The finish line of 29th March is nothing more than a mirageby / October 2, 2018 / Leave a comment
Brexit has three qualities which make it so insufferable. It is very boring, very demanding and very long-winded. It is quite likely that you are going to have to talk and read about it for at least the next decade of your life.
That seems intolerable. After all, we’ve so far been discussing it for about two-and-a-half years and we all seem to have aged at twice the normal speed. The news, which used to be full of current affairs and the latest developments in ongoing moral and political debates, is now a series of ever-evolving contortions on the basis of technical jargon. Nothing actually seems to happen, ever, but it all makes an extraordinary amount of noise while not happening. The great battle of ideas which shapes the country has been replaced by incessant internecine party squabbling. Basic standards of decency in rhetoric and accuracy have deteriorated at a remarkable speed.
It feels like there’s a finish line in sight. March 2019 will see us leave the EU. A final deal needs to be brought before the British and European parliaments before then—probably by the end of the year. Article 50, which is not so much a law as a punishment mechanism, does at least have one virtue: it provides a firm end date.
But in the reality the finish line is a mirage. The negotiations are in fact split in two: one deals with the divorce and the other deals with the future relationship. The divorce covers the budget payment, citizens’ rights and the Irish backstop. The future relationship is where we agree what on earth we’re going to do in future. The first is a legal treaty. Once you sign it, you cannot go back on it. The second is just a political declaration. You can stuff it full of all sorts of sweetness and light and then get the daggers out afterwards.
This means that Brexit never ends. It goes on forever, with fewer and fewer returns. We leave the EU in late March 2019. On 1st April—perfect day for it—we start negotiating our future relationship.
Brexiters say this can be done quickly. They are wrong. Their preferred model—a Canada-style free trade agreement—took five years to negotiate and another two to ratify. That includes the whacky and exciting period in which it can be voted down by any national parliament of an EU member state or in some cases its regional parliaments.
The proponents of this idea stress that we already have the same trading rules in place as the EU, so this makes it easier, but that is a fundamental misunderstanding. The negotiations will not be about where things are now but with what happens when they change. That’s why the independent arbitration system will be crucial. It’s very easy to say we’ll have the same standards but different ways of getting there, but in reality considerable thought and infrastructural ingenuity will need to be put into this system.
A Canada-style deal will also be nothing like Canada’s actual deal. This is because of Father Dougal theory: we are close and they are far away.
Both sides accept this but it makes the whole thing far more time-consuming. The EU demands that we adopt its state aid rules and environmental standards even under a bare-bones free trade agreement. Essentially it wants the obligations of Norway for the advantages of Canada.
That sounds unfair and perhaps it is a little. But Britain is a major economy sat right on the EU doorstep. If it turns fully towards the US and drops environmental, animal welfare, chemical, data protection and food standards, then that affects the EU. If it starts ramping up subsidies to domestic firms to allow them to out-compete European ones, that also has an effect. The EU is not being paranoid. Both of these would be tempting mechanisms as we got poorer outside the single market. And Liam Fox has already shown Washington so much leg it’s not clear he’s even wearing trousers anymore.
Meanwhile, the Brexiters are functionally incapable of making an argument for Canada without veering off and chucking in another bunch of things they want. And these things are almost always aspects of single market membership. They want just-in-time industrial processes, for instance, which are only possible on the basis of the frictionless trade created by shared regulations. They want, as Boris Johnson demanded in his tragicomic proposals in the Telegraph last week, full participation in the European aviation system, which again operates through shared regulation.
It is simply not true that this will be quick. The negotiations will likely last for years and then it’ll take ages after that to ratify them. And even then, after all that, we’ll have to go around the world sorting out other deals with countries who wanted to see how things settled with the UK before dealing with us directly. On and on it will trundle, jargon upon tedium upon despair, with the eventual aim of making us poorer and less important. It’s like an arty European film about the meaninglessness of life.
The only way out is another referendum. People are instinctively wary of this, because the last one was such a nightmare. But at least it is a short sharp shock of horror. The alternative is to string it out forever.