The Arrogance Of Ignorance

Britain’s EU referendum was an educational experience in the sense that I no longer have any expectation that people in positions of authority and influence will have any more knowledge or be any better informed than I am.

In many cases, politicians and journalists, in particular, are clearly less informed than they should be. The persistent confusion over basic definitions including the “EU”, “EEA”, “EFTA” and the “EU Customs Union”—even after six months of Brexit topping the political agenda—is too common to be born of anything other than ignorance.

If you know a bit about the organisations and agreements these terms describe, the meanings of the associated labels are unambiguous. Yet the Diplomatic Editor for the Guardian newspaper, the appointed campaign groups (Leave and Remain) and even the Prime Minister herself are apparently incapable of clear communication.

By way of summary, EFTA members, three of which (Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein) participate in the Single Market via the EEA agreement, are not bound by the Common External Tariff or the Common Commercial Policy. EU policies only apply to EU Member States. Outside of the EU, the UK will enjoy the same freedom to negotiate trade agreements as all other non-EU Member States, as well as full self-representation on the global standards-setting bodies which are at the heart of the multilateral trading system.

Even that level of detail seems to elude our politicians and the legacy news-media.

Prior to the referendum campaign, I used to wonder what game people like John Redwood and David Cameron were really playing. Now I just presume that they do not know any better. They live in an unreal world—let’s call it “the bubble”—and their false assertions and poor argumentation are born of that limitation.

It was while reading a book about the history of the PC that the idea finally “clicked”. The book was full of lots of details with which I was already familiar, but the story was well told, and then, like a hammer, it stuck me; many of the real innovators in the computer world, aware of Moore’s Law since the 1960s, wrongly presumed that the business and engineering people at IBM were “holding back” PC technology for “political reasons”. The people who the personal computing pioneers presumed were in the best position to understand the revolution that was obviously underway didn’t know what was going on, as IBM demonstrated in its dealings with Microsoft and the “PC clones” later on.

The Altair 8800 was introduced in January, 1975, six years before IBM launched the first “Personal Computer (PC)”. The Apple I followed the Altair to market in 1976, and by the time IBM understood what was happening, the home computer industry had already been largely colonised by hippie-adventurers, operating mainly out of the west coast of the USA.

Ted Nelson, the man who coined the term “hypertext” and envisioned much of the modern networked world before it existed, tells the story thusly:

I’m conspiracy-minded. From 1970 to about 1979, I thought that IBM was deliberately suppressing personal computing. I later learned that they didn’t have a clue. They thought that computers had to be run by big departments. I found this out in the late ’70s when they asked me to consult on whether they should get into personal computing.

Ironically, 20 years later, with the Internet nascent but on a rapid adoption curve due to Berners-Lee’s WWW, Bill Gates found himself in a similar position to IBM. The biggest home software company in the history of the world was not even thinking about browser technology until a group of student programmers at the University of Illinois showed what was possible with Mosaic and, later, Netscape Navigator, introducing arguably the most significant consumer software product of all time, before Microsoft had noticed what was happening. I guess this is a perennial.

With the people who occupy positions of power in state institutions and their media ancillaries demonstrating that they have given up on thinking for themselves, if change is going to come, we will have to look beyond the ideas of bygone eras and start to innovate again. The usual suspects don’t know what they’re doing.

Alternative Exit Options


Theresa May has proposed that Britain and the EU should negotiate a comprehensive free trade agreement (FTA) under the terms of the two-year Article 50 process. The Prime Minister is presumed to have opted for this approach as a means to “take back control” of regulation, immigration and money sent to the EU.

I find it fascinating that the three topics I described in October 2015 as “the unholy and divided trinity of the Brexit debate”, the three topics that Tory “eurosceptics” have been “banging on about” for decades, which failed to arrest, let alone reverse even a single solitary slither of EU integration, are the same three topics that are now being presented to us as the foremost political objectives for the forthcoming exit negotiations.

In that earlier blog post, I advised people to pay attention to the fact that the featured Daily Telegraph article, which noted that “immigration, sovereignty and the EU budget are the main reasons for Britons’ hostility to the EU”, was written by an employee of the Centre for European Reform—an organisation that routinely receives operating grants from the EU.

What I foresaw, and wrote about in more detail elsewhere, was the legacy europhiles and legacy eurosceptics setting us up for a win-lose scenario, whereby, even if we won the vote, we may still lose the battle to leave the EU. In short, Vote Leave proferred a set of undeliverable objectives, which, I am told, must now shape the UK’s EU withdrawal.

