Friday, 27 October 2017

I'll always be committed to Brexit

I don't like the concept or functioning of the European Union. I believe it is a duplicitous and anti-democratic organisation and I don't think Britain should play any direct part in it. I consider ever closer union to be merely a mechanism for creating a democratic deficit across governance, which sees us export technical expertise and policy competence abroad, harden intellectual atrophy in Whitehall like rigor mortis and waiver important decision making (which far transcends trade) at global level. As such I see no real political need to be in the EU and I look forward, admittedly with some apprehension, to our departure, however botched and messy it turns out to be. 

The foundations of euroscepticism were built on the premise that the United Kingdom ought to be a self-governing democracy, even if globalisation of regulation and the establishment of an immensely influential regulatory power on the continent serve to reinforce just how nebulous the concept of sovereignty actually is. A lot of sovereignty can be recaptured by Brexit, it is true. A lot of it can't. Brexit itself can open the door for domestic reconstruction of trade policy, agricultural policy, immigration policy, fisheries and legislation covering many facets of public life, like consumer and employment legislation. But it's not always quite so simple. 

Some pockets of sovereignty were not hijacked by Brussels. Some have been globalised and transported to international forums. Standard setting is a global initiative, as enshrined (for instance) by Article 2.4 of the General Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade. Take a read and you'll begin to see why Shanker Singham of the Legatum Institute is wrong to suggest that on Brexit Day, Britain will regain full control of its regulatory fixes. It tells us that when technical standards are introduced internationally, members of those international organisations 'shall' adopt them. 

This is an area where the concept of sovereignty shakes a little, and approaching issues like this with a dose of realism will, I think, aid discourse. It is sensible to recognise that with sovereignty comes trade-offs. This does not render the sovereignty argument bogus, not by any stretch. It just means that Brexiteers will need to take a little perspective when this is all said and done and they are analysing successes and the state of British sovereignty. 

That I need to reaffirm my support for Brexit speaks mostly to personal events which have unfolded over the summer and autumn, after I converted to a softer position and burned a number of bridges in the process. It hasn't been a smooth period personally. Sure, my public profile has grown and I managed to get a nice little tick on Twitter, but it's not all fantastic. Publicity is overrated and if I can warn anybody against pursuing it, it would be those who have (as I do) difficulty with anxiety. I don't like people talking about me and I don't deal well with online abuse. It's largely a question of having a thick skin, something I don't have as of yet and wish I could develop over night.

It is for this reason that I do not want to be a mainstay in the public arena. Occasionally dipping into it, as I do, is more than satisfactory. I do not want to be the kind of person who has an opinion on everything. I would like to balance a sense of specialism with a measure of privacy, ensuring that I can promote work and be a constructive influence on whichever facet of public policy I am trying to make my mark on. I like the enclave of independence I have carved for myself and hopefully, as I become better educated and smarter, I can build on it. The blogosphere is for now an ideal platform for me because it reflects the values I place a lot of importance on: self-discovery, intellectual honesty and growth, independent thought, holding power to account and the democratisation of information. 

Losing friends, or people I thought were friends, is also not very nice. Quite a number of hard Leavers have turned on me and now treat me as some kind of pariah. Such people range from ex-colleagues to activists I got to know during the referendum campaign. I am referring to a stream of complaints about me, which I have encountered right across social media and in person. They usually follow along the lines of: 'you're an attention seeker', 'you've converted to Remain for the publicity' or 'you've made a name for yourself out of working for Vote Leave'. I wanted to address these criticisms because I think they are each unfair. 

If it was attention I most sought this year, I would have attacked Vote Leave and spent my time rubbishing our campaign claims. Imagine the can of worms that would have opened up. Doing so would have made for quite the Twitter thread. Instead, I changed my mind on the type of Brexit I thought the country should opt for. I did this with sincerity and based the conversion on available evidence and thorough research. There is, after all, no plan for a hard Brexit (though if that is our only option I will do nothing to stop it) and I could not, if I maintained that intellectual honesty was important, continue to support it. I had to follow what I thought was sensible and pragmatic, even at the risk of souring relations with other people. 

