Saturday, 19 August 2017

Brexit: an intellectual crisis and unknowingly pursuing the EEA

The more I think about Brexit, the more clearly I recognise that the most useful impact it has had so far has been to expose the gaping intellectual void at the heart of British politics. It's been a difficult pill to swallow for those of us who care deeply about getting the right deal for the country, but it has also been a sobering eye-opener. Shocking our democratic institutions to the core is a vital component of revitalising British democracy (the primary purpose of Brexit), much like slapping a newborn's bottom and causing it momentary distress is a necessary component to testing its response and resolve. 

I am occasionally accused by hard Brexiteers, just as I thught I'd be, of regretting my vote and abandoning principles. This isn't so. I am clearer now than I ever have been. Brexit, even in the face of its many complexities, is ultimately worth it. The problems we face in Westminster, which appear to extend beyond the realm of politicians if yesterday's IEA paper on post-Brexit trade is anything to go by, were perfectly predictable. If a nation spends forty years in the lap of a child-minder, willingly handing over pockets of sovereignty and thereby reducing its jurisdiction of domestic competency, it will gradually learn not to think about certain aspects of policy within the public domain. 

This to me stands as one of the better arguments for pursuing membership of EFTA. Britain's civil service doesn't have the infrastructural base or technical know-how to be able to deal with returning sovereignty on such a large scale. The groundwork for the reconstruction of our fisheries, for instance, will be immensely complicated. National policy won't be drafted and agreed upon in a matter of a few months. This bureaucratic minefield will, I think, represent the most significant domestic rebuild since post-war reconstruction took place in the late 1940s. 

The trouble is that the government is pursuing a course of action it deems conducive to the public mood. Number 10 thinks it can replicate the arrangements laid out within the EEA without accepting any of the drawbacks of the EEA. The best evidence of this comes from this week's published paper on future customs arrangements. As I have written, the proposals outlined by the Department for Exiting the European Union seemed to favour continued participation within the single market, and thus established customs cooperation, rather than any substantive framework for a transitional (I am forgetting which policy prescriptions are permanent and which are temporary) Customs Union agreement with the European Union. 

There is also the question of free movement, which according to referendum doctrine and large swathes of the population is the absolute red line in any potential Brexit deal. People who think this are going to be disappointed. They will swallow the convenient line that a Brexit involving compromise isn't Brexit at all, when in fact any Brexit necessarily involves compromise, due mainly to the magnitude of such a complex legal undertaking. Brexiteers are often guilty of thinking that we can just move past the single market, trading and existing without it retaining any notable economic leverage over us. 

Interestingly, the Institute for Government, who have been a refreshing source of sanity during these turbulent times, concluded a few months ago

"The scale of the administrative challenge is too great and the current immigration system should be kept until a replacement is ready to avoid disruptive changes to labour markets, the think tank has concluded. 
It also found the current process for registering EU nationals was “not fit for purpose” and the Home Office could require up to 5,000 extra civil servants to cope with large numbers of applications and appeals. "

...thus echoing my concerns about the inevitable backlog that will accompany mass restoration of policy competences. Certainly this is one of the main reasons for the current trend in advocating transitional arrangements with the EU. 

The government claims its aim is to reintroduce controls to immigration not available inside the single market. I am sceptical of this, in part due to the forgotten availability of options when tackling immigration as an EFTA member in the EEA. Article 112 of the EEA Agreement states that "if serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties of a sectorial or regional nature liable to persist are arising, a Contracting Party may unilaterally take appropriate measures under the conditions and procedures laid down in Article 113. Such safeguard measures shall be restricted with regard to their scope and duration to what is strictly necessary in order to remedy the situation. Priority shall be given to such measures as will least disturb the functioning of this Agreement."

The negotiating strategy so far has been to over-promise. The issue is that the the government wants to replicate the terms outlined by membership of the EEA through EFTA into a Free Trade Agreement. This is a futile endeavour. As far as trade goes, the EEA presents us with a ready-made package and the best standing for British trade policy, especially through such a sensitive period. And need I bother with those who think leaving with no deal is better than leaving with a bad deal. I would ask readers to point to a productive economy which trades with the EU on the terms set out by WTO rules. 

Any negotiation has to begin with confidence. We have to believe we can leave with a good deal. But there is no point going about it with such flippant dishonesty. Whitehall has found itself sucked into an intellectual black hole and is unlikely to be pulled back out. 

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Farage can return if he likes, but for what?

I get the impression, watching Nigel Farage on TV and occasionally listening to the more bearable parts of his LBC radio show, that he is convinced that his inevitable return to frontline politics will mean finding the magic recipe for an orderly hard Brexit. We should expect no less from a man of his arrogance. I can see it happening before 2017 is up, given the painfully poor progress made so far by our government. 

