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.