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. 


  1. An analogy that might be useful in explaining the limitations of WTO rules would be to compare the construction of trading relationships to building a house. WTO rules provide the foundation, but if all you've got is a foundation and no walls or roof then you're going to be pretty uncomfortable. The EFTA/EEA option is moving to a different house in a better neighbourhood. A bespoke trade agreement is building a new house to your own design. The "WTO rules" option is knocking down the house and trying to live on the foundations.

  2. This is just more Remainer claptrap because nobody has called relying on WTO rules a "fallback" position other than those opposed to Brexit.

    Media outlets like this are paying no regard to the fact that more than half of British voters, in voting for the UK to leave the EU clearly showed that there has been a denial of popular acceptance of the UK's continued involvement in the European project. And refusing to accept this judgement does not and cannot change this fact.

    The media say that the UK government is divided but they are short-sighted by merely exaggerating any perceived weaknesses in the government's negotiating position when there are clear indications that both sides intend to establish such a mutually beneficial partnership - it is also clearer about its aspirations for the future than critics give it credit for, whether you approve of those aspirations or not.

    What the media need to make clear is that the EU has already entered into agreements with 'third countries' that create a relationship of the kind sought by the UK government, and there is no reason to doubt that this is what it has in mind for its partnership with the EU.

    Nevertheless, these are negotiations between two parties and the signs are that through gradual compromises significant progress has been made with more to follow. For instance, although not widely reported, many of the issues on citizens' rights have been agreed in recent weeks and the UK actually has made a commitment to pay its share of the current budget while broad agreement has been reached on the principle of a unique solution to keep the Irish land border open.

    It cannot be understated that these are immensely complicated negotiations and, so far, there has been a tendency for the serious media to pay too little regard to the nuances and too much to trivia and 'noises off' from people like Messrs. Juncker and Verhofstadt who are not even involved directly in the talks. The BBC's increasing obsession with the prospect and potential consequences of 'no deal', an outcome sought by neither side, exemplifies their tendency to focus on a sensational, if somewhat unlikely eventuality given that both parties have stressed that they are not, at least currently, working under the hypothesis that this will be the final outcome of the negotiations.

    While acknowledging the differences between the parties, it is equally important to recognise the important common ground they occupy. Above all, both have said that they intend to establish a new close relationship to replace UK membership of the EU, and the European Council has said that it welcomes a “close partnership” and added that any "agreement should be balanced, ambitious and wide-ranging” - again not widely reported in the British media.

    So, there is still in fact the possibility of an acceptable outcome for both sides.

    1. David Reardon, its not Remainer claptrap....Oliver Norgrove is a leaver and was part of the Vote Leave campaign. Secondly many Brextremists who actually crave no deal are constantly tallimg about falling back on WTO (e.g. John Redwood, Douglas Carswell). And as for the third country agreements that EU has none of them will suffice for the UK because none of them include services which is a much larger % of UK economy than it is the EU economy, financial services making up 12% of our GDP alone.

      Time to cut the Brextremist claptrap and start realise that we are heading towards disaster here.