The argument doesn't lie in whether he will return. It lies in what he thinks his return can achieve and whether he'll be useful to negotiations or as some kind of pressuring mechanism for Number 10, ever-conscious of growing discontent over the potential of a so-called 'Brexit betrayal'. That phrase has already well and truly nestled itself under my skin. Notice how rarely it is used by people who actually have a clue about all this. 

I presume Mr Farage's return to the British political scene would entail retention of UKIP's leadership. I hear, given how woefully they performed at the General Election, they have a vacancy for the post. I'm sure nobody saw that coming. Some of their more combative spokesmen, including the likes of Michael Heaver, whose attempt at journalism over the past few months has been nothing short of hilarious, like to pretend that UKIP always had a future outside of the referendum, but our electoral system ensures that this is not the case. No other issue they try to pursue even remotely compares to the magnitude of Brexit. And that includes Islamic terror (my thoughts are with victims in Barcelona, on that note).  

The prodigal son can return if he likes, but he isn't capable of having the impact he had back in 2014/15. Initially, he was a useful battering ram, endeavouring to associate mass immigration with membership of the European Union (or, rather, the single market). It is hard to argue that he wasn't successful, but what is easy to argue is that his use in public debate was always going to be limited. Once he became a household name, that was it. He was too toxic to convince swaying or middle ground voters to opt for Brexit. If he had led the designated Leave campaign, I would probably be writing an entirely different blog right about now. 

His main use during the referendum was in rallying support amongst his already converted followers, trying to get them to turn up on the day. This he managed, but without an active referendum for him to participate in, it is very unclear what his purpose in coming back would be. Certainly there are more general elections to be held, but there is only so much a minor party can achieve on such a platform. UKIP will never again cause the Conservative Party much of a problem. They have issues of their own to sort out, starting with where their next inspiring leader will come from (Jacob Rees-Mogg is a bad idea, by the way). 

It is true that Mr Farage was such a leader, but it was aided hugely by the fact that, finally, a referendum was on the cards. As I have written previously at this blog, Farage's primary skill is oratory deception. He speaks simply and with energy, painting issues as black and white and scooping up the bewildered as he goes. This was precisely why I was at one stage so heavily influenced by him. Thankfully, though, this has vaccinated me against him in quite a powerful way. His antics are more transparent and much easier to expose. 

He's even using the wretched 'Brexit means Brexit' phrase, promising to come back to battle if his Brexit isn't delivered. Well, whose Brexit will be delivered? Must Brexit be stamped with his approval? What will he do exactly to ensure that his needs are satisfied, even if at the expense of diplomatic ties, economic stability or the productivity of negotiations. Mr Farage above anybody ought to have recognised the gravity of the Article 50 period, and indeed what it is we're trying to achieve. Once that result was announced last June, he became a smaller fish in a much larger and far more dangerous pond. 

Thanks in no small part to the infuriating myth that he was the man who made Brexit, Mr Farage has developed in his mind the idea that Britain's EU departure is his toy to play with. Away from politics, other children are playing with it and they are doing so incorrectly. But there's a problem. When he does decide to come back, what is his plan? There is no avenue through which he can influence anything significant. He is about as prepared for what is ahead as the next man. And about as useful in dealing with it too. 

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

The government's customs proposals are a vacuous deceit

Earlier on I realised how much I hate agreeing with Guy Verhofstadt, a president among hundreds in the European Parliament and one of the smuggest to occupy the offices of Brussels. But, having read enough of David Davis' fanciful Paper on future Customs Arrangements, I was left with no real alternative. He described being in and out of the Customs Union, with invisible borders and having not yet agreed to a financial settlement or provisions over citizen's rights as a 'fantasy'. I prefer 'big fat nothing burger', having fallen in love with the phrase ever since CNN's Van Jones used it to describe the Trump-Russia collusion story.

His summary of the government's proposals for a new, UK-EU Customs agreement more or less hits the nail on the head. If this is what the Brexit Secretary is referring to when he describes negotiations as going 'incredibly well' then I despair. I wouldn't be surprised if Brussels suspended talks indefinitely after reading yesterday's rubbish. Readers will hardly need reminding that Britain's wants do not necessarily equate to Britain's gets. And what Britain appears to want simultaneously is the ability to have free and frictionless trade with the European market and to adopt 'third party' status as a result of leaving it. 

Seeking a customs union agreement post Brexit is, don't get me wrong, perfectly achievable. But it isn't necessary to productive trade continuity. Turkey enjoys a comprehensive customs union agreement with the European Union, though note that they are not of the EU Customs Union (EUCU) itself. The difference is simply a matter of jurisdiction - a little like Switzerland's arrangement with the EEA. And, despite widespread belief that being in a customs union prevents the signing of independent, bilateral FTAs, the UK can conclude a customs union agreement and retain independent trade policy. I used to believe that to be in a customs union means, in principle, to lose the ability to sign bilateral trade deals, but this is not the case. Mercosur, for instance, is a customs union but its signatories can trade bilaterally and of their own accord. I should therefore clarify that it is in fact the EU's Common Commercial Policy (outlined in Article 207 in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union) which precludes us from doing so. Here there is a crucial distinction. 