That argument necessarily ignores the fact that Vote Leave refused to present referendum voters with a Brexit plan. The fact that the “leave” campaign had “no plan” was a persistent refrain throughout the referendum debate. In the absence of a plan, the now common refrain that both the “remain” and the “leave” campaigns were “clear” falls more than a little flat.

Certainly, the “remain” campaign spent much of the referendum period promoting misleading rubbish about every pre-existing alternative to EU membership. The most enduring legacy of the Vote Leave campaign, it appears, was to aid the “remain” camp in shutting down what Jonathan Lindsell described as the “safest Brexit option”, rejoining EFTA so as to participate in the Single Market via the EEA agreement.

To that end, it is worth looking in more detail at what other “alternative arrangements” the Vote Leave campaign promoted. Campaign Manager, Dominic Cummings, repeatedly sought to problematise the idea of a negotiated exit via Article 50, and, in January 2016, Daniel Hannan said that only a “vote to leave” would prompt the EU to offer “proper concessions” and “associate membership”. Why any of this should be regarded as compelling evidence for the UK government to preclude any particular exit route is frankly beyond me.

Indeed, it is worth recalling the other campaign messages which are apparently shaping Mrs May’s approach. The messages fall broadly under three main headings, the same three headings highlighted by the employee of the Centre for European Reform in his Daily Telegraph article, the same three headings I warned could lead us down a cul-de-sac from which there may be no escape; regulation, immigration and money.

Now, let us consider each of these in the context of a comprehensive FTA. In terms of money, obviously the FTA will require administration. That is not going to be free. In terms of regulation, a comprehensive FTA will require an arbitration authority and a commitment to regulatory convergence, which will require businesses that want to sell their goods and services into the Single Market to comply with the appropriate regulation. And, finally, the big one for many people, on the issue of immigration or free movement (it would be helpful if we could start to tease the two apart), any comprehensive FTA, which includes trade in services, will of necessity include provisions for free movement of workers.

It seems to me that in setting her end game as an FTA, nominally as a sop to the Tory right, Mrs May is pursuing a far more risky and uncertain negotiation than necessary in order to arrive at a position that broadly resembles Single Market membership as part of the EFTA pillar of the EEA agreement—without the advantages associated with that arrangement—the main difference being that this FTA is being presented to us as our “final settlement”.

The EEA interim would, by contrast, be a temporary staging post, a comparatively safe harbour from which the UK could rebuild its domestic administration and policy-making framework, pending further negotiation to arrive at a much more ambitious final settlement.

The process leading to the establishment of the EEA agreement started in the mid 1980s with EFTA and what was then the EEC agreeing to pursue the creation of a ‘European Economic Space’. Subsequently overtaken by events, the idea proposed by the then President of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, would have entailed new administrative and decision-making structures. To this day, the desire to “regularise” its neighbourhood policy, remains an important EU objective.

That gives us our opening. An imaginative British Prime Minister could present Britain’s EU exit as an opportunity to revive the idea of the European Economic Space (EES) as a means to put relations with our nearest neighbours and strategic partners on a solid foundation. In light of the WTO Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade, as a result of which the EU increasingly adopts international standards as the basis for its technical regulation, and the Vienna and Dresden agreements, which are intended to bring EU and international standards into even closer alignment, the UK could set as its end game, not an FTA, but a new framework for co-operation in the areas of trade and technical regulation founded upon the “International Model” pioneered by UNECE.

This new settlement would extend economic co-operation across the whole of Europe, encompassing not only the EU27 (minus the UK) but the entire European geographical area, with each nation wielding an independent right of initiative and of opt-out. This would also give the UK government a positive objective to work towards and a path to follow as we transition from an EFTA/EEA framework to an agreement which would work longer term.

This is not as far fetched as it may sound. The UK is still an important country and adopting a constructive approach, which offers the EU the opportunity for a win-win in the exit negotiations, could engender the goodwill to work productively with our nearest neighbours and geopolitical allies throughout the withdrawal process and onwards into the future.

By contrast, Mrs May’s desire “to have reached an agreement about our future partnership by the time the two-year Article 50 process has concluded” could see the UK locked inside the EU for a God knows how long, pending completion of the “implementation phase”. To quote John Lydon, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”

The Debate We Never Had

The Prime Minister has given a speech. What I thought would be nebulous, non-committal and wishy-washy was in fact quite clear. The content, however, was less encouraging. Mrs May shows scant sign of understanding the scale of the task on which the country has embarked.

