthcoming election, Theresa May will be in a commanding position. It may be, as I’ve argued before but feel less confident of now, that she uses it to rein in the Brexit ultras. At the least, it must be hoped that she resists the intolerance of dissent that their logic takes us to. If not, the infamous referendum claims about the dangers of Turkey will come true, albeit in reverse: Britain will follow down the path that Erdogan is taking that country.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

As the EU finalises its negotiating guidelines, it's time for Brexiters to get real

The future of Britain is going to be shaped to a far greater extent by Saturday’s EU-27 Council meeting than it will be by the June general election. That is one of the many ironies of the Brexiter mantra of ‘taking back control’, because whilst the chain of coming events was begun not by the EU but by the British referendum, the shape of those events will be very much down to the EU.

So insular has the discussion in the UK been before and since the referendum that one might think that Brexit is simply a matter of the UK formulating its demands. The EU will then fall into line because ‘it’s in their interests’ or ‘it’s in Germany’s interests’ or even because ‘it’s in German’s car industry’s interests’; and anyway because ‘we’re the world’s fifth largest economy’. There are many versions of this wishful thinking, all of them completely devoid of any understanding whatsoever of how the EU – or the world in general – operates. If it was how they think, then Britain would never have left the EU, since doing so is so far at odds with both our national and business interests.

It’s true that in the immediate aftermath of the referendum Britain might have been able to pursue a soft Brexit of single market membership. That would have taken considerable diplomatic and political skill, but it might have been achievable. Instead, everything the government has done since then has had the effect of making goodwill and room for manoeuvre disappear. And not just the government. EU leaders (and their electorates) see and have disdain for the infantile headlines of the Brexit press, and they don’t simply laugh off Farage’s oafish rudeness, on the odd occasions he turns up at the European Parliament, or Johnson’s boorish buffoonery about ‘prison guards’ and ‘Prosecco exports’.

So whilst Britain has been engaging in an orgy of stupidity and insularity, the EU has, almost since the day after the referendum, been quietly and consistently developing its stance, as explained in this excellent three-part summary of the EU’s position by David Allen Green of the FT. It is a stance that has changed very little from what was indicated before the referendum, and every leave voter who cared to could have known in broad terms what it would be. None of them can say there was no warning.

The time for wishful thinking, gutter press headlines and vapid slogans ended when Article 50 was triggered. Since then, Brexit has come face to face with reality. Donald Tusk’s immediate response was polite in tone, but uncompromisingly plain in content. Primary issues to agree would be the rights of EU citizens in the UK, the (or at least the methodology for calculating the) British exit bill for commitments already made, and Northern Ireland. Exit terms would have to be, at least, progressed first to a degree acceptable to the EU (not the UK, the EU) and only then could there be the beginning of talks on future terms, including trade. Interestingly, almost immediately the British government accepted this definition of process, even though it was exactly the opposite of what they had set out in the A50 letter, and the implications for the time frame for a trade deal that went with it. Reality bites #1.

The European Council draft negotiation guidelines in full contained greater detail, but no surprises save for the mention of Gibraltar (which I have discussed elsewhere), including emphasis that no sector-by-sector single market membership would be envisaged and that no bilateral talks between members of the EU-27 and the UK would be allowed. Again, both of these had been hoped for and even expected by the government which, again, almost immediately accepted that it would not be so. Reality bites #2.

Unless Saturday’s meeting produced something unexpected (and reports of the Luxembourg pre-meeting today suggest not) we already know that it will be likely to endorse the draft guidelines, albeit that leaks suggest some hardening, especially on financial services and on the issue of EU nationals in the UK. On the latter, this is likely to include a requirement for a quicker and simpler citizenship process and the guarantee of their legal rights. There is a particular, and instructive, symbolic importance to this. The EU is negotiating for itself and its citizens. That should seem obvious, but it points up both the determination of the EU to negotiate en bloc, and the fact that this is not going to be like all the EU negotiations of past decades where the UK has been negotiating as a member state and, very often, able to shape the nature of the EU. Now, there are very clearly two sides across the table. Reality bites #3.

The fundamental underlying issue is one that almost every EU spokesperson has made clear before and since the referendum. There will be no deal agreed by the EU in which Britain has a better situation as a non-member than it would have as a member of the EU. That logic is simple and understandable. But that does not mean that Britain has nothing to negotiate for – there are better and worse versions of a 'less good' situation than membership.