And while we're on the subject of misconceptions surrounding the EUCU, it must also be pointed out that we are separating issues that ought not to be separated. If a member state leaves the EU, it leaves its Customs Union. No ifs, no buts. The EUCU is an integral part of the treaties which form the provisions we are bound by. I am tired of reading commentators in mainstream publications calling for us to leave both the EU and the CU. That is like saying: 'I am going to lock my front door as I leave the house today. And I'm going to lock it with my front door key.' If we discuss the CU in the context of Brexit, then we are discussing one and the other. There is no way of staying within the CU and leaving the EU. At least the Department for Exiting the European Union understands this.

The paper they have produced, whilst not mentioning the single market, draws quite obvious attention to the fact that upon leaving the EU and EEA, the UK becomes what Brussels perceives as a 'third party country', meaning we are forced practically immediately to work with significantly worse trading terms. The publication outlines two, apparently workable routes for continued cooperation over customs:

  • A highly streamlined customs arrangement between the UK and the EU, streamlining and simplifying requirements, leaving as few additional requirements on UK-EU trade as possible. This would aim to: continue some of the existing agreements between the UK and the EU; put in place new negotiated and unilateral facilitations to reduce and remove barriers to trade; and implement technology-based solutions to make it easier to comply with customs procedures. 
  • A new customs partnership with the EU, aligning our approach to the customs border in a way that removes the need for a UK-EU customs border. One potential approach would involve the UK mirroring the EU's requirements for imports from the rest of the world where their final destination is the EU. 

Notice immediately how unhelpful much of the language is. It's all about trying our best to 'simplify' and 'remove barriers', as if the authors haven't recognised that this is exactly the point of retaining membership of the single market. Article 10 of the EEA Agreement tells us that "customs duties on imports and exports, and any charges having equivalent effect, shall be prohibited between the Contracting Parties." It is as if this document was written about the single market and an error was made when typing up the title page. Also, rather more peculiarly, this paper has virtually no relevance to the current standing of negotiations. We haven't even reached a conclusion over the financial settlement yet. 

One of the things that stands out most from the paper is the government's continued assertions that it is on some kind of level playing field with its closest and largest market. Take this arrogant, wishful thinking, for instance, in paragraph 30:

"The promotion of the free flow of trade in both directions between the UK and the EU would also require the EU to implement equivalent arrangements at its borders with the UK. The Government believes that collaborative solutions would benefit all parties and will work closely with European partners to negotiate and implement such arrangements." 

We appear to be working under the impression that we can just bypass the 'third party' status phase and carry on as normal. What is striking is how mixed up the authors of this document appear to be when differentiating between Customs Union and customs cooperation. The lack of capital letters in the latter phrase should alone be enough to signify important difference. The Customs Union is a fundamental feature of EU membership, comprising of an external tariff wall (CET), whereas customs cooperation, according to UNECE, relates to "improving control of trade flows and the enforcement of applicable laws and regulations through the exchange of information on Customs aspects such as export and import declaration data, trader-related information, origin and valuation-related information."

Throughout the government's paper on customs proposals is the running assumption that an entirely separate negotiated Customs Union agreement will achieve the 'free and frictionless' trade cited in the executive summary. This is not the case. My belief is that EFTA membership under the aegis of the EEA is the only way to meaningfully achieve this. If the UK does indeed leave the single market, which appears to be the desired course of action and will be immediately regretted, we will need a customs cooperation agreement to be put in place, whether through an FTA or negotiated as part of the Article 50 settlement. If we are to focus on anything over the next year and a half it should be making progress on a customs cooperation agreement. 

A customs cooperation agreement would attempt to re-standardise different facets of trade flow. This will mean things like agreeing upon measures to mutually recognise and approve certificates or dealing with paperwork and administering computer systems which identify customs fraud. This stuff is far too complicated for me to get a full grip on, but I can only pass on the basics as I understand them. Which is a hell of a lot more than can be said for the civil service. 

As for leaving the Customs Union, indeed a necessary part of the Brexit process, it needn't be over-complicated. The only residual feature of the EUCU is a Common External Tariff (CET) and a mechanism through which funds are collected by member states and paid to Brussels as a condition of membership. The Customs Union actually predates the establishing of the single market, and has subsequently had much of its aegis hijacked by the single market. Principally, the single market took over the responsibility of abolishing internal duties and quotas between member states (again, Article 10 of the EEA Agreement). 