In a sense, I am glad that she has taken a position. Now we know broadly where we stand. I think that this was necessary and the timing is right.

I am surprised by the positions she has taken. The decision to proscribe particular approaches to exit before the negotiations have begun—and the EU has made its positions known—strikes me as extraordinarily foolish. Why set up such enormous hostages to fortune prior to beginning talks?

Mrs May talked vaguely about a transition, which makes sense, and she set a comprehensive free trade agreement as her end game. As I have argued for the past couple of weeks, the transition and the end game need to be discussed together because of the way in which the two are linked; certain objectives preclude other objectives while certain kinds of interim arrangement are practical and others are not.

To date, the question of whether a free trade agreement proffers the kind of end game that we really want is not even being asked. To me it suggests a somewhat shrunken view of Britain, and our place in Europe and the world. Is a free trade agreement with our nearest neighbours and many of our largest trading partners, countries with which we share the continent and the civilisational outlook that we call “Europe” and “European”, really appropriate? Might we be able to aim for something better?

Truman’s Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, famously said of this sceptred isle that “Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role”. Freeing ourselves from the supranational EU will allow Britain to play a unique role at the global level. We cannot match the USA or the EU or China in terms of market size, but we can compete in terms of ingenuity, agility and innovation, forging ad-hoc alliances and playing ‘honest broker’ to the other big blocks.

If the aim of the UK government is to be a champion of free trade and open collaboration then voluntarily erecting a mass of new technical barriers to trade with several of our biggest export markets sends out all of the wrong signals. Even if a free trade agreement with the EU is to be the eventual end game, the case for immediate withdrawal from the Single Market has not been made.

Indeed, the case for committing to not being party to the EEA agreement is almost always predicated on the notion that the appointed campaigns said so. As Dominic Cummings noted before Vote Leave was formed, campaign groups have no locus for negotiation. I have yet to hear anybody make the case for taking Britain out of the Single Market without an alternative framework for future co-operation to replace it.

Yet, I keep being told that the debate is over. That we had this fight and that people knew they were voting to leave the Single Market. Assertions such as these are false; the case was never made, and telling me to shut up because you cannot win an open debate really doesn’t cut it.

The referendum concerned the binary question of whether Britain should leave the EU. How we should leave the EU and what should follow thereafter was not addressed. People who think that it was are imagining things, inventing post-hoc rationalisations for their favoured outcome.

The fact is I don’t trust the Tories to deliver Brexit, and I find it unedifying to see a substantial proportion of “leave” voters becoming cheerleaders for Theresa May, treating critics with maximal intolerance. We have a way to go if we are going to make a go of this democracy lark.

To those who keep telling me “none of this matters, the decision has been taken”, why don’t you try arguing your case rather than telling me to stop arguing mine? Asserting that you know better than me is not an argument. This is not the end of anything, this is the start of the debate we never had.

The Appointed Campaigns Were Not Clear About The Single Market

On her recent Question Time appearance, Labour MP, Gisela Stuart, insisted that “both sides said a vote to leave would mean leaving the Single Market”. This oft-repeated assertion is deserving of more scrutiny than it has so far received.

First of all, I would be interested to know what Mrs Stuart means by “both sides”. She may mean the “leave” and “remain” campaigns granted “lead campaign” status by the Electoral Commission. To that end, it is worthwhile noting that the appointed campaigns were not the only groups or individuals involved in the referendum campaign. That is important.

Neither does either campaign group have any authority to make policy for the UK. As Vote Leave Campaign Manager, Dominic Cummings, wrote on his blog, shortly after the Tory election victory:

“A Government trying to leave the EU obviously needs an exit plan. The SNP needed an exit plan. But the NO campaign is neither a political party nor a government. It has no locus to negotiate a new deal.”

Ironically, had the “leave” campaign presented referendum voters with a coherent set of policy proposals, “leave” campaigners would now be in a far stronger position to exert political pressure on the UK government. Had that come to pass, it is unlikely that the establishment line would have been that “both sides were clear”. MPs and their friends in the legacy press would instead have argued that how Britain leaves the EU is a matter for the UK government to decide, regardless of what either of the appointed campaign groups may have argued.

In addition to questioning whether the appointed campaigns—both of which published and broadcast enormous amounts of misleading rubbish—are a legitimate authority with regards to determining the UK’s future relationship with the EU, I would also dispute the notion that both sides were “clear” in saying that a vote to leave the EU would mean immediately leaving the Single Market.

