Sunday, 30 July 2017

An open letter to hard Brexiteers, from a former ally

Dear hard Brexiteers, 

I know you. I know who you are, what you think and why you think it. I know because I used to be quite a lot like you. Like many of you, I used to believe that Faragism had pretty much all the answers to every question posed by Britain's departure from the European Union. I thought, like most of you still do, that withdrawal would be quick and simple, as long as we decided to make it so. And I was under the impression that large scale repatriation of sovereignty, from Brussels to Westminster, would be of unequivocal benefit. Mr Farage, especially, had a profound influence on me, once an impressionable 19 year old entering politics, precisely because he had a way of utilising his undoubted oratory skill and charismatic, plain-speaking demeanour to convince others of his cause. Populists often demonstrate this trait because they are able to say what more establishment politicians are not. 

That isn't to say that Brexit can be explained largely by populist upsurge. This is the sort of lazy thinking demonstrated by academics like A.C Grayling. Brexit is right for the same reason Clement Attlee opposed British involvement in the then European Coal and Steel Community: democracy cannot effectively exceed the remit of the nation state. But anti-establishment figures like Farage (who always, I have noticed, want to be part of the establishment themselves) deliberately painted a very black and white picture of what Brexit ought to look like. Alongside him, UKIP, certain sections of the Tory party, the Breitbart monstrosity, Grassroots Out and, more recently, the painful and cringeworthy Westmonster, all got together to hammer home the belief that Brexit necessarily equated to leaving the single market. In their relentless war against freedom of movement, they created a false monopoly on the term 'Brexit'. 

I know why they did it. They had to create an association between mass immigration and participation in the single market in order to convince people to vote Leave. It was done cleverly, but the domestic political support for ending free movement is now perhaps the largest obstacle sitting in the way of executing our EU departure in an orderly and sensible fashion. I don't know if it can be knocked down in time, but if it isn't, Brexit may become just the latest in a long line of political utopias that didn't quite happen because it was never properly tried. 

Even Vote Leave exacerbated the problem before it even got under way. Dominic Cummings, who directed the campaign, blogged before the referendum on the prospect of presenting a credible Brexit plan to the electorate. He decided not to partially on the grounds that: 

"constructing such a plan depends partly on inherently uncertain assumptions about what is politically sellable in a referendum, making it even harder to rally support behind a plan."

I am certain that here he is referring to the apparent implausibility of recommending the public follows a path which guarantees the continuation of free movement. It has since, I would add, been put to me that if Leave advocated a Flexcit-type model for leaving the European Union, it would have neutralised Remain's xenophobia rhetoric and that many who opted for Remain would have been enticed by the combination of EEA participation and an end to ever closer union. They did, after all, struggle when arguing that the European Union in its present form could be reformed. 

The problem ever since has been that those Leavers (whether they were Flexcit diehards or not) who wanted to leave via the single market have been totally disregarded, both by the media, who seem incapable of distinguishing between important institutions and terminology, and by fellow Leavers, who view them as saboteurs and Remain supporters by stealth. Nothing could be further from the truth. Only this morning I saw the Leave.EU official Twitter account promote a petition calling for Philip Hammond to step down for an 'attempted betrayal of the referendum'. All he did was suggest that there may have to be implemented some sort of transitional deal, between the point at which we leave the European Union and the point at which the new treaty-bound arrangements and thus the UK's new relationship with the EU enter force. He isn't a traitorous man, he's a thinking man. Thankfully Leave.EU are nowhere near power (or sense) for their antics to be problematic. 

The first thing then to note here is that, if the government pursues a messy Brexit, involving withdrawal from the EEA, the UK becomes what the EU refers to as a 'third party country'. This isn't out of negotiating spite, it is out of our desire to leave existing treaty arrangements, namely the EEA Agreement 1994. Becoming a third party country, I did not realise until very recently, will hurt productivity and weaken drastically our trading terms with the single market. Richard North notes:

"Our exporters then have to look at the EU through new eyes. No longer are they part of the vast Single Market, where goods shipped from the UK to mainland Europe did not come under customs control. Instead, like any other "third country", we come under the full panoply of customs controls.
Not only are there EU restrictions, many EU member states maintain their own list of goods subject to import licensing. For example , we are told, Germany's "Import List" (Einfuhrliste) includes goods for which licenses are required, their code numbers, any applicable restrictions, and the agency that will issue the relevant license. 
Once that hurdle is overcome, the exporters must prepare their written declarations to customs, in the form of the Single Administrative Document (SAD), an eight-part document running to a minimum of twelve pages.  
The SAD describes goods and their movement around the world and, effectively the passport for the goods, needed to secure their entry into the EU customs territory.
Even without going any further, there is a significant cost element here. Mistakes in completing the SAD can lead to expensive hold-ups at the posts, so many firms hire customs or shipping agents, paying anything up to £60 for each form submitted."