There are two great dangers for Britain now. One is that key parts of economic and social activity simply pack up and go without waiting for the outcome of the negotiations, with long-term and serious consequences. There is already evidence of an academic brain drain, with all that that implies for British pre-eminence in research, especially scientific and medical research, and its very successful university ‘export business’. Likewise, plans to move financial services jobs out of London are proceeding apace, with all that that implies for the already very eroded and fragile UK tax base and, hence, for public services.

This first danger might be minimised if the second one is avoided. To put it bluntly, Britain – and Brexiters in particular – have got to get real, and quickly. The crazy reaction to the mention of Gibraltar in the draft guidelines is an object lesson in what needs to be avoided. In particular, the danger now and in the coming months is that Brexiters in politics and the press whip up the idea that the EU is ‘punishing’ Britain for leaving. That is nonsense, and as Tusk and others have repeatedly said there is no need for punishment: Brexit is punishment enough. Brexiters of course will disagree and see Brexit as no punishment at all. Fine, but in that case accept that leaving means leaving, and that the EU will pursue its own interests which do not, now, include us, and drop any talk of being punished for a decision that you made with all the facts available to you.

This is a big ask of Brexiters, because it goes against the victim mentality that propelled them to victory in the referendum. But they need to own that victory now. They frequently complain that ‘remoaners’ are talking down the country and seek viciously to silence them. But the real damage to the country comes from Brexiters refusing to deal in a detailed, pragmatic way with the consequences of the choice they have made. Every screaming headline and every bellicose punch-drunk interview from a Brexiter politician damages us more. Taking back control requires, first, a degree of self-control and, second, an acceptance that having, in their terms, done so by winning the referendum, they now have to face the realities of what it means.

Update (30 April 2017): Finalised guidelines did, indeed, change little apart from those areas expected. In the meantime, Theresa May's talk of the EU-27 'lining up' against UK indicative of exactly the 'punishment' rhetoric I warned of.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

The Brexit election: where the opposition parties stand

It seems almost inevitable that the Tories will win the election and, probably, with an increased majority. But that is not certain. This is an election like no other, for many reasons. The scars of the referendum are not healed and, as happened in Scotland after the independence referendum, that can have big effects. Moreover, each of the main parties is positioning itself away from key elements of its core support: Tories by pursuing a Brexit agenda that liberal and pro-business Conservatives don’t endorse; Labour with a hard Left and apparently Brexit-acceptant agenda that centrists don’t want. The statistics are clear enough – 40% of 2015 Tory voters voted remain (and more than that will have envisaged soft Brexit); 65% of 2015 Labour voters voted remain.

There are many other factors in play. Party allegiance amongst voters has been breaking down for years. Some potential Tory voters will be upset by May’s reaffirmation of the overseas development budget and lack of reaffirmation of the pension triple-lock and the commitment not to raise taxes. Others will assume a Tory victory is inevitable, and so will not vote. Others still may find May’s socially awkward and distant campaigning style unappealing and, possibly, the prospect of a triumphalist win against the Labour underdog distasteful. Then again, many who voted leave are not habitual voters at all – some even believe that the referendum means that Britain has already left the EU - whereas many who voted remain are highly motivated to vote in this election, and will do so tactically to bolster their cause. It’s also unclear to what extent 2015 UKIP voters will switch to the Tories in support of hard Brexit, stick with UKIP out of mistrust of Tory Brexit credentials, or just not vote at all.

There are many possibilities and permutations, but my sense is that it is just possible that the result will not be the Tory landslide expected (we’ve certainly seen enough in recent months, from Brexit to Macron, to be wary of predictions). Whether this is true or not, what is the case is that those elected to the new parliament will be able to claim a mandate to argue for the policies they were elected on. This means that it matters what stance they take in their manifestos as it will shape what kind of freedom of action they have in the new parliament, whatever its composition.

For Tories – depending on what they say in their manifesto – that may mean being tied to the White Paper version of Brexit and make it more difficult for them to argue for a ‘no deal’ crash exit, as I argued in my previous post. Labour’s position is much less clear and – surprisingly, given the recent history of the Tory party – much more anguished. Today, their Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer has tried to clarify it, but it remains obscure and muddled (see this excellent analysis from Ian Dunt) except for offering an immediate guarantee of rights to remain for EU nationals in the UK and commitment to some of the non-market EU institutions such as Euratom.