Then came the intense accusations of undermining the Leave campaign. These were references to articles I wrote in the New Statesman (which was originally a republished blog post) and Guardian. The former explained that I did not think we campaigned explicity to leave the Single Market, and instead took a deliberately ambiguous approach. The latter explained why I had changed my mind on the use of the Single Market and why I think we are better off staying in it as we complete our withdrawal. My view here is simple: Vote Leave didn't advocate a specific kind of Brexit, so I was always quite within my rights to advocate the Norway option. I did work for Vote Leave, but I have never claimed to be Mr Big Shot, who ran the campaign. I also haven't had anything disparaging to say about anybody in it. In fact, the really silly abuse has been aimed directly at me (concentrated mostly on my private Facebook). 

As for individuals who think I am now a Remainer, I'm afraid I stand here only to disappoint. If I search my name on Twitter, which I try not to do anymore, inevitably I find Remain-supporting users tweeting links to my blog and claiming that I now support remaining in the European Union. This is not so and they are drastically misrepresenting my work and opinions. If you believe this is so, the likelihood is that you are not reading my work, you do not know me very well and are placing ideological barriers in front of important facts. The facts, after all, are all that matter. 

It is a fact that I support Brexit. It is also a fact that Brexit is an immensely complicated undertaking. These statements do not contradict one another in any way that I can see and only the most foolhardy ideologues refuse to acknowledge this. For some on the Leave side, to admit to complexity, or indeed to expose it, is unacceptable. These are the people we should be most worried about, and I fear some such individuals could have significant lobbying power in Westminster. 

Don't be fooled by my pessimism or critiques of a no deal. It is far more a sign that I respect my own intellectual integrity than ever it is a display of support for EU membership. I will never abandon the Brexit position, and if push comes to shove and our EU departure is threatened, I will be right there on the firing line, marching and protesting with my fellow Leavers. This is important to me. 

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Brexit: getting to grips with Article 50 (7 months after invoking it)

In an ideal world, we would have a government that had conducted significant planning prior to embarking upon the process of EU withdrawal. Cummings, as I have written before many times, is correct when he links this overriding failure to the mess we are currently in. Not only did we find ourselves in a position whereby Article 50 had been invoked without managing to showcase sufficient understanding of its scope, we then decided to hold an entirely unnecessary and backfiring election after the withdrawal proceedings had begun. 

It amazes me, therefore, that I should have to write (and see others writing about) about the parameters of the Article 50 process shortly before Halloween, as opposed to early spring or just after the referendum. But we are where we are and I cannot do anything to change that. 

We should begin by establishing the facts on the ground. Article 50 is indeed the legal route out of the EU, but it was inserted into the amending Lisbon Treaty, to form part of the Consolidated European Treaty, in order to make the European Union appear democratic. This was the suggestion of one Altiero Spinelli, who during the constitutional conventions (around 14 years ago) made it clear that EU membership should not be a 'trap', insisting instead that the Union must be a 'voluntary association' of members. The treaty provision was drawn up mainly for the purpose of spin, with the working assumption of those writing it being that it would not ever realistically be used. 

A really good background into the use of Article 50 is provided here, on the Boiling Frog blog. Once again, readers should note just how far ahead of the game the blogosphere has been in comparison with the mainstream media and its crowded pool of commentators. It really is a shame that for much of the general population, blogs are not the go-to when folk attempt to interpret and scrutinise information they are provided with through other platforms, especially in an age where their use can potentially be so prevalent. 

But back to Article 50.

Theresa May yesterday revealed her ignorance on the subject when she told the Commons:

"Both sides recognise that the timetable was set out in the Lisbon treaty, which does indeed refer to the future relationship. The withdrawal agreement can only be considered and agreed taking account of the future relationship. It is important that we negotiate that future relationship, so we have both the withdrawal agreement and the future partnership, and the implementation period then is a practical implementation period."

The government thinks that the Article 50 period, which does allow for trade discussion and preparation, is in fact the window in which a trade deal is to be concluded. This is not true and these two things are not the same. Take a look again at the above graphic. Article 50 is for two things: tidying up (hence the current sticking points) and putting together a framework for a future partnership, which begins on Brexit day. When we say 'future partnership', we mean the nature of the relationship that exists between leaving the EU and the implementation of the trade deal 

As we now know, and as our referendum campaign spent months telling voters, EU member states do not have the ability to negotiate trade deals. This is because, in accordance with the framework of the Common Commercial Policy (and not the Customs Union, whose implications are somewhat different), the European Union negotiates deals as one bloc. For want of specifics, see below the phrases 'based on uniform principles' and 'the conclusion of tariff and trade agreements relating to trade in goods and services'. 