On the 19th April 2016, Michael Gove gave a speech in which he said:

“There is a free trade zone stretching from Iceland to Turkey that all European nations have access to, regardless of whether they are in or out of the euro or EU. After we vote to leave we will remain in this zone.”

What is that supposed to mean? What “free trade zone” is Gove talking about? Is there some form of agreement connected with this free trade zone that all the countries in it are signed up to? Does this free trade zone have a name and when did the countries of Europe sign up to this agreement?

At best, Gove’s statement is confused. Of the two countries mentioned, Iceland is part of EFTA and the EEA, while Turkey is not part of EFTA or the EEA, but is party to a customs union agreement with the EU. The most generous explanation is that Michael Gove does not know what he is talking about. Indeed, I have yet to hear a single MP provide an adequate description of the Single Market.

Then there is the Vote Leave campaign itself, and the bizarre comments made by Matthew Elliott and Dominic Cummings while appearing in front of the Treasury Select Committee. Asked whether he wanted Britain to be in or out of the Single Market, Dominic Cummings’ first response was to ask the MP asking the question how he would define the Single Market. Asked the question a second time, Cummings waffled about the “costs” of Single Market regulation, according to Vote Leave. Asked the question a third time, Cummings responded again, “What do you mean by the Single Market?”

Asked the question yet again, Cummings asserted that the European Commission defines Single Market membership as including membership of the euro and of Schengen, thereby implying that the UK is not in the Single Market. This statement is so strange one does not really know where to begin. Neither did the parliamentary committee.

The last thing this exercise in obfuscation was is clear. The exchange I am describing begins at around the fourteen minute mark and continues, at great length, with Cummings refusing to provide straight or “clear”, if you would prefer, answers to most of the questions asked.

As for remarks made by prominent “remain” campaigners regarding immediate withdrawal from the Single Market, David Cameron also said that, in the event of a “leave” vote, he would stay on as Prime Minister and immediately invoke Article 50, while George Osborne said that a vote to leave would necessitate an immediate tax hike, spending cuts and job losses beginning on the Friday after the vote.

It is not Gisela Stuart, and the like, arguing that the UK should leave the Single Market at the point of EU exit that I find problematic, it is her and people like her presenting their view as a fait accompli, as if the appalling referendum debate has already decided these matters. If she thinks immediate Single Market exit is the best way forward, she should make that argument on its merits, not call in aid statements made by campaign groups which no longer exist and have no locus of control or responsibility with respect to future decisions.

Brexit is Britain’s withdrawal from EU Treaties, Institutions and Representations. The referendum result proscribed nothing other than remaining in the EU. In light of the work that lies ahead, additional “hurdles to exit” are unnecessary baggage. Rebuilding competencies as part of the Single Market would allow the UK to leave EU within two years while seeking a “bespoke” deal risks taking much longer.

A Framework For Future Co-Operation

Appealing as the thought of a “clean break” may be, 44 years of political, economic and social integration will not be undone at the stroke of a pen. The more people who accept that straightforward presupposition, the sooner the debate on EU exit can move beyond the complexities of the withdrawal agreement—and any transitional arrangements related thereto—to focus on Britain’s objectives for its relationship with the EU, and the wider world, after exit.

A successful Article 50 negotiation will conclude with the UK and EU agreeing an alternative framework for future co-operation. Given time constraints and other complicating factors, seeking to rejoin EFTA, so as to participate in the Single Market via the EEA agreement, offers the “least worst” route out. It stands to reason that whatever is concluded during the course of those first two-years will not and cannot be allowed to be the final word on the matter.

To date, the legacy debate has focused almost exclusively on the kind of trading arrangements the UK should aim to agree with the EU after exit.

To that end, there are three main options. The unilateral approach—falling back on WTO rules and tariff baselines—the bilateral approach—negotiating a comprehensive free trade agreement (FTA)—and the multilateral approach—seeking to retain Single Market membership.

However, even in that limited context, it is wrong to view these options in isolation. Leaving the EU is not year-zero for UK trade policy and international relations, it is part of a continuum, which has antecedents in the past, and consequences for the future. Just as the exit negotiations will not begin with a blank slate, each of these alternative objectives imply associations, which will set a precedent for Britain’s independent trade policy.

The unilateral approach could engender the kind of “pull up the drawbridge”, “stop the world I want to get off” scenario that is frequently used to taunt Brexiteers. The bilateral approach would presage a by-the-numbers attempt to replicate the sorts of agreements that have led to the paralysis of the global trading system, and carries with it enormous risks as concerns the Article 50 negotiations.