Starmer appears to be saying that Labour would leave all negotiating options on the table, rather than following the government’s policy of ruling out single market and customs union membership. That is not unreasonable, but at the same time he is saying that Freedom of Movement of people must come to an end. If so, that makes single market membership impossible. It is just possible that what he has in mind is some negotiation of more stringent EEA emergency brake rules on immigration. That is a possibility that I outlined in an early post on this blog and, even now, it may have some mileage. Then again, the EU’s position is probably harder and less flexible than it was – partly because of the way the government has conducted itself, although a new government might have space to shift that. But Starmer isn’t, in any case, saying in terms that this is what a Labour government would seek and it’s only a possible reading of what he is implying.

Moreover, it remains very unclear whether Corbyn and McDonnell are on board with it. Corbyn says virtually nothing about Brexit and last week McDonnell was waffling on about seeking ‘tariff free access’ to the single market which goes nowhere near the issues that even the government seems, belatedly, to have understood about non-tariff barriers and regulatory harmonization. Starmer at least seems to understand what the issues are even if his articulation of them is so strangulated as to be all but incomprehensible – presumably precisely because his party leadership either does not endorse or does not understand those issues. The strong suspicion is that the leadership retain the traditional Bennite hostility of their wing of the Labour Party to the single market. And whatever their policy now, having voted to trigger A50 their anti-Brexit credentials are weak.

The LibDems Brexit policy is much clearer, but it has its own problems. They want a referendum on the final deal with the option not just of seeking a further negotiation but of reverting to EU membership. But this is less plausible than it seems. Firstly, because at the moment it is not clear whether A50 is reversible. And even if it turns out, legally, to be so, what would that mean politically? Could either the UK or the EU at the end of a long, complex and very likely acrimonious set of negotiations simply go back to the status quo ante of not just EU membership but all of the particular UK aspects of it (e.g. exemptions from Euro, Schengen)?  So even were there to be such a referendum, then assuming a Tory government the choice will be between the deal on offer or no deal at all. Since no deal at all would be catastrophic, the only viable option will be to vote for the deal on offer, no matter how bad for the UK it may be.

Thus a far more viable position to argue for would be a second referendum before negotiations get started. The argument would be something like this: ‘in June 2016 the British people voted to leave the EU. Even when you buy an insurance policy you are allowed a cooling-off period. The decision to leave the EU is a major one for our country. So we want to check that it is the decision you want and will hold a second and final referendum asking you again. But, also, last year's referendum did not ask you what you wanted to happen afterwards, so we are asking you that as well: specifically, do you want to stay in the single market or not?’

If that seems impossible given what the LibDems have already said about accepting the result of the 2016 vote then, at the very least, a more viable position than the current one would be to say: ‘in June 2016 the British people voted to leave the EU and this will be happen. But you were not asked what you wanted to government to negotiate for you after leaving, so we are asking you now whether you want to leave the single market or not?’

Clearly it is implausible that at this stage, when manifestos are being drawn up and their message has already been framed, the LibDems will change their policy in this way. Nevertheless, seeking an early vote on whether to pursue single market membership makes more sense than a late vote on exit terms. The same applies to the Greens, the SNP (although for them the issues involved are different and, in particular, bound up with the case for a second independence referendum) and other parties (such as Plaid Cymru, UUP, SDLP) which seems to want to retain single market membership on leaving the EU.

The tragedy in all this, as I have argued many times before on this blog, is that remaining in the single market and customs union would have been the most consensual and sensible way of responding to the very close referendum result whilst also honouring it. If David Cameron’s decision to call the referendum was the greatest strategic error of any modern British Prime Minister, Theresa May’s decision to interpret the result in such a partisan and damaging way must run it a close second. This election will - most likely - cement that decision, but the way that the other parties frame their stance now will shape what kind of opposition she faces.

Friday, 21 April 2017

The Brexit election: ultras beware?

Like most political surprises, the decision to call a general election already seems entirely predictable if not inevitable. It is not just the irresistible prospect of smashing the Labour Party whilst it is in chaos, it is also the possibility of killing off the UKIP threat that has haunted the Tory party for years. The latter, in fact, is one obvious dividend for Theresa May’s Damascene embrace of the hard Brexit cause. And of course a fresh election would free the government of the 2015 manifesto pledges which place so many constraints on fiscal policy.

What is less obvious is how the election relates to the Prime Minister’s overall Brexit strategy. Her stated aim of overcoming parliamentary opposition to Brexit is manifestly absurd. There has been very little such opposition and the government has easily overcome it. The sources of that opposition in the Commons, the SNP and the LibDems, will be likely to remain or even possibly to increase as a result of the election. The House of Lords might be slightly less willing to use what limited power it has in the aftermath of a general election, but as the Article 50 vote showed it was in any case reluctant to do so. As for Labour, their position insofar as it can be understood at all, seems to be identical to May’s in terms of leaving the single market and the customs union and, certainly, to present no challenge to the government at all.