By Article 207, we are here referencing the Consolidated Treaty. It is often falsely claimed, such as in a recent Telegraph article by Liam Halligan and Gerard Lyons, that it is the Customs Union which prevents the ability of members to negotiate trade deals, but this is not the case. Any momentary inspection of the treaty material will confirm that no such argument can be made. No reference is made to trade deals within the context of the Customs Union, which has very different competencies and entirely separate technical features. 

But even if we leave trade policy competence aside, negotiating a trade deal within the two-year Article 50 period is not possible on logistical grounds, even if we do begin from a point of harmonised regulatory regimes. The European Union will not allow any compromise of the Single Market, or indeed of its internal market, and two years is not a reasonable amount of time in which to expect a trade deal to have been negotiated anyway. Negotiating an FTA with the EU is not made a simple matter by regulatory harmonisation, though it will of course be useful. Barnier himself has pointed out, on the issue of a future trade agreement:

“The two phases are difficult. The second will be very different and will last several years. It is truly unique because instead of promoting regulatory convergence, it will aim to frame a difference. It will involve risks, including about its political ratification, making all the more necessary transparency around these topics.”

Here he is referring to the negotiation of a trade agreement outside of the Article 50 period, but he reinforces the point I have made about undermining the integrity of established European institutions. 

So, where are we? Again, I refer readers to the colourful graphic above. Right now, the mission is to iron out the three phase one issues, which are placed in front of us for very specific reasons. They aren't impassable and nor are they unreasonable. The Northern Ireland situation, for instance, requires a solitary, island-specific settlement and cannot be included within the remit of an FTA because both sides want a soft border, and FTAs with third countries necessitate border inspections. The reason for this is a basic point about enforcement. The EU has legal jurisdiction in the internal affairs of member states, so checks and inspections take place at the point of production, rather than at the border. 

After the phase one issues are agreed upon, the specifics will need to be ironed out and then trade and add-ons (like participation in cross-European initiatives, such as Euratom, security agencies and aviation agreements) will be discussed. Trade will need to be discussed within this two-year window because we will need to trade with the European Union on and after Brexit day. It is important therefore to distinguish between 'trade talks' and the negotiation of a free trade deal, which as we have outlined comes after leaving. 

On March 29th, 2019 Britain, at least officially, leaves the European Union. It is at this point that we become a third country. We embark upon a relationship outlined as part of the withdrawal agreement, with no free trade deal in place. It is from here on out that we can negotiate one, and it will not be a simple or quick process. These things never are. 

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Brexit: it's all about the language

In the absence of regular blogging (due in part to increased studying workload and in part to stagnant Brexit talks), I have been rather enjoying my new role as composer of Brexit-related Twitter threads, especially since it has involved exposing John Redwood, one of the debate's most odious liars. It has certainly been a useful tool for informing other users and encouraging the growth of my personal social media following. I will soon be using both Facebook Live and Periscope to communicate ideas to friends and followers in the hope of injecting any useful knowledge I might have into general debate. 

Of course, I could have updated this blog with a daily entry over the past four to five weeks, but content would have been very repetitive given the lack of progress that has been made in Brussels since the election. And what a farce this is all turning out to be. I don't know how anybody can put even a remotely positive spin on things. The government has made so many unmistakable errors since and prior to invoking Article 50 that clinging to anything resembling hope now appears too difficult to imagine. I am sorry to write in such a pessimistic manner, but I cannot bring myself to fake optimism when it has been drained from me so painstakingly over the last few months. 

These tactical errors range from the obvious to the subtle. In hindsight, we now know that to call an election back in late spring was a mistake that did not do what it promised: give the government a stronger hand. We also know, as my former director Dominic Cummings has recently pointed out, that invoking Article 50 without adequate preparation and consultation on phase one issues and sequencing was suicide, and we are now paying the price. But there are other mistakes being made which are not so easy to spot and analyse. And what is more, they are happening all the time, not in dispersed fashion or as intermittent events. 