Free of the EU, the UK has the opportunity to pursue a different route all together. Embracing a multilateral approach would enable Britain to “take a lead in kickstarting a programme of regulatory convergence to rebuild the global trading system”.

Modern free trade agreements are not only about regulatory harmonisation or alignment, the most sophisticated agreements also provide a dynamic means to resolve disputes and to keep those systems aligned. This is easier to achieve working on a multilateral (many-to-many), rather than a bilateral basis (one-to-one), with independent states opting in to sectoral or even product level agreements in accordance with their interests, without a supranational authority imposing a one-size-fits-all approach on often very different economies and cultures.

For instance, the idea that the UK would have more freedom to negotiate on services outside of the EEA appears to presume that the UK could make one set of agreements with one country and another set of agreements with another country. Those agreements would then have to take account of other agreements already in force and all of those agreements would need to be managed to resolve disputes and maintain mutual recognition of conformity.

There is no regulatory year-zero. The UK is stepping out into the global trading system and we will be confronted with the reality which has heretofore been hidden from us by our EU membership.

The way out of this complexity spiral is to pursue a multilateral approach and to add our weight and expertise to the institutions which are taking the power to make technical standards away from the supranational EU. An independent UK with an independent right of initiative and of opt out could break from the pattern of negotiating bilateral deals and strive instead to shape and develop the multilateral trading system, working alongside similarly-minded partners, such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand, playing ‘honest broker’ to the USA and EU.

I hope it is clear why leaving the Single Market without alternative arrangements in place would negatively impact Britain’s ability to pursue such an ambitious agenda. Electing to erect a mass of new technical barriers to trade would be an inauspicious start for a nation which wishes to expand trade facilitation by taking global standards and regulations, and influencing them at the top, so as to negate the necessity for bilateral deals and the technical conflicts they present.

The fact that we start from a position of tariff-free trade and regulatory harmonisation is not the advantage that some presume when you factor in the obvious corollary that the UK does not presently have an independent regulatory system. UK systems are EU systems. The problem we face is not one of bringing two different systems into alignment, but one of building new systems from a standing start. It is not as simple as carving out EU systems and slapping on a Union flag. The entire point of developing independent systems is to adopt processes which align with our own needs and interests. That will take some time.

Moreover, even if that were feasible, there is still the problem of arbitration and dispute resolution, which would need to be agreed. Not to mention the fact that decoupling UK administration is (far) from only about trade, and to date the political and media class have spent more than six months since the referendum discussing little else. The EEA ticks most of the necessary boxes with respect to trade and future co-operation. It also avoids opening up lots of complex areas for dispute, thereby reducing the risk of the Article 50 process getting diverted, derailed or dragging on too long.

A Positive Outcome

It is a testament to the power of the Remain campaign’s propaganda machine that Stronger In slogans are still being repeated, even after the vote. While prominent Vote Leave claims are subject to persistent ridicule, several of the Remainers’ repeated refrains are now being re-broadcast and, in some cases, even amplified by people and organisations which style themselves as Leavers.

Leave.EU, Change Britain and Brexit Central all assert that Britain leaving the EU must coincide with Britain leaving the Single Market, predicated on the same misleading arguments made by Stronger In and British Influence during the campaign. Indeed, a video doing the rounds features clips of pro-EU politicians saying that voting to leave the EU would necessarily mean leaving the Single Market.

This elision of the EU and the Single Market was understandable, if not excusable, in the context of a winner-takes-all referendum contest, but for some Leavers to insist that those prior assertions must now preclude the most straightforward “leave” options is perverse. Remainers also said that the act of voting to leave the EU would result in a catastrophic economic downturn, uncontrollable political turmoil, and even conflict.

Maybe somebody can explain why some campaign rhetoric should be taken at face value while the rest should be dismissed as reckless hyperbole. It seems to me as if the Tory right are pushing this particular line as a means to advance an agenda which would never otherwise be accepted by the British electorate.

For what it is worth, I do not like the idea of the Tory right setting the post-exit agenda any more than I like the idea of those who would like to reverse the referendum outcome making the running. Both parties represent extremes in this particular debate. However, I do find it odd to see people who acknowledge that a “bridging agreement” may be necessary taking fright at the idea of former Remainers accepting that an EFTA/EEA-type deal represents the kind of EU exit they could support.