A year and half ago, when I wasn't paying attention to much more than videos of Daniel Hannan on YouTube, I didn't engage with substantive nuances in trading relationships like this. But I digress. The point is that if a hard Brexit causes chaos like this (which I have barely scratched the surface on), you can bet that domestic political forces, including the business community and millions in protest, will begin to eddy and circulate around forcing the government to abandon its course. If, in trying to please those who are obsessed with immigration and treating European institutions as if we can live without them, we cause untold economic and political disruption, there is absolutely the danger that Brexit will not happen at all. 

Of course, it's not only immigration that prevents many of you from supporting a market solution to leaving the EU. Many months of Remain propaganda will have you believing that Norway 'pays with no say', or whatever the phrase is. In my blog post yesterday, I refuted this falsehood. Single market rules are largely adopted from global bodies, like the WTO and the UNECE, (incidentally bodies that Britain would regain its participatory seat at upon rejoining EFTA), and EFTA members benefit from grant schemes like Erasmus and funding for science and research, so they get proportionally more out of (lower) EEA membership costs. 

I also made the critical point that restoring sovereignty to Westminster ought to be done in a slow fashion, since the last 40 years of passing competencies and responsibility for decision making up to Brussels has left departmental, administrative and technical shortages here in Britain. If we leave everything and sit, helplessly flooded by returning sovereignty, our civil service will panic and struggle to function productively. It is all well and good saying: we can now do this, this and this, but without the resources in place to fully administer independent national policy across a range of sectors, sovereignty will cease to be rewarding and will hang like dead weight around Whitehall's neck. It is best to welcome pockets of sovereignty back slowly to the UK, where the task is more manageable and the government won't be looking over its shoulder at a crumbling economy. 

The best argument for pursuing EFTA membership as a means of leaving the European Union is that it ensures the very time, leverage and economic stability necessary to shield against the rashness that will ultimately derail Brexit. It is time hard Brexiteers made a concession of their own, if not for their fellow Leavers then for the sake of a successful Brexit. The phrase 'good things come to those who wait' comes powerfully to mind. We can't have it all at once. We joined this juggernaut slowly and that is how we should leave it. 

I urge those of you to whom this letter may be relevant to take into deep consideration what I have said. EFTA and the EEA could well be our only hope. It's time Brexiteers did what we couldn't do last year: unite and mobilise pragmatically, or none of us will get what we want. 



  1. Interesting to read a considered opinion from the other side of the fence. As a remainer I tend to find that leavers are motivated largely by emotional arguments (nothing wrong with that), but it does make attempts at discourse rather pointless...

    1. Firstly, as a remainer I would like to apologise for any wayward comments you may have received. There remains a lot of anger on our side. For the reasons you clearly identify the Leave campaign did become associated with immigration and on occasions flirted with 'dog-whistle xenophobia. This and other things has left a very bitter taste.

      I would be interested in hearing your views on certain subjects. Firstly, why do you state that democracy cannot operate beyond the bounds of the nation states. There seems no obvious reason why it cannot do so...

      The EEA/EFTA option has been floated by many as a way of untying the Gordian knot we as a country seem to have confronted ourselves with (have you come across the think-tank 'British Influence' ?) It would certainly mitigate a large amount of the economic damage we are likely to suffer from the harder forms of Brexit. For maximum effect it would need combining with continued custom union membership too.

      We would still suffer economic damage however. Estimates put the effect on GDP of this option at about 1% a year.

      I would take issue with the analysis given in your previous blog that EFTA countries still exert noticeable influence on the EU legislative process. It is true they are often consulted on the early stages of lawmaking, but the process remains one where the commission proposes laws and the parliament enacts them. The details of laws are often the most pertinent to trade advantage and these will now be dominated by the concerns of full EU members.