A prime example is our use of political discourse to evaluate the ongoing Brexit process and our withdrawal options. The language which frames this discourse is painting a deceptive and misleading picture of the Article 50 period, its scope and purpose, and indeed what lies beyond it. There are two major examples (as well as others, less recognised) of this problem which I think we ought to address, because they are causing discussion to veer away from fact and reality, and this is especially dangerous, perhaps now more than ever. The first is the phrase 'Brexit negotiations' and the second the assertion that we can 'fall back' on to WTO rules; a 'WTO fallback', they point out. 

The former is now so embedded within political commentary that it is impossible to avoid. The Article 50 period has, above anything else, been an opportunity for the bubble to showcase its envied negotiating skill. Agencies, journalists and politicians are endlessly reciting the negotiating rulebook, forgetting, of course, that the Article 50 process is not a standard negotiation, so these principles are more or less thrown out of the window. Most trenchant has been their insistence that taking the threat of a no deal to the negotiating table must stand firm as a core principle of Britain's approach to talks in Brussels. Again, this is applicable in an ordinary negotiation. The Article 50 process ought not be viewed in this context. 

The prism through which it is more useful to view this period of talks is one of clarification. But one also has to factor in the background behind the Article 50 process. The clause itself was proposed and authored by Alterio Spinelli, who believed that the Article was necessary on the grounds that the European Union needed to be seen to be democratic and what he referred to as a 'voluntary association of members', not a 'trap' for the unwilling. Back then, of course, when the constitutional conventions were under way prior to the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, nobody believed Article 50 would actually be invoked. In Brussels, to be part of the machine means to be a big believer in it. Article 50 has always been far more about image and spin than ever an ideal mechanism through which a member state may leave the Union. 

I argue that Article 50 talks are not a standard negotiation for a very distinct reason. The European Union cannot do anything to undermine membership of itself or the Single Market. Offering specific preferential treatment would break WTO MFN rules concerning equal treatment, and of course, were that to happen, a diplomatic crisis would ensue. Every other third country (which we become on March 29th 2019) would come banging on the doors in Brussels demanding every single concession granted to Britain for operation after it has officially withdrawn. The narrative being constructed by Britain's media is that the EU refuses to engage with the UK and as such progress is unlikely. Some publications report on this in such a way as to stick it directly to Leave voters, as if they themselves were as in tune with the facts as the blogosphere has been throughout all of this.  

Of course, there is some arguing of the toss - micro-negotiations, if you will. I don't pretend that there is nothing to argue over. I am not arguing that there is no negotiating, I am arguing that standard negotiating rules do not apply, for specific legal, existential circumstances. Instead, as I say, we need to view this two-year window through the lens of it being a period of clarification, especially so in the case of the United Kingdom because it has a uniquely difficult situation to deal with relating to the Northern Irish border (made more complex by our commitment to leaving the Single Market). The responsibility lies with the departing state to outline, with (thus far non-existent) clarity, proposals that will help to mould the "framework" for the "future partnership", which is referred to in the Article 50 text. 

It's not a divorce or a separation, either. Again, this language is unhelpful. It is a transformation of the existing ties and relations between European countries (and third countries by extension). Whatever shape the future partnership takes needs to be framed in accordance with international law and must therefore take into account rules concerning equal treatment. There are barriers and inherent constrictions impacting upon Article 50 discussion which limit the scope of what exactly can be achieved and what concessions can reasonably be awarded by Brussels. And the very misapprehension of this issue is causing frustration in British political circles, and increasingly we are seeing - such as here and here - attempts to glamourise a no deal scenario, likely out of frustration. This is dangerous and irresponsible. 

Now, for the record, I think a 'no deal' is a bit of a contradiction in terms, because falling out with no deals will spark urgent deals, but there is a distinct risk of falling out with no trading preparations in place: this is called the WTO option. What interests me about current commentary related to this option is the way in which relying solely on WTO treaties and agreements is regarded as some kind of lifeline or plan B, as if in practice it is workable. The term 'fallback' appears to imply that the WTO option (I would further add here that the use of the word 'option' is itself false: it is certainly no option) is some kind of trading equivalent of a welfare state. But here's the truth: it isn't. The World Trade Organisation is a negotiating forum, at which countries come together to resolve disputes with one another and propose and agree on base rules for the global trading system. 