The overwhelming majority of people accept that Britain must now leave the EU. That is, the UK government must withdraw from EU Treaties, Institutions and Representations. The concern that a staged approach to EU exit may make it easier for the UK to rejoin the EU at a later date is, in my view, unfounded. Provided that “leave” means “leave”, the UK would have to re-apply via Article 49 of the TEU, with no opt-outs and a commitment to join the euro and the Schengen no border zone.

Fears that EU exit could be usurped in this manner also fail to take account of the fact that, once Britain leaves the EU, its relationship with EU institutions and remaining EU Member States changes fundamentally. As much as the EFTA/EEA route is a “least change” scenario, which fulfils the strict referendum mandate, while also providing a comparative “safe harbour” in which the UK can work to discover the art of democratic self-governance, EFTA membership and participation in the EEA is not “half out”.

I remember having interminable discussions with eurosceptics and europhiles arguing over this very fact. Norway is not in the EU. Iceland is not in the EU. There is no credible case to be made that they are. Because they’re not. EFTA member states do not pay into the EU budget, they pay to participate in the Single Market. Neither are EFTA member states subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). The EEA agreement is a two-pillar system. The EFTA Court provides dispute resolution for EFTA members in the EEA. The existence of “safeguard measures” in the EEA agreement also grant the UK government a powerful mechanism to address the issue of immigration as part of EFTA.

Making the case for an EFTA/EEA type of arrangement immediately after exit is frustrating, in a way, because the purpose of any interim approach is to act as a means to an end. The UK and EU will need to agree a framework for future co-operation before the Article 50 timeline expires, and attempting to reach agreement on new structures and procedures for administering product certification, market surveillance and dispute resolution within two-years introduces unnecessary risk.

Once it is acknowledged that unwinding 44 years of political, economic and social integration will be a long-term process rather than a one-time event, the precise form any transitional arrangements should take becomes much less important than defining an end game—and that, as I have written on several occasions now, is where I think we really need to be.

I expect there to be plenty of disagreement about what the UK government should set as its objectives for the UK’s relationship with the EU after exit, which is precisely why the debate over what the UK should aim for after exit should begin as soon as possible.

I have observed three proposals for what could follow an interim arrangement. The first is to embrace the “WTO Option” (the unilateral route). The second is some kind of a comprehensive free trade agreement between the UK and EU, possibly akin to the deal that the European Commission is in the process of negotiating with Canada (the bilateral route). The third is for an independent Britain to break from the pattern of negotiating bilateral deals and strive instead to shape and develop the multilateral trading system, working alongside similarly-minded partners, such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand, playing ‘honest broker’ to the USA and EU (the multilateral route).

As part of such an approach, the UK could also play a catalysing role in the creation of an alternative framework for wider European co-operation, under the umbrella of UNECE, decoupling trade and technical regulation from the EU and moving Europe away from the dismal idea of a Europe of “concentric circles”, with the unaccountable, supranational European Commission at the centre, towards a genuinely co-operative model, which works better for everybody.

Free of the EU, the UK government will be in a position to pursue policies and approaches which were infeasible, or circumscribed, while Britain remained an EU Member State. A truly constructive approach to EU exit, which aims to deliver a win-win for the UK and continental Europe, could make EU withdrawal not only better for Britain but better for the world at large. With focus and vision, delivering that positive outcome would not only put the europhiles firmly back in their place, it would render any calls for the UK to return to the EU an irrelevance.

After Exit

Sir Ivan Rogers has resigned. I am surprised by the certainty of those who want to tell us that this is either fantastic news or a disaster. I am sure that I do not know.

His resigning letter is worth reading though. I would draw your attention to the following sentence.

“We do not yet know what the Government will set as negotiating objectives for the UK’s relationship with the EU after exit.”

There are several reasons why this sentence is interesting, most of which are liable to be missed by the usual suspects because they are not yet thinking in that direction.

While the idea of transitional arrangements has been at least partially acknowledged, there is not yet any clarity regarding the form those arrangements could or should take. The obvious choice, given the infeasibility of finding agreement on new forms for product certification, market surveillance and dispute resolution in the allotted time, is for the UK to step into the EFTA pillar of the EEA agreement and use the annexes which are part of the EEA to begin to model a bespoke relationship.