      You state that many EU regulations are simply reheated international regulations. While some clearly are, many are not. On issues such as consumer, and environmental regulation the EU has clearly forged its own path. The somewhat overblown issue of chlorinated chicken does show that there are distinctive European attitudes to certain issues that stand in contrast to those across the Atlantic, for example.

      The most damning criticism of the EFTA option is that it in fact will change very little. Britain will continue to be subject to EU regulation in most areas of commerce. Even in agriculture and fishing the twin weight of other international regulation and the needs to enact EU standards for export will mean little will change.

      The question has to be asked then 'why bother at all'. Given the possible economic damage and the observation that the EU seems to be embarking on a major program of reform anyway, wouldn't it be better to stay inside the tent and exert influence that way ?

      You seem to believe that the EFTA option would be a stage in Britain disentangle itself from the EU. I think this badly underestimates the inertia of the British state. Placed in a workable, but suboptimal trade position the temptation will be to continue as we are decade after decade. I simply cannot see any government committing itself to a rolling program of institution building when the electorate are demanding work on far more tangible benefits...

    2. It's also worth noting that, contrary to popular myth, regulation on the production and sale of agriculture and fisheries products does apply to EEA members, including in their domestic economies. So the Norwegian agriculture industry may be behind a great big tariff wall, but its food still has to have EU nutrition labels, its chicken can't be chlorinated, etc. The things related to agriculture that are not part of the EEA Agreement are those related to trade between states - eg, the PDO scheme - although that is seen by most people as a good thing, and so, eg, Iceland has negotiated a side agreement with the EU to be party to it anyway.

      The UK will never disentangle itself from all of the regulatory developments in its hinterland, precisely because they're in its hinterland. Distance and timezones matter, and the digitalisation of the economy will not alter that.

    3. As many in commerce will attest,the hard part of running a business is getting people to buy your product and then getting them to pay for it. Paperwork is the easy bit. Already over 50% of our foreign trade involves customs formalities. It will have to be addressed but it's a minor issue.

    4. What if someone is less likely to buy your product precisely because it's on the wrong side of a customs border, and there's another product inside the same customs territory as them that they can buy more easily instead?

      What about on the consume side? Even I as a simple retail consumer massively prefer buying from websites inside the EU, than from, say, the US or even Switzerland, as I know there is (currently) no chance of my parcel getting delayed several business days while I am notified of and then have to pay a customs charge. Sourcing something from inside the EU is as straightforward as sourcing something domestically - which of course is the whole point.

      What about the simple wasted human effort of a vast increase in customs administration tasks? That is an opportunity cost which it seems very hard to defend.

  2. Took you this long to figure out? Once a Leave voter always a Leave voter.

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  4. The EU roaming regulation (2017/920) (which has EEA relevance) - to take just one better-known example - is not a single market rule adopted from a global body. It's legislation made as a result of a political judgement within Europe that intra-European roaming is bad for the European economy and society.

    It's also an example of the utility of supranational European political institutions. It seems inconceivable that such a law could have come into force without the existence of the European Union - the fact that it doesn't apply to Switzerland, or for that matter Jersey and Guernsey, is instructive. Perhaps of course we shouldn't care, because the "nebulous and unhelpful" concept of sovereignty is more important than tangible real-world benefits.

    The EU's political institutions - the Parliament, Council and Commission - represent a pragmatic set of direct and indirect democratic checks and balances. Given the reality that the EU is not a nation state, novel and delicately balanced solutions, involving the sharing of power between supranational and intergovernmental institutions, have been required and have therefore developed. (On the subject of democracy, we could discuss the massive flaws in the UK's own democracy, but that's a sidebar for another day.)

    If you are adamant that democracy cannot effectively exceed the remit of the nation state, it seems perverse to argue that implementing 'foreign' laws is OK as long as your state played no part in the democratic process leading to the enacting of those laws (à la the EEA).

    1. Perfectly accept that not every EEA rule is adopted from global bodies. You give a good example of one that is not, though I would add that I disagree with the policy of banning roaming charges!

      As for democratic balances with the EU's institutions, it is worth pointing out that 80% of EU law, per this:, is constructed on the basis of qualified majority voting, which means that the interests of quite a few states are frequently ignored, as opposed to voting based on lines of unanimity. Point is there are no 'checks and balances' for states who are forced into policies contrary to their interests.

