Wednesday, 14 November 2018

And now we wait


You'll have to excuse me for the prolonged radio silence here since the summer. I have been juggling full time work and a Masters degree and have not had the time or energy to contribute with anything close to the consistency I managed last year. That and, to put things mildly, we haven't heard much in the way of substantive policy developments emanating from Brexit discourse since really last winter. In recent months discussion has mostly taken the form of speculation, until the whipping up of rapid panic which has gripped elite circles and political Twitter over the last 48 hours.

Tonight, we await the publishing of the long-awaited withdrawal agreement. If those mysterious "sources" are broadly accurate, we are looking at a deal which reflects a Prime Minister trying her utmost to wriggle out of a corner. If the period of transition (March 2019-December 2020) does not yield the proposals needed to establish a workable framework for future trade, taking into account red lines and both sides' constitutional requirements, the backstop will appear thus: an all-UK customs union and a NI-specific arrangement on full single market participation.

The exact nature of the Northern Ireland element is very interesting and I am hesitant to make any firm predictions at this point. I will say that I think the provisions will be extensive but subtle, likely bolted into annexes by the Commission, knowing full well that most people won't bother to read them. Some reports have suggested that the backstop is a full UK setup, with "deeper provisions" for Northern Ireland, but to me this is all semantics and my assumption is that an all-UK formulation will end up appearing more like a two-tier system of rules, establishing a customs border in the Irish Sea.

What is interesting is that though none of this has been confirmed, one would be forgiven for thinking it had been judging by the ferocity of the Tory Brexiter response. I can't say I have much sympathy for them. Their input has not extended very far beyond sloganeering and wild claims about the alleged fruits of a no deal scenario. And that applies to the assortment of think tanks which lace the Tufton Street area. Mrs May has done well in my estimation to keep their influence at arms length and she should perhaps be credited for not entertaining a no deal scenario as much as she could have.

I will reserve judgement on the withdrawal agreement until I have sunk my teeth into the meat and potatoes of it but for now it might be worth examining a rather interesting parallel with Norway's EU accession referendum in 1994, which saw a turnout of almost 90% of the voting electorate. The result swung, of course, in favour of 'No', by 52.2% to 47.8%, and the country proceeded to establish an appropriately reflective relationship with the EU given the proximity of the vote. The EEA Agreement became the destination for the Norwegians, symbolising their intention to stay close but remain outside.

Ostensibly, what appears to be the fabric of May's draft exit agreement more or less mirrors this concept and that is no bad thing. This is one thing it will have going for it and observers of Brexit, particularly those of the Leave persuasion, would do well to acknowledge it. What we are looking at in the coming days is not the Norway option but oddly enough it does have a Norwegian tinge to it because we are in effect reverse engineering a broadly opposite (yet almost symmetrical) approach to our European trade and political relations.

The UK's over-reliance on JIT supply chains and deep integration within the EU's internal systems (the union customs code, rapid alert system, market surveillance programme - the list is extensive) make it difficult to coordinate any abrupt or fully detached exit. This isn't how trade works. Globalisation of standards, driven in no small part by the EU itself, seriously undermines any logic in leaving the structures of the single market. Especially if done so on a semi-constitutional basis where a part of the Kingdom remains embedded further within the system than another part.

A few minutes ago the Prime Minister announced that the cabinet had agreed to allow the government to proceed and work with both the draft withdrawal agreement and outline for the political declaration. We are told that a statement is due in the Commons tomorrow, but that trailing just behind this news is a bubble of thus far well-repressed anger in Tory ERG circles. Yesterday I predicted that May would be toppled as a result of her agreement and there is every chance this will still happen. Chequers initiated two resignations and I don't expect this deal to be any different.

I must confess that if May is toppled I'll be a little choked up for her. She hasn't been an exemplary Prime Minister by any stretch of the imagination and I find her politics a little too authoritarian and ban-happy. But what she has managed to do is walk a tightrope of tightropes, enduring the respective gravitational pulls of the factional interests around her, in order to cobble together what may best be described as a half way house between what is desired from the Brexiteers and what is required at negotiator level to satisfy thorny issues like the Irish border.

Don't mistake my comments for unbridled support. I would have preferred a shot at Efta and at least a concerted effort to plug the customs union gap by stitching together various country-specific protocols to deal with the residual border demands - even if unsuccessful. One wonders whether a commitment to Efta from the outset might have created sufficient political will to craft something hodge-podged and technologically bespoke for dealing with any residual border issues. I also think a simple association agreement would have been preferable to an apportioned backstop settlement afflicting a certain segment of the country. But hey-ho, there is little more we can squeeze out of reality.

The withdrawal agreement is now online and available here, alongside the outline on the political declaration. Events have unfolded since I began writing but I am yet to properly read either document. 

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