Agreement on using EFTA/EEA as a framework for future co-operation and collaboration in the short- to medium-term provides enough clarity for businesses to make plans and solves several immediate political problems, allowing the UK government to fulfil the strict referendum mandate delivered by the British people on June 23rd 2016 within two years, and allowing the EU to quickly move beyond the Article 50 process so as to focus on the escalating crises in the eurozone and across the Mediterranean.

Now, I would like to turn your attention back to Ivan Roger’s sentence and, in particular, the part about the “UK’s relationship with the EU after exit”. If you haven’t cottoned on to it yet, the words I find so interesting are “after exit”. That, after all, is what Brexit is all about; defining a new relationship for the UK with the EU after exit.

Yet, who among the legacy politicians and pundits is even broaching the subject of what should happen after we leave the EU? For all of the tedious repetition of (frequently misunderstood) technicalities, the broader vision for how the UK and EU should interrelate in the years and decades to come is curiously absent. It is as if people really have swallowed the europhile propaganda mistaking Europe and the EU.

Britain is part of Europe and Europe is part of Britain, always was, always will be. Britain leaving the EU makes that fact clearer than ever. Europe is our neighbourhood and, for the foreseeable future, that means working with the EU and its member countries.

While an interim or transitional deal can suffice in the short-term, it is already apparent that both Britain and the EU will need to agree a comprehensive framework for future co-operation, which does not see one side holding a whip hand over.

The foot dragging from those who imagine that it is still feasible for Britain to remain and the zealotry of the Tory right represent the kind of extremes that I voted to avoid. A constructive approach will deliver a better outcome for all concerned. We need to start thinking beyond the exit arrangements.

Brexit is not an ending, it is the beginning of another chapter. If we raise our eyes from the immediate concern of a low-impact exit, perhaps we can also begin to debate and discuss what should come after exit.

Gauging The Temperature

A little over one month ago I commented on the fact that the phrase “transitional arrangements” was rising in prominence among politicians, journalists and academics.

That trend has continued. The idea that the UK and EU could agree some kind of an “interim” or “bridging” agreement in order to secure a low-impact EU exit is now largely accepted across a wide swathe of political opinion.

Although people who voted “remain” are generally more amenable to the idea than people who voted “leave”, I would suggest that is in no small part due to the way in which the referendum campaign was fought.

Rather than presenting referendum voters with an alternative to EU membership, which could have acted as a “positive object” around which “leave” campaigners could have rallied, the Vote Leave campaign centred on fear and lies. Meanwhile, Prime Minister, David Cameron, instructed the Cabinet Office to eschew contingency planning, and centred his campaign on fear and lies.

That remarkable act of public policy vandalism—too little commented upon, in my view—should see Cameron damned as one of the most shallow and irresponsible people to have held the highest elected office in the land. However, we are where we are.

The recognition that EU exit will be an ongoing process, rather than a one-time event, is accepted by all but the most irreconcilable Remainers, who still espouse the notion that Britain could yet remain in the EU on current terms, and all but the most anti-social Brexiteers. The proportion of the population who agree that Britain must now leave the EU constitutes a substantial majority.

What is still disputed among this majority is the form that Britain’s post-exit relationship should take and what the UK government should aim to achieve in the upcoming negotiations. Should the UK pursue an interim or a transitional deal? What form should that deal take? Should the UK pursue a bespoke arrangement from the outset? What form should that deal take and what would the EU be willing to agree?

In that regard, little has changed since the vote. The constraints that existed prior to the “leave” victory will still shape the immediate exit settlement. What the UK can realistically expect from the Article 50 talks will still have to balance what the British public will accept and what the UK and EU can agree in the limited time that is given.

The main consequence of the legacy campaigns was to raise unrealistic expectations, which people of bad faith can now cite as presaging a “betrayal”. Too many people have attributed too much UK government policy to Britain’s EU membership. The act of leaving the EU will not provide an immediate respite. EU withdrawal is a turning the ship event.

To that end, Article 50 guarantees only two-years to negotiate an exit agreement and, although the negotiating period can be extended, such an extension would be likely to come at a price. According to a UK government Command Paper: “Article 50 provides for a two year negotiation, which can only be extended by unanimity. There could be a trade off between speed and ambition. An extension request would provide opportunities for any Member State to try to extract a concession from the UK.”

Thereby do we begin to limit the ‘plausibility scope’ for the negotiation. The EU-Canadian Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) has taken eight years to negotiate and is not yet ratified. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is four years in the making and appears to have (at best) stalled. There is not yet one free trade agreement (FTA) listed on the EU Treaty Database which took less than three years to complete negotiation and ratification.

