Friday, 25 August 2017

The latest position papers: where are we now?

The slew of government Brexit papers has continued this week, with much accompanying comment. I have the sense that, in very general terms, the quality of comment and debate about Brexit is improving compared with that during the Referendum. Admittedly, that is a fairly low base to judge by and in any case it is ridiculous that we are only now – perhaps since the election - beginning to have anything like the kind of national conversation that should have happened before and immediately after the vote. When, during the campaign, was there any detailed discussion of what leaving would mean in terms of, for example, data protection, customs or dispute resolution?

Even now, it is shameful that the government are keeping secret the some fifty Brexit impact assessments they have made. As Molly Scott Cato asks, writing on politics.co.uk, what is the government scared of us knowing? Not, I think it’s fair to assume, that the assessments show that the impact is going to be positive.

With all of this activity it is hard to keep abreast of developments, although the Institute for Government has provided a short, useful primer and there are many good discussions of the new position papers available – for example Peter Holmes on the continuity of goods paper on the UK Trade Policy Observatory site and Ian Dunt on the dispute resolution (‘ECJ’) paper, again on politics.co.uk. These, the paper on data protection, and last week’s papers on customs and on the Irish border (which I discussed here) are, taken together, beginning to indicate where government thinking now lies.

I put it that way, because it’s hard to escape the impression that this is still an internally-focussed exercise, concerned more with creating some consensus within the government, the Tory Party and perhaps the British media than with the EU negotiations per se. As Peter Foster in the Daily Telegraph (£) argues, the position papers do not really set out much in the way of concrete positions as opposed to vague ambitions.

That is my sense, too. It’s almost as if the UK is saying ‘this is what we want’ and expecting the EU to say ‘this is how we will deliver it for you’. If so, that’s unrealistic and also – especially given Brexiters’ trumpeting of sovereignty – slightly demeaning, and as Steve Peers has argued on a twitter thread today there is a more general lack of realism on display in the way David Davis, in particular, is approaching the negotiations.

The dispute resolution paper was perhaps the most important, and most widely discussed, because it seems to mark some retreat from May’s reckless ECJ ‘red line’ by implicitly accepting some kind of continuing role for the ECJ if only indirectly (albeit that this was also implicit in the White Paper), and even seems to imply that use of the EFTA court might be acceptable to the UK. If that is the case, it removes one significant barrier to the UK remaining in the single market. At all events the paper could be read as a slight softening of Brexit or at least as a slightly more pragmatic approach.

The most interesting thing to me, therefore, has been to see that criticism from the ultras in the Tory party has been very muted and in some cases absent. Either they don’t understand the implications of the paper (which wouldn’t be a great surprise) or they have been brought on board with this new, if still limited, pragmatism. If so, that is a very striking development.

The overriding message of the papers, including that on dispute resolution, is that there is an attempt, driven perhaps by the civil service, to keep as much as possible of existing arrangements in place. This also betokens pragmatism (as well as prompting the obvious question: so why leave?). But it is difficult to determine whether this is indeed the beginning of a move to a softer Brexit (what is called a crème brûlée Brexit in Jon Worth’s amusing list of some twenty (!) variants of Brexit, i.e. hard on the outside but soft on the inside) or whether it is a re-hash of a ‘have cake and eat it’ Brexit.

Time will tell. But time is what we don’t have. It really cannot be said often enough how crazily irresponsible the government have been in triggering Article 50 before doing even the relatively limited preparatory work shown in the position papers, much later and in much less detail than the EU (again, we shouldn’t forget this; the UK began the negotiations with no position papers at all). And of course then promptly calling an election, stalling the process. So we are now five months into the Article 50 period with – in effect – only thirteen months of negotiation time to go. And time is running out in another sense, with almost daily reports of economic (and human) damage, for example to investment, and with sterling now nearing Euro parity. As ever, for a good, up to date, round up of the mounting damage, see the Brexit Record site.

There is, however, a much more malign interpretation of what is happening. It’s that by presenting these rather vague position papers – and yet still not saying anything much that is useful on Citizens’ Rights or anything at all about the ‘exit bill’ – that the stage is being set for the Brexit government to say that they have tried to reach an amicable solution with the EU who have spurned our advances so there is no choice but to walk out with no deal. That might be the implication of the report in today’s Sun of government sources saying that they have proposed reasonable solutions but these have been ‘thrown back in our faces’.

As with so much else, it’s impossible to know if this is just posturing for the pro-Brexit press and public or serious stuff. If so, then we’re in line for a ‘kamikaze’ Brexit. I find it difficult to believe that any government would entertain so damaging a policy, and it would encounter major parliamentary opposition.  But it would certainly explain the ultra-Brexiters’ acceptance of the breaching of the ECJ red line.

So having begun this post by saying that there are signs of improved comment and debate about Brexit we are, even so, still in the absurd situation of not knowing what the government are really trying to do. Or, indeed, whether they really know, themselves.

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