Friday, 19 July 2019

Britain's Brexit Crisis

Nick Robinson made a reasonable program on the disastrous post-Brexit period that has delivered the UK a constitutional crisis like no other. What it showed was a catalogue of errors by the Tories and others, which Robinson helpfully documented here. For convenience I repeat the list here, with brief notes from me:

1. The UK had no plan for Brexit

Leavers had no detailed plan for Brexit, just vague aspirations. Vote Leave, the official campaign, claimed we could have our cake and eat it, by retaining access to the Single Market while forging our own trade deals and not paying contributions as members of the EU. Leave.EU were less keen on the Single Market, but Farage talked up the possibility of pursuing the 'Norway' option; Norway are in the EFTA/EEA.

This highlights one of the major problems with the 2016 referendum. In normal democratic votes whoever wins is authorised to implement what the public voted for, subject to parliamentary scrutiny, with the possibility of voting out those who do the implementation if things don't turn out as promised. The man who arranged the referendum jumped ship immediately after the referendum and many leading Leave campaigners were not part of the Government nor likely ever to be included. In other words, any promises made during the campaign could be made with impunity, and without any democratic correction.

2. The EU did have a plan - a plan for its own survival

Of course. Brexit represents an existential threat to the institution. But there is a tension between making Brexit difficult (to dissuade Frexit, Grexit etc) and the need to minimise disruption to the EU. So they were always bound to be helpful, but not too helpful. This, it seems to me, has been borne out throughout the negotiations.

3. "Brexit means Brexit" but what on earth did that mean?

This is similar to no. 1, but highlights Theresa May making the exact same mistake the Leavers made: having no detailed plan for leaving.

4. The first rule of politics - you have to be able to count

Theresa May should never have called a General Election.

5. The clock was always ticking

Parliament should not have triggered Article 50 until the UK had agreed a detailed plan for leaving. This seems so obvious now one wonders how Parliament could have been so naive. Once the clock was ticking without an agreed plan, any problems with agreeing a plan internally would take time away from negotiating with the EU. And, sure enough, most of the 2 years after Article 50 has been spent with the various Leave factions with access to Theresa May - the ERG, the DUP, and the more moderate wing of the Tory party (she has refused to listen to anyone else) - squabbling about the detailed plan for leaving.

6. No deal was an empty threat

The Leave argument goes something like this:

P1) To effectively push one's demands in a negotiation, one needs to demonstrate that the consequences of not getting those demands are worse than walking away from the deal.

P2) Not getting the backstop removed from the Withdrawal agreement is worse than No Deal.*

C) No Deal must remain a credible consequence to effectively push one's demands.

There are at least three problems with this.

P2 is clearly false from the economic point of view. Leavers would probably argue that the politics trumps the economics here, with the principle of freedom overriding the economics, but I doubt a majority of the country would agree.

P2 also contradicts another, connected, Leaver narrative: that No Deal is overridingly bad for the EU.  This leads to Leavers claiming that No Deal will be great for the UK, whilst simultaneously bad for the EU. But the economic effect of No Deal is smaller on the EU than the UK (proportionately, and maybe in toto) while the politics of the situation do seem to overwhelm the economic consequences from the EU point of view.

This leads to a more important objection, to my mind, and one that I've not seen raised explicitly (although I may have missed it). It is that this argument (if accurate and sound) would apply to the EU side too. To effectively push their demands, they could threaten a No Deal. And it seems to me, this is a much more credible threat coming from the EU. A No Deal will cause much less disruption to the EU than to the UK, so their P2* (Getting the backstop removed from the WA is worse than No Deal)  has a much lower bar to pass than the UK's P2. Removing the backstop threatens the integrity of the Single Market and the Good Friday agreement. True, No Deal threatens the Good Friday agreement too, but it doesn't threaten the integrity of the Single Market.

The Single Market is the cornerstone of the EU, so it's hard to see any consequence outweighing a threat to that, so of course the EU would prefer a No Deal to dropping the Backstop. And see also the point made by Frans Timmermans in no. 10 below, regarding the historical backdrop of the EU.  So, in fact, according to Leaver logic, the EU should threaten the UK with a No Deal!

I think it's a measure of how well the EU has treated the UK during Brexit negotiations that it has not seriously done this yet (maybe Macron has floated it?), but it may just be a matter of time. I'm sure they are worried about the political consequences of 'inflicting' No Deal on the UK.

*There are other problems with the WA, but let's assume for simplicity that the backstop is the only one.

7. The Irish border issue just wouldn't go away

In discussion with one or two Brexit friends, it's clear to me that the English aren't that bothered about the Good Friday agreement. They would rather break up the Union than not Brexit.

I think this is a grave mistake because, whilst I think a united Ireland is inevitable ultimately, we don't want to disturb the fragile peace that rules in Northern Ireland currently. A disorderly Brexit would probably mean a disorderly break up of the Union, with all the terrible consequences that might bring.

8. The EU dreamed that the UK might change its mind

This doesn't seem to me to be a 'thing that stopped Brexit happening', so I won't comment on this.

9. MPs couldn't agree on anything

This leads directly from no. 1 and no. 3. Without a defined mandate from the 2016 Referendum chaos reigned!
"Parliament is and has been deadlocked for one simple reason," says Julian Smith. "Large groups of MPs have been prepared to gamble that they could force the outcome they wanted - a harder Brexit or another referendum or a general election - rather than backing Theresa May's deal."

10. It was all a terrible misunderstanding

Leavers consistently misunderstood what the EU was about; ironically (given recent claims that Brexit isn't about the economics) they said that economics would force the EU to give us a good deal ("Within minutes of a vote for Brexit the CEO’s of Mercedes, BMW, VW and Audi will be knocking down Chancellor Merkel’s door demanding that there be no barriers to German access to the British market.", as David Davis wrote). But as Frans Timmermans says:
If the only goal of the EU is this market obviously you could think that the German car industry could force the German government to comply with the demands coming out of London, but for Germany the EU is much, much more than a market. It's their destiny, it's not revisiting the horrors of history so even the car industry itself understands that this is fundamentally more important than selling cars to the United Kingdom.

I have thought for some time now that we are heading for a No Deal exit, and the change of Prime Minister makes that possibility even more likely. My hope is that some fudge is eventually agreed upon, because No Deal is the ultimate Lose Lose as far as I can see, and almost any fudge is preferable!

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