I can't wait for this autumn's Customs Bill. No doubt it'll follow much of the emerging pattern with Brexit negotiations: we'll do our best to pretend that pursuing anything other than EFTA and the EEA is worth the light of day. For the EFTA states, customs cooperation tends to be organised on the basis of exchange letters, which seek to speed up trade flows between each bloc. Such agreements can be read here. I think agreements like this are entirely appropriate and perfectly adoptable from a UK perspective, in the unlikely event that we end up in the right corner of the EEA. My fear about a separate Customs Union agreement with the EU is that it will narrow any scope we have left for other deals we negotiate in the future, in that we won't be able to adjust unalterable tariffs. That is if we ever find our way out of this depressing maze.

Much of the reaction to the release of yesterday's proposals espoused that irritating 'cake and eat it' line. I think this is entirely missing the point. The more worrying takeaway is the inability to distinguish between our terminology. Do we mean Customs Union or do we mean customs cooperation? The SNP even managed to rebuke the paper by making themselves look foolish. They appear to be arguing for the UK to stay in the EEA and the Customs Union, but outside the European Union the latter is not possible. They never did know anything about the nitty gritty. They have about as much use in the Brexit debate as I have on a catwalk. I await their inevitable electoral dissolution with uncontrollable salivation. 

And speaking so fondly of control, as we ex-Vote Leavers much like, I am more fearful than ever of all this getting away from us. The more incompetence our leaders display, the more easily counter forces can mobilise and put a stop to the greatest chance we'll have of leaving the European Union. I'm starting to sound like a revolutionary Marxist, but if only we'd followed a more workable guide we wouldn't be nearly as stuck as we currently are. The government's proposals for future customs arrangements are deceitful and arrogant. They conflate and confuse concepts, safely in the knowledge that most people simply won't read them. The Department for Exiting the European Union is, with irritating futility, trying to craft a bespoke deal that gives us everything EEA without the setbacks of the EEA. Here's a radical suggestion: why not just go with the EEA?

Monday, 14 August 2017

Heidi Allen echoes my views on Moggmentum

Some readers may remember that on July 13th, I wrote what I thought was quite a reasonable warning against Moggmentum and calls for Jacob Rees-Mogg to lead the Conservative Party. Those interested in reading it in full will find it here

Initially I suspected that Moggmentum would die down once the shock of the election result had settled in and something resembling political normality resumed for the country. But it doesn't seem to have subsided in any way that I can tell. I still see quite widespread support for him throughout social media, particularly amongst Brexiteers, who are often guilty of mistaking opinion for virtue. I would add, though, that followers of Moggmentum tend to be those who are already very political. Twitter, itself a micro blogging site, is crammed with the politically aware and active. The real world is not, so I think we ought to get a little more perspective when determining Jacob Rees-Mogg's electability and popularity. 

Heidi Allen, Tory MP for South Cambridgeshire, understands this. I am pleased to see her tackle Moggmentum openly and reasonably. Like me, she recognises its limited potential. I produce below her comments on Radio 4's Westminster Hour yesterday morning:

"I couldn't be in the Conservative Party if he [Rees-Mogg] was my leader. That's nothing nasty or to slight Jacob at all, he's incredibly charming, very generous, been very welcoming to me as a new MP, we often sit quite close together."

Expanding upon this, she says: 

"He is not the modern face of the Tory Party that we are or I am certainly and colleagues are desperate to prove is out there. He is fabulous in his own right but he is not the future and I am desperate for us to find that future."

The interviewer then referenced recent comments from Mr Rees-Mogg himself, who said that if he threw his hat into the ring for leadership it would be thrown back at him. Ms Allen said she 'would help with that', which I thought made her sound a little too aggressive. 

The disappointing part of the interview is that Ms Allen did not draw on what specifically it is about Jacob Rees-Mogg which makes him a weaker candidate for party leader and Prime Minister. I think she avoided going into detail so as not to be drawn into useless squabbling and controversy, which was probably smart of her. Politicians often find use in saying as little as possible, especially when discussing internal affairs. I also believe that she may regret saying that she would play no part in the party if Rees-Mogg did indeed become leader (and there is every chance he'd be voted for). Last summer's Michael Gove saga taught us, if anything, that MPs and ministers who claim not to have leadership ambitions are not always telling the truth. It is possible that Mr Rees-Mogg will be convinced to stand for leadership despite his concerns about it. 

Ms Allen's remark that he is not the modern face the Tory Party is crying out for is correct. I wrote at this blog a few weeks ago that Jacob Rees-Mogg's views on a range of social issues 'would make the modern neoliberal Tory wince in discomfort'. I stand by this comment. His pursuit of Christian-based social conservatism is what I think Heidi is referring to in her interview. The Tories appear to be more electorally successful when they adopt more liberalising leaders. This is why I think the party is secretly holding out for the inevitable accession of Ruth Davidson, admired for her modernising political stances, such as her support for same-sex marriage, and old fashioned rigour when defending the British Union. 