      Your final two points are entirely pointless or false. The UK does indeed have democratic deficiencies, but this post was about EU membership. And, if you had bothered to read carefully, EFTA states do play an important role in determining EEA rules and the EFTA Court/ECJ help form a constructive judicial dialogue in adjudicating those rules.

    2. Wouldn't it be reasonable for a country to take the view that the pros of being part of the EU's single economic space outweigh any cons, and that, while the country will vigorously argue its case in every legislative process, if it loses the argument on occasion and has to accept laws which taken by themselves are "contrary to [its] interests", c'est la vie - their considered view is that they're happy to go along with those losses in exchange for the overall benefits?

    3. On the EFTA/EEA influence point, I'm curious where the non-EU EEA states' votes sit in the QMV process...

      If your contention is that even as an EU member state, the UK is often ridden roughshod over by other EU countries ignoring its views and using their qualified majority to push legislation through, what makes you think that as a non-EU EEA state, the UK would suddenly be able to persuade everyone to see things its way?

      (This is of course before we even consider the European Parliament, where voting is often not along country lines anyway.)

      As for the EFTA Court, which essentially follows CJEU jurisprudence, can you name any cases where the EFTA Court has ruled materially differently to how you think the CJEU would have adjudicated?

    4. On the EU roaming regulation, you may want to read this article by Christopher Booker:

    5. A Christopher Booker article? Must be true!

      From Wikipedia (I didn't write this):
      "In collaboration with Richard North, Booker has written a variety of publications advancing a eurosceptic, though academically disputed, popular historiography of the European Union. The most well-known of these is The Great Deception, a conspiracy theory-laden look at the European Union."


    6. On the 'substance' of the article, I've read it before, and I must confess it is the only place I have read these fantastic claims that "by 2013 roaming charges were being abolished right across the world" and that the EU is "right at the back of the queue".

      If the EU is such a terrible laggard, why didn't the UK abolish roaming charges for UK consumers years ago? (The reason the EU has got involved is to reduce a barrier to trade in the single market. However, there has never been a restriction on the UK's competence to unilaterally regulate roaming charges for UK consumers alone.)

      Where are the facts that roaming is being abolished left, right and centre, and the EU is last to do so?

      Not in Switzerland it seems...

      Nor in beloved Commonwealth countries like Australia and Canada...

      The point is that, not only is Christopher Booker's article patently false, but it is only a supranational organization like the EU that can _simultaneously_ abolish roaming for consumers in 31 countries at the same time, thereby eliminating one more two-sided barrier to doing business and living our lives without barriers across Europe.

    7. Did you read my comment? I didn't suggest it was happening all over the world. I suggested global agencies were advising the EU to scrap them. As for the UK, I wouldn't want bans on roaming charges; it's a terrible policy that punishes non-travellers.

    8. Your comment said nothing other than to read the Booker article.

      It's not really clear what your point is - that the EU only introduced a ban on intra-European roaming charges because global agencies told them to, so therefore we shouldn't give it credit? Even though other jurisdictions are presumably under similar pressure and haven't abolished roaming charges? Even though, given your objection to the abolition of roaming charges, you presumably don't agree with the pressure the global agencies were allegedly exerting in the first place?

      Your argument seems a little contorted.

    9. As to your second point, I couldn't really care less about the abolition of roaming charges globally, but I love their abolition within Europe - precisely because the rest of Europe is my backyard and somewhere I travel to and within one or more times a month.

      I suspect if you're honest one reason you're opposed to the abolition of roaming charges within Europe is that you dislike the easyJet-generation, citizen-of-the-world types who treat the whole of Europe like their own country, think nothing about crossing intra-European borders, and want the whole experience to be as frictionless as possible.

  5. A very reasoned piece but I just do not understand the sovereignty issue. We participate democratically in EU decisions, the ECJ is the arbiter of disputes. In any trade agreement there is a mechanism for resolution of issues acceptable at the outset of the agreement to both parties, why is the ECJ so vilified?

    1. We participate through a mechanism known as Qualified Majority Voting (QMV), which is a weighted voting system with no element of unanimity required. It means we often lose out in matters where we oppose Commission policy.

      The ECJ is vilified because it has always represented, perhaps more than any of the other institutions, the movement of power away from Britain and onto the continent. Legal supremacy, a big deal, so far removed has had a history of bugging eurosceptics and politicians. Having said that, restoring sovereignty to the UK must be gradual and the UK would have proportionately more influence over matters within the EFTA Court.