What we call 'WTO rules' are not a template body of regulatory material or a regime as such. They are a base upon which members are free to regulate according to their compatibility with other members and economic or foreign policy needs. A couple of important points need to be made here, because deliberate lies are being peddled in an attempt to force through an illusory agenda. Firstly, we do not trade with most of the world solely on WTO terms. That doesn't make any logical sense. Why do trade agreements, be it bilateral or multilateral, exist? Because global agreements don't suffice. I prefer to give readers the means by which they can disprove myths for themselves. This is much more useful for folks seeking to wade through deception. 

If you are indeed interested, Google 'EU treaty database' and click the tab the says 'search by country'. You will arrive at this link. It outlines the integrated trading relationships that the UK (through membership of the EU) has with third countries. Even with those countries one would not ordinarily expect as being notable trading partners. There are 142 agreements with the United States alone, and many with vastly smaller and less influential economies. Of course, within these agreements are references to general precedents outlined at the WTO, such as within GATT, but they are not themselves sufficient for ensuring that trade facilitation is strong or can continue at its current flow. 

Secondly, debate around the viability of the WTO option is made incredibly poorer by the fact that commentators refuse to talk about the impact that non-tariff barriers will have upon British trade were we to go down this route. I linked above to a clip of Brexit Central's Darren Grimes talking about the adoption inferior, MFN tariff schedules. This is absolutely typical of the assessment of the WTO option. Nobody is talking about the necessity for customs agreements and MRAs, which are agreements on the mutual recognition of documents, licensing, certificates and qualifications; all of which are necessary for continued trade in services and for allowing lorries off the ferry and in to France. 

The point, therefore, is that 'fallback' doesn't cut it. It assumes better of an awful situation and implies that WTO rules cover all necessary bases. We would be falling back on to something which will not hold us up. If readers are interested, I have written at greater length about the WTO option here and here. I want to make clear that I take an honest and deliberately tough stance against it because I take my vote and referendum campaigning very seriously. I am conscious that my vote will affect livelihoods and I genuinely consider the WTO route to be disastrous. In this sense, the 'cliff-edge' analogy is at least a more appropriate description, discredited though it may be amongst large sections of political commentary. 

Getting our domestic discourse right is, in my humble opinion, vert important. Current frames on debate are misleading voters in a moth-to-a-flame like manner. Spin is no longer useful, we are not in referendum mode any more, where we must be conscious of what is and what isn't politically sellable. We are in the middle of a sensitive period, not only in the country's history, but for the stability of global trade. Getting our language right may only be a small step on the path ahead, but it's vital we take it. 

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

An interesting Brexit experiment worthy of analysis

At my previous blog I wrote quite a long essay about House of Lords reform. In it, I criticised proposals to have the Upper House entirely elected and instead delved into the possibility of transforming it into a citizen's chamber, filled by randomly-selected members of the public. It would be built on a political process known formally as sortition and would, given application, bring an end to the slow and painful death of the peerage. I have, alas, misplaced the original essay, and would not say that I have every contingency covered for. Any criticism of the idea is welcome in the comments below. Both my Masters and this blog serve as a steep learning curve for me and aid intellectual growth. It would be naive to suggest that all of my opinions are at this stage fully formed. 

This post is not actually about the House of Lords. Rather, I was reminded of sortition earlier this afternoon when I came across this, very interesting article published by the Electoral Reform Society. It talks about a recent social experiment on Brexit involving members of the public. The format was as follows:

"Members of the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit – randomly selected to capture the diversity of the UK population – met in Manchester to consider options for the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with Europe.The project, which we at the ERS were partners in, follows a recognition that the public have been largely left out of debates on Brexit, with parties split over what voters want. 
What stood out this weekend was this: when given the opportunity to engage in in-depth discussions on everything from the Single Market to migration policy, citizens jump at the chance.
The 50-strong Assembly has been endorsed by a range of high-profile figures from across the Brexit divide, including Conservatives Bernard Jenkin and Nicky Morgan, Labour’s Chuka Umunna, and Leave backer Harsimrat Kaur. That means it has real buy-in from all parts of the Brexit spectrum.
Crucially, the Assembly’s members were selected to reflect last year’s Brexit vote, alongside social class, region, age, gender and ethnicity. Of the 50 members, 25 voted Leave in the 2016 referendum, 22 voted Remain and 3 did not vote."