If the parliamentary party thinks along the same lines as Heidi Allen, then many will be sweating over the potential ramifications of the Foster-May Agreement. The DUP's weight being thrown behind government policy, given their rigid social conservatism, may end up demoralising more liberal Tories, especially those in more metropolitan parts of the country. We shall see at the next election whether the alliance has any longstanding consequences. My hunch is that it will. 

Social conservatism doesn't have a future if we think purely in terms of political parties. It will have to be defended by dissecting issues and treating them as separate entities, whether through referenda, think tanks, research or other campaign groups. We can still be effective, like we were with immigration during the EU referendum. The question for us is what battles we pick and where we fight them. Jacob Rees-Mogg can't change this and will struggle to collect any substantive mainstream appeal. This may, in part, be due to the country's hardened stance against austerity and Rees-Mogg is both a beneficiary of inherited wealth and inescapably posh.  

And as for his future, I consider him an effective backbencher and think he should remain where he is, if holding political office is to remain his intention. It's nothing personal; having met him before I know how charming he is. But Tory members will need to look elsewhere, scouring the drying talent pool in their party, in order to find a more pragmatic solution to the Theresa May and Brexit problem.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Reaction to Nazism, political whataboutery and attacks on free speech

Originally I had intended to stay away from this blog in order to rest up and focus on my mental health, but I now realise the former will not achieve or equal the latter. Writing is what I love and know, and remains the only talent I have. Ceasing to exercise it has only made me more restless and frustrated. The best advice for young writers came, I think, from Christopher Hitchens, who maintained that it ought to be something you feel you have to do, not just something you are interested in doing. I rather relate to this. 

But not just that. I have been encouraged to return by yesterday's White Supremacist, Nazi rally in Virginia, which I was utterly appalled by (though not especially surprised). I thought western societies had moved swiftly on from intense anti-Semitism, but clearly I was wrong and there is still quite a lot of work to be done. I hate witnessing such things. Hateful protests staged by those on the fringes of politics, no matter the subject, are always festivals of embarrassment. 

I think there is a tendency to overrate the importance of events like this. Bad news and controversy sell, hence the heightened press coverage and extended conversation, but for the most part, the white Right are entirely unrepresented by rancid, Swastika-stamped demonstrators. But that isn't to say that I think we should just tolerate and forgive. This is why the President's calamitous response yesterday evening was so important. Trump's failure to denounce actions appropriately and proportionately highlight just why I was sceptical of him as conservative flag bearer in the United States upon his election. He said in his press conference:

"We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides." 

This was a massive error in judgement. Nazism isn't ordinary hatred or bigotry, the kind rife in some parts of America. It is especially nasty and aimed at specific kinds of people. History shows what can happen when it is given free reign in a society. And here there is an important distinction. 

Pockets of the Left, ever adamant that free speech ought to be demonised and left the real victim of bigotry, claim that Nazis cannot go unpunished for their speech and expression. I understand why they say it. Many who remember the Nazi holocaust are still alive to recount its many, terrible tales. But Nazism has, thankfully, been rendered a sidelined (if not slightly energised) cult and protest movement. It is not a feature of government, so violence and harnessing the force of the state need not be options we explore.

Just like there is an important distinction between not tolerating and using state power against opponents, there too is a distinction between Nazism as a political force and Nazism as a lingering annoyance, adhered to by a troubled minority of society. So violence is not the answer here. You can't beat good into people like this. Public debate can work against these people precisely because they wield no real power. Anybody who remembers the shambles known as Nick Griffin and the power of intellectual exposure can appreciate this. Conservatives like myself principally oppose restrictions on free speech not because we routinely like what is said, but because we are acutely aware that limitations on what is said can just as easily be imposed upon us as they can our enemies. 

When President Trump responded to yesterday's march with sweeping generalisation ('on many sides'), instead of rigorous, targeted condemnation, he did two things: shift blame inappropriately and engage in the tedium of political whataboutery. The former is dangerous: it means those culpable are more likely to escape sufficient criticism for their behaviour. The latter is conducive only to shutting down debate and is regularly relied upon by politicians unwilling to condemn those in their base of voters. 

I don't mean to suggest that Trump is a Nazi, but I do think he helped to mobilise many such far-Right groups. The politics of whataboutery is a get-out-of-jail free card which allows the user to avoid necessary confrontation of political allies. Don't worry about what's happening here, look over there! It is often much more difficult to stand up to friends than it is one's enemies. Mr Corbyn found this out fairly recently when he failed to identify the cause of ongoing tension in Venezuela. It is obvious why. To do so means admitting that much of what he is recommending to the British electorate is fundamentally flawed. 

Trump should have plucked up the courage to attack yesterday's marchers more directly, even at the risk of unsettling some of his voters. He is no longer a running candidate, he is the president. Being presidential means more than standing up solely for party interests. I'd have thought this would be obvious. His scurrying out of that press conference was symbolic: the man is cowardly and unprofessional. Perhaps this is the real reason he won't publish his tax returns. 