Nevertheless, many Tory politicians as well as the Brexit press seem happy to parrot the line that what is in prospect is the crushing of Brexit ‘saboteurs’ and the ‘silencing’ of dissent. And, no doubt, this latest grotesque outbreak of what I have called elsewhere Brexit McCarthyism would appeal to the PM if it were likely to be successful. Her basilisk-like appearance during the House of Lords debate is testimony to that, as is the extraordinary and unnecessary length she went to in attempting to avoid an A50 vote. But she must be aware that the reasons she has given for the election don’t make any sense in terms of Brexit opposition. Instead, it’s the things that she can’t say that make her decision explicable.

As with so much else in the story of Brexit, what is at stake is the internal management of the Tory party’s longstanding splits on Europe. The smallness of the majority makes these, rather than the opposition parties, the problem. And that problem lies not with the Tory remainers, who have failed to win any concessions and been routed already, but with the ultra Brexiters. May has found, as did Cameron before her, that they cannot be appeased. Once, they just wanted to leave the EU but stay in the single market. But on winning the referendum that was not enough. Thus May embraced the hard Brexit of leaving the single market and seeking a trade deal but now finds that the ultras are pushing for no deal at all.

More specifically, ever since the White Paper was published I have thought that May’s Brexit strategy would in due course run into problems with the ultras. As I wrote at the time, the plan seems to be to re-create by different means (and at great expense) many features of the single market, and since then even the commitments on immigration seem to have been softened. Moreover, May now seems belatedly to have realised that there will have to be some form of transitional period between leaving the EU at the end of the two year A50 period and the beginning of any new deal, and to have accepted that the EU will not enter into parallel ‘exit and future’ talks. The ultras have been muted about this so far, but when the negotiations begin – especially as the first item is likely to be the exit bill – this will not last. They will then start pushing hard for the ‘no deal’ scenario that May once also entertained but has now apparently retreated from, presumably having realised that it would be an economic doomsday for Britain.

So the (for May and the Brexit press) unsayable explanation of the election is to undercut the ultras before they can undercut the government. Having campaigned and presumably won an election on the basis of the White Paper plan and not the ‘clean Brexit’ (aka ‘no deal’) which UKIP will campaign on, the ultras will find it harder to oppose May when she pursues that plan. And if, as expected, she has an increased majority then it will be difficult for them to succeed if they do try to oppose her. That assumes that the new Tory MPs are not also ultras but even if they are, junior and ambitious MPs are much easier to control than the old salt veterans of the Maastricht debates, especially by a newly installed, dominant and, reputedly, loyalty-obsessed PM.

This interpretation of what the election means is shared by many within the EU and also within financial markets, who believe it makes a softer Brexit more likely. These terms are relative, of course, in that ‘softer Brexit’ now means what used to be called hard Brexit, but it is softer than the ultra-Brexit position. This is why the pound, which has directly tracked every soft versus hard signal since last June, rose after the election was announced.

None of this is good news, except in the limited sense that indicates that May is trying to avoid the very worst case scenario that the ultra-Brexiters would force on her if they could. This seems consistent with the more general sense in recent weeks that May (and David Davis) are getting more realistic about the immense difficulties and dangers of Brexit. The plan – which the EU may or may not go along with – is a fudge which will leave both committed remainers and leavers dissatisfied but which may well be sufficient to keep the Tory party together and to satisfy enough of the electorate that Brexit is being pursued in a way which they can support or at least live with.

In that limited, tactical, sense May’s decision is an adroit one. But it may backfire. For one thing the outcome of the current election cannot be absolutely guaranteed – especially if the turnout is very low. In some ‘safe’ Tory seats where the remain vote was high, the LibDems might win and, more generally, it shouldn’t be forgotten that some 40% of those who voted Tory in 2015 also voted remain; nor that many leave voters are not habitual voters in general elections. That is highly unlikely to prevent the Tories winning but it’s certainly conceivable that the net result does not increase the government’s majority by very much. If so, May will have lost one very strong option in her arsenal as the negotiations progress, since it seems inconceivable that she could call another election within the A50 period. The ultras would then be in a strong position. On the other hand, if the outcome is a large increase in the Tory majority and if my analysis here is correct then it is a pleasing irony to think that the saboteurs May is seeking to crush are the ultra-Brexiters who are currently so enthusiastically supporting her.