It sounds quite typical of these sort of experiments. There is a book by David Van Reybrouck, which I highly recommend to readers, called Against Elections: the case for democracy, in which a compendium of similar research experiments is produced and talked about at great length. One such example is referenced in the aforementioned article: the convention in Ireland which led to a referendum on same-sex marriage. They are intriguing because they often help to dispel the myth that the general population are largely stupid and politically inept. They tend to show that when ordinary people come together to engage in productive and thoughtful discussion, solutions to problems do not follow particularly far behind. 

Four votes were put to the control group, on immigration policy, trade with the EU, global trade policy and the overall Brexit deal. The responses given were fairly interesting, though not necessarily things which I agree with. Darren Hughes' article notes:

"On trade with the EU members voted for a bespoke trade deal ahead of staying in the Single Market. But should that prove impossible, their preference was to stay in the Single Market rather than agree no deal at all. 
On trade outside the EU members preferred a bespoke customs deal, allowing the UK to strike its own international trade deals but maintain frictionless borders. If that can’t be achieved they would opt to remain in the Customs Union rather than do no deal. 
On immigration, Assembly Members were offered five options, of which retaining free movement, but with the government making full use of existing controls, won a clear majority of the vote. 
On the overall deal with the EU, Assembly Members preferred a comprehensive trade deal combined with favourable access for EU citizens. If such a deal proves unattainable, they again wanted the UK to stay in the Single Market rather than do no deal."

What strikes me most is the level of balance provided by the people involved. For instance, it would have been easy for the group to suggest that it would be best to opt for a comprehensive FTA whilst at the same time ensuring that free movement was brought to an end and government given maximum control over immigration. This isn't to say that respondents were flaunting their ability to provide nuance and accounting for every plausible detail when deciding upon issues, but these sorts of findings are at least encouraging. 

The interesting point about bringing citizens together in debate format before asking them to make decisions on issues is that individuals tend to have quite an acute sense of the enormity of a political question and are likely to work towards a compromise, even if doing so necessitates substituting out their own personal opinions. In this respect it is an intrinsically mature process, with an inevitable spectrum of views providing a natural mechanism for checks and balances. I argue here that deliberative polling models produce more authentic and reliable results because they measure not reflex thought, but thought which has been predicated on debate and more rigorously scrutinised external input. There may be lessons for polling companies present here. 

Experiments like this also set quite an interesting precedent for alterations to the voting system and for the effectiveness of coalitions in government. They show that people of differing viewpoints can coexist and work towards constructive solutions to complex problems. Of course, I am not suggesting that deliberative processes like citizen assemblies do not have their problems. It is possible to argue that they create voids of expertise and direction. Results will also to a large extent depend upon the kinds of people drafted in to take part. But, there are undoubtedly positive signs for their use in British (and international) politics. 

And they aren't new either. In 1996, the American political scientist James Fishkin set up the National Issues Convention, which comprised of 600 randomly selected American citizens spread evenly across the states. Respondents were fully (and privately) compensated and brought together for a weekend. The idea was to have them discuss America's greatest social challenges and propose useful solutions. Upon consideration of results, Fishkin noted that 'the sense of common purpose' created an hospitable environment for fruitful and meaningful debate. The control group also came out of the experiment better able to adjust and accommodate their political persuasions in the face of intellectual complexity. 

My view is that the Electoral Reform Society's sortition-based, deliberative (exercise of democracy by which people actively partake in decision making and discussion, as opposed to simply voting) social experiment demonstrated these characteristics. Those who took part deserve credit for reforming their views in the face of an issue the magnitude of Brexit. I know better than most, given how my leanings have changed, how difficult it can be to understand the many facets of our EU withdrawal. Let us hope that these groups one day play a more official and fixed role in political participation.