Starting from scratch and reaching an agreement inside two-years is a total non-starter—and thus do we arrive at the first major point of contention between those who argue that the UK should aim to agree a framework for future co-operation, with the flexibility required for ongoing revision and review, and those who argue that the UK should aim to agree a comprehensive set of trading arrangements including new mechanisms for mutual recognition of conformity assessment, certification and regulatory convergence.

That is only a tiny subset of the headings that would need to be covered under the rubric of a comprehensive FTA.

Now, I would like to pause for a moment. Two-years is not long enough to agree a comprehensive FTA and an extension is liable to come at the expense of further concessions.

Unless anybody can see another way out of this particular conundrum (comment below), that leaves the UK government with two choices: 1) apply for an extension and accept that one or more EU Member State will probably want to set a condition or extract a concession in return; 2) pursue an EFTA/EEA type deal, which shortcuts opportunities for delay.

Whether the UK government intends to pursue a bespoke agreement within the confines of the Article 50 timeline or a co-operative framework which could be developed over time is one of the most important decisions the government faces.

It is not that the UK and EU could not agree an FTA given sufficient time and political will, it is that both quantities are liable to be in shorter supply in the context of an Article 50 negotiation. The EU does not have an electorate to which its leaders are directly accountable, the Commission will not be turfed out if the UK and EU do not reach an agreement and jobs are put at risk. On the other hand, that kind of consideration does tend to sharpen the mind of even the most bovine Tory minister.

Then there is the broader context of 43 years of political, economic and social integration, and the necessity for a productive relationship with the EU and EU Member States after Britain’s withdrawal.

The EU is embedded in UK government administration (and vice versa) in a way that few people seem willing to acknowledge. The depth of the dependency is nowhere more apparent than in areas such as trade, fisheries and agriculture. The UK government has not had to develop independent policies in these areas for decades. There is a lot of learning to be done.

The same is true to a lesser degree in areas such as energy and environmental policy wherein British interventions are interpreted within an EU framework. Since the mid 2000s and, in an accelerating fashion since the Treaty of Lisbon, EU Member States have also granted EU institutions and personnel more power over foreign and defence policy.

There are also questions which, if Britain is to be a democracy, will need at least a modicum of public debate, regarding future participation in scientific and cultural programmes.

The idea that this vast array of topics could be addressed to anybody’s satisfaction, alongside those matters which are currently taking a higher political priority, has always struck me as unlikely—and, seeing the performance of our “political class” during and since the EU referendum, I now think even that assessment was overgenerous.

If the UK can leave the EU, fulfilling the strict terms of the referendum mandate, which I would define as Britain’s withdrawal from EU Treaties, Institutions and Representation, without doing unnecessary economic damage, the UK government will be in a far stronger position when it comes to forging a new relationship with the EU, which can be advanced over the longer-term.

The form of that new relationship needs to become a matter for active discussion and debate before entering into the Article 50 talks. The government will need to become much more proactive; it will have to start making some difficult decisions and, as a consequence, stop pretending that “Brexit” can be all things to all people.

In my view, Brexit means two things. The first, as I have already delineated, is Britain’s withdrawal from EU Treaties, Institutions and Representations. The second, is to re-establish Britain as an independent, sovereign nation-state, with the same opportunities and responsibilities as the likes of New Zealand, Australia and Canada.

There are almost certainly multiple routes to that destination. There are also several potential obstacles and dead-ends. It is my contention that pursuing a staged approach to Britain’s EU exit could elicit the kind of internal solidarity that will strengthen the UK’s hand in the negotiations and put the EU in the unenviable position of being invited to reject the most reasonable compromise currently in view.

The way in which we arrive at a solution that can work for the majority is through deliberation and debate. Shortening lines of accountability and bringing policy-making power closer to the electorate is only worthwhile if the public are part of the same conversation as the politicians and the pundits.

New Year’s Resolutions

I have resolved to write more this year. Saying so publicly is intended to encourage me to keep to said resolution—and to encourage others to encourage me to keep to said resolution.

The scope of this blog will probably change as a result. This blog was established as soon as the Tory election victory was confirmed, binding then Prime Minister, David Cameron, to hold his long-promised “In/Out” EU referendum before the end of 2017.

This blog was extremely active prior to and during the referendum campaign and has been less active since that time.

Although EU relations are important, there is more to fostering, supporting and developing an independent Britain than managing a successful EU withdrawal.

Consider this fair warning. I wish all of those who read and comment on this blog a successful and productive 2017.