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.

Playing Catch-Up

This recently published Guardian article describes how “Britain could retain access to the European single market and considerably more national sovereignty if it joins the European Free Trade Association (Efta)”. That is, according to the President of the EFTA Court.

The article notes that EFTA/EEA member countries participate in “decision-shaping” procedures, which have a considerable influence on EU rules at an early stage in the legislative process. The article also alights upon the fact that the EFTA Court is a separate entity to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and that, unlike the ECJ, the EFTA Court is not superior to national courts.

There is more.

However, the focus of this post is not the fact that several years after EUReferendum.com published Flexcit, and still more years after The Bruges Group published a pamphlet about The Norway Option, elements of the legacy news-media are beginning to reflect on the realities of EFTA and the EEA agreement.

The mistakes and omissions in the Guardian piece are arguably even more important.

Here I would remind readers that the Guardian is a commercial product, which attracts an audience, and thereby advertisers, at least partly on the basis of a brand that makes allusions to accuracy and open-mindedness. This is not the Sun or the Express or the Mirror. The Guardian is not a “comic”. The Guardian is a “broadsheet”; a so-called “quality newspaper”.

The article’s fourth paragraph reads as follows:

Efta currently consists of Norway, Lichtenstein, Switzerland and Iceland. Together with the EU member states they form a trading zone called the European Economic Area.

Obviously this is incorrect. The European Economic Area (EEA) agreement does not include Switzerland and terms like “trading zone” are best avoided in this context, if only because they do not really mean anything.

You know that, I know that, why then does the “Diplomatic Editor” of a national daily newspaper not know that?

Errors of this kind are regrettable at the best of times. But, for a senior journalist to be struggling with basic definitions nearly 18 months after the Tories won a general election on the back of a promise to hold an “In/Out” referendum—and six months after an historic vote for Britain to leave the European Union—is unforgivable.

This is not a small matter. People who know this subject do not make these kinds of mistakes. Understanding the differences between the EU, the EEA and EFTA is foundational.

There are complex issues to be resolved as part of leaving the EU. There is no time to waste hand-holding lazy hacks who have not put in the work. It is time to jettison the dead weight.

This was our referendum and our Brexit. We need to make the effort to inform ourselves and map a route to an acceptable destination. The current crop of politicians and the legacy press do not have what it takes.

In The Absence Of Planning

…the conduct of the campaign will