    2. And Scottish or Welsh MPs sometimes lose out in matters where they oppose Tory UK government policy. You have to draw a line around the 'unit of decision' somewhere and then accept that some people inside that unit won't like every decision.

      Even if you think it's undemocratic (because for whatever ideological reason you have decided that democracy _necessarily_ cannot function at a level above the nation state), do you accept that the UK benefits more from being part of a much larger economic space with common rules (most of which it has supported), than it loses out from having to apply some rules that it wouldn't have chosen to enact by itself?

      At the end of the day, we're all human beings making decisions about how to best regulate conduct between people and businesses. There is nothing inherently right or wrong about the position of a particular UK government of the day on a particular issue. What matters more when it comes to economic regulation is consistency - that's why Leeds and Bradford organise their own bin collections, but don't set their own rules on the safety regulations or environmental standards that apply to bins or bin lorries.

    3. I've always found the obsession with the CJEU odd, as the court only comes into play as a last resort. Most EU laws (like most laws in general) are just applied/observed without anyone ever having to go to court.

      Supremacy of EU law is surely the thing eurosceptics shouldn't like, not the dispute resolution tribunal. What material difference will being subject to the EFTA Court make, or indeed to a bespoke EU-UK tribunal?

      (Supremacy of EU law is of course a necessary side effect of a construct like the EU. For the EEA countries, the terminology is different, but the principle is the same - EU legislation incorporated into the EEA Agreement must be applied by the EEA countries or they are in breach of their treaty obligations.)

      On the comment about power moving "onto the continent", this seems like a typically British exceptionalist perspective. Competence over certain matters may have shifted to a supranational organisation, but it's one we've been a paid-up member of. The EU is not (currently) something alien to or separate from the UK - we are part of it. The physical location of the institutions does not change that fact.

  6. I understand where you are coming from, but my fear is that if we don't make a quick clean break, then Brexit will turn out to be a mirage and continually get kicked into the long grass by successive administrations for all sorts of spurious reasons ending up with the worst of all worlds. Not only that but I fear will be engineered so that we can step back in with little effort, which is the goal of many of the rich and powerful in the establishment. This will be our one and only chance - I want out asap.

    1. I want out ASAP too, probably for similar reasons to you, but it's not that simple. My fear, running parallel to yours, is that by abandoning everything and leaving the EEA, we will begin to crumble under the enormous and inevitable economic and political pressure. The EEA has a marked effect on daily life in Britain, particularly for exporters. Point is: if leaving EEA leads to untold chaos, tremendous domestic forces will gather to try to force us back in.

    2. "Point is: if leaving EEA leads to untold chaos, tremendous domestic forces will gather to try to force us back in."

      Also, there will be untold chaos.

  7. Same remaining shit, just adding some emotional correctness!

  8. Dear hard/soft/mental/clean Brexiters,

    Please ignore the message of weakness from Oliver.

    You are taking the country (or at least England) to the sunlit uplands and everything will be fine if you are a bit more patriotic than your frenzied flag waving current mental state.

    WTO terms will be fine as Redwood explained just before he suggested buying British made cars. He will provide colour charts on how to identify the most patriotic kind of cars, bikes, washing machines and pies.

    A transition is just Remoaner nonsense. Just launch off the cliff and the EU will offer us free trade terms. Those poor BMW workers in Bavaria will soon be revolting against the cruelty of the EU and will change all 27 countries' attitudes. As well as giving us free access to the Single Market with no tariffs they will wave away customs checks. After all a trade deficit is like a loss and a surplus is a profit, and we buy more from them. We won't need any imports to export because most of us will be making jam.

    Hannan has suggested no custom posts in Ireland so we can let all goods in from all over the world via IE without duty, environmental checks or safety standards.

    Eat up your chlorinated chicken with a slug of one year old whisky as tariffs will be flattened with Trump's America. Liam is the kind of guy that can cut a FTA in months not years based on his medical training. He has a penchant for state-subsidised Chinese products which the protectionist EU applies tariffs to.

    The poorest and least educated will be first in the line for the economic benefits and they will be joyous at the massive sovereignty increases which will be given to them first in envelopes as a reward.

    Our borders will be secured from EU work permit offenders everywhere except Ireland which is the most impressive part of taking control.


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