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Would Flexcit have won the EU referendum?

In yesterday's post, I touched upon the mindset that Vote Leave adopted in approaching the EU referendum's economic battleground. I explained how the question of leaving the single market was answered and what perspective we took when arguing that Britain spent £350m per week on EU membership. It may be of interest to readers who are yet to read it. 

When writing about it, I began to think more deeply about the Flexcit model of leaving, with which I have integrated my views on the subject. I also pondered what a referendum would have looked like had the designated Leave campaign advocated, firstly, a plan for exiting the European Union and secondly, more specifically, a Brexit based upon membership of EFTA, which I currently believe gives the UK the best hope of any Brexit at all. 

Of course, the prospect of another referendum doesn't bear thinking about. Nobody in the country has the energy for a repeat of 2016, which ransacked voters of their political enthusiasm, causing electoral fatigue to set comfortably in. This is the main reason why I think any sort of follow-up referendum would be a complete non-starter. Trust and credibility in relation to Brexit are arguably irrevocably broken. But I do think that re-framing the debate over EU membership is interesting. Especially so because so many complained after polling day that they had been left ill-informed to make a decision and that both campaigns had resorted mainly to scare tactics. 

There is undoubtedly a certain truth to this. Budget threats and insinuations that ISIS and Russia would be strengthened by Brexit were, quite obviously, deceitful beyond measure. So too was the assertion that Turkey, a country armed with only 7.5 million passports, was on the cusp of EU accession. The Turks, after all, first applied to join the EEC in April 1987 and the political hurdles that must be jumped in order to achieve agreement, particularly a reference to domestic democratic deficiencies, are many. 

That being said, contemplating the nature of a national debate over EU membership with a Flexcit-type model being advocated by the Leave campaign would, I think, be entirely different. Typically, when I ask people this question, the response tends to be: 'Leave would lose, we simply couldn't have won without immigration, and staying in the single market means no controls on free movement'. I realise this is a perfectly valid point (though not necessarily entirely correct), Leave did need immigration to win, but there is much more that ought to be taken into account. 

Remain accumulated around 48% of the polling day vote share largely because those who supported staying in the EU quite understandably feared the economic consequences of leaving the single market. By pushing for membership of both EFTA and the EEA, Leave counters this argument. It is the single market which provides economic security, not the European Union itself. So, right off the bat, the country is playing an entirely different ball game. 

Without pandering to immigration and economic forecasts, Brexit would be framed in entirely new and arguably more informative terms. A different battle line that would quickly emerge would be Remain's 'pay, no say', which I have rubbished at this blog previously, taking on Leave's 'globalisation of regulation', which needn't be especially complicated for the electorate. It would have simply required messaging to go along the lines of: 'the rules are primarily made at international level, where thanks to our EU membership, we have no seat'. 

Of course, sidelining the importance of immigration would not have come without a backlash. The Farage crew, ever noisy about free movement and determined to bring it to an end, would complain noisily in their own corner of the public arena. I don't know if the EFTA alternative would be enough to discourage them from bothering to turn out and vote Leave. Perhaps it would, perhaps it wouldn't. I think on some level, most Brexiteers would still have jumped at the chance of escaping ever closer union, the safety of which EFTA provides, along with manageable restoration of sovereignty. I think much of the result, in an alternate referendum, would have weighed upon whether Leavers were 'Leave' enough to support EFTA over the EU. This is an interesting question and one I can't claim to have any conclusive answer to. 

Another battle fought by Leavers promoting EFTA membership could well have been whether or not legal technicalities made it possible to transition to EFTA without triggering Article 27 of the EEA Agreement, or indeed whether EFTA membership would itself be a permanent solution. The good thing here would have been that since intensive detail utterly bores people, most voters would not have spent a great deal of time considering the mechanics of rejoining EFTA. Many would likely have been more focused on the benefits of membership, of which there are many. 

Also, in such a referendum, Stronger In would not have been able to play any of their trump xenophobia cards, which blighted the national conversation and probably (I speculate here) dissuaded quite a few youngsters from voting to Leave, especially those at educational institutions with more overtly political teachers or professors. Or more Remain-leaning, we could say. In this regard, it is possible to argue that a Flexcit referendum would have been less about personalities and the kinds of people voting either way, given how much narrower the divide would be between the political characteristics of EFTA membership and those of EU membership. 

The result would have come down largely to whether enough Leave voters stayed at home having been presented with less favourable terms on immigration than they would have hoped (I am not saying that nothing can be done about migration inside the EEA, which is another Farage myth that I used to believe) or whether enough Remain voters would have voted for an end to political union in the absence of what they perceived as being financial calamity. Either way, it definitely makes for intriguing thought. Not just in terms of how we view our membership of the European Union, but as a template for all future referenda in Britain. 

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Reflections on £350m a week, the BBC and a Brexit bill

When I chose to start afresh and take my old blog to this new domain, I knew that I wouldn't be able to take all of my work with me. This was primarily because certain pieces no longer reflected the evolution of some of my views. I now recognise that in moving on so quickly I have misplaced posts which I believe were high quality and I'm sad that this is so. 

One of my friends, Charlie Peters, only the other day asked if I still had somewhere a blog post I wrote outlining the case against arming all of Britain's police officers. Another, which I was reminded of earlier, was a piece defending Vote Leave's use of the £350m per week figure (albeit not on a technical basis, but rather in terms of how politically sellable it was during the referendum). 

This piece on the BBC website had me searching my desktop for it, but alas, it has gone. Though I am glad that they highlight the fact that the UK does indeed send hundreds of millions of pounds to Brussels every week, I am bemused as to why the BBC has all of a sudden decided it cares about nuances and factual bases for claims, given that it spent many months badmouthing and lying about the Norway option. Sometimes by stealth, through important omissions, and sometimes not. In one particular feature, the following serious and outright untruth was penned: 

"Now, as Norway is not a member of the EU, it has no say over these or any other EU rules. It can lobby against them, but it does not sit round the table when they are proposed, discussed, amended, debated, or voted into law. The consequences can be huge."

A rebuttal is not in keeping with the point of this post, but a useful response to it can be read here

So why has the BBC taken issue with our financial contributions all of a sudden? We received ceaseless coverage over the figure during campaign season, which as I wrote at my old blog, was perfect. It meant that voters were thinking about our contributions to the EU budget rather than focusing on the economic scare stories circulated by the Remain campaign. Attacking the figure was counter-productive in that despite its controversy, it merely reminded folk that by whichever measure you used to produce a figure, it was an extortionate one. And on that note, the author actually got the final statement in the 'reality check' wrong: we rounded down from £367.4m, which doesn't quite wet the appetite on the side of a bus. 

In political discussion, whether at home or in the media, detail bores people. It is usually overlooked or left unchecked for the sake of convenience. Many just like to skip round it in order to arrive at the opinion they want to have. This is true of any referendum. We are not the Swiss; we've yet to develop a 'referendum culture', of sorts, and do not, I don't think, acclimatise especially well to them. This might be because we've had very few in our democratic history. In that sense, it seems democracy is learned behaviour. In Switzerland, all constitutional issues are put to referenda. The people there are more used to them and campaigns know that they are less likely to get away with misleading voters, who think about consequences and issues more frequently. 

At Vote Leave, we took the mindset of the average taxpayer, who in scanning a bank statement and seeing words like 'debited', would view costs as absolute. I am debited £300 therefore I pay £300. We took a very similar position when the rebate came up in conversation. If my salary is £25,000, I say that I earn £25,000, I don't tell people that I earn a few thousand less after tax. It was this attempt at connecting with voters that enabled us to perform surprisingly well in the economic argument. And, crucially, enough people thought that repatriation of funding would make up for any economic disruption caused by leaving the single market. 

My guess is that it is because Brexit negotiations appear to be stuck at the divorce bill stage that the BBC have decided to dig this stuff up again. I feared this would happen. I can't wait for, upon exit and paying some sort of compensatory sum, the Lily Allens of this world to begin their trumpeting of 'Leave told us we'd save money, not lose it!' This argument, of course, completely overlooks the fact that the money would have gone to Brussels in just a few years anyway, depending on the size of the bill agreed upon. This will at least be a one-time payment. 

During my three years at university, Britain contributed around £30bn, net, into the EU's coffers. So any talk of 'this could be spent on education' is vacuous. Notice, also, that it's coming from exactly the same commentators and outlets who continually bashed us for advocating redirecting money to the NHS (which was as genuine a suggestion as any and would have been acted upon had Michael Gove not halted Boris Johnson's leadership bid). There is therefore understandable anger - we have given more than enough of our money to the European Union. 

I would, though, like to add one further point, which is that, while there is no requirement within the provisions of Article 50, per the amendments of the Lisbon Treaty (2007), which state that a withdrawing member must pay a compensatory fee, it is likely that Britain owes a financial recompense for European initiatives that it has signed up to ahead of time and for which owes money. I don't know that this is the case. I am speculating. Certainly, if this is the case, talk of £36bn is unrealistic and makes me think that Brussels will try to use a Brexit bill as a means of preserving a pot of cash used as a welfare fund for the lower tier of member states, notably those in Southern and Eastern Europe. 

We should expect an amount somewhere in the region of £18bn to eventually be agreed upon by Davis and Barnier. That is my gut feeling on the issue. But what worries me more is the far heavier price we will pay come trade talks in the autumn, specifically when tackling non-tariff barriers. The price, that is, for not having a plan for the most profound legal, political and economic undertaking probably of this century. 

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Brexit: The Tories are failing us, but don't blame Hammond

Rather like choppy seas, the Tory Party machine can be pretty unforgiving. They remind me a little of Chelsea in that they'll do whatever they see fit in order to stay on top of British politics. When backbenchers and cabinet ministers smell blood, they can be pretty ruthless. Any former leader will attest to this.

Certainly Philip Hammond would, a man looking increasingly likely to be the latest in a long line of victims brought to their demise from within. But are those, such as Andrew Bridgen, right when they call for the chancellor to be sacked? Now doesn't appear to be the right time. Mr Bridgen was usefully tenacious during last year's referendum campaign, but what most stands against him is that nobody has a clue who he is.

He doesn't quite have the same effect as, say, an Iain Duncan-Smith, who brought endless fits of laughter to Vote Leave HQ with his entertaining tirades against George Osborne. I think it was probably the dry tone he used to berate the opposing campaign that was most funny. That and perhaps the fact that he seemed utterly fearless.

Mrs May didn't remove Philip Hammond from his post upon re-election for a reason. I don't quite know what it was, but I am assuming it had something to do with the prospect of internal backlash. I am, though, glad that she didn't. Mr Hammond, as any rigorous chancellor ought to, is doing something few other cabinet ministers have bothered to: assess what kind of Brexit is best for our economy.

What is being translated by the horrific experiment as 'Brexit betrayal' is actually the little known art of thinking. Hammond is looking for economically pragmatic solutions to complex legal problems, and seems able to recognise that leaving the European Union is a process and not an event. This has been reflected by his assertions that the UK will need a transitional arrangement in the event of the now almost-certain prospect of the Article 50 period not being long enough to finalise anything especially concrete.

(Which reminds me, why must the country foot an exit bill as part of our EU departure? Article 50 eludes to no such requirement and nobody in Brussels can point to anything substantive in the Treaties which demand we hand over billions as part of our Brexit deal. Historically, of course, the UK and the EU have tussled extensively over the issue of financial contributions, but always with the view in mind that British membership would be permanent and that things could always be revisited.)

I don't know what Team Sack Philip Hammond think is the endgame here. Surely they, more than most, will recognise that creating constitutional deadlock in domestic politics damages the productivity of negotiations in Brussels? Just look at what this year's election achieved. And it isn't just the occasional Conservative MP at fault here. Many purporting to be staunchly pro-Brexit (forgetting almost invariably that many who seek to retain EEA membership are too) outside the party also do not seem to realise this. Leave.EU, ever the awful pantomime in this whole saga, are also utilising petitions (which, somebody should remind them, are seldom, if ever effective) an rallying support for his dismissal.

If only they understood that the problem is far broader than simply the jurisdiction of one, largely separated politician. Even veteran MPs like Peter Bone recognise that his role in negotiations is limited. A far more interesting picture of things can be drawn simply by following important journalism. Take Laura Kuenssberg's analysis of negotiations in Brussels thus far, for instance. She writes, with good access to informed sources:

"There's a sense that the government has just not made enough of the big decisions to allow the talks to really get going. There's concern the reticence is because Number 10, in particular, has just not made it clear what they actually want, and where the PM might be willing to compromise. There is frustration that ministers are still relying on tropes like "frictionless border", or "the days of paying vast sums are over", rather than pushing on with the details.This lack of pace therefore makes, it's feared, the possibility of crashing out, or the talks breaking down in the autumn more likely. 
If the Tory party, and more importantly the public, aren't prepared by their leaders for what the eventual compromises could be, whether that is keeping some elements of freedom of movement to guard against economic problems, paying tens of billions to keep trading inside the single market, seeing planes unable to fly across Europe or Chinese ships dock at Tilbury if the deals have not been concluded, they could face a very heavy political price. Senior Tories are well aware that if they mess this up they could be punished for generations."

When I read her take on proceedings, I was immediately reminded of the infamous William Harcourt quote, which rings ever true particularly in the context of Britain's relationship with the European Union. He said many decades ago that "the Conservatives, mark my word, never yet took up a cause without betraying it in the end". The EU issue encapsulates this perhaps more than any other political quandary in Britain. Divided for years over whether or not to join the European Community, then propagated avidly for ever closer union, then when the opportune moment came, pretended to be against the whole project in order to rescue their electoral standing.

No wonder so many Tories have seen their political legacies stained by it all. And no wonder Britain is struggling to hurdle obstacles being thrown its way from the continent. It isn't the fault of Philip Hammond, it's the fault of a party which never thought Leave would win the referendum and thus never supposed it needed to think beyond the triggering of Article 50. As unreasonable as a divorce bill is for the UK, for years a net contributor to a club it didn't want to be fully part of, you'd think it would at least have provided the government time to cement its positions on a substantial number of issues.

If you think talks are slow now, wait until the really juicy stuff begins in the autumn. So much to do and so little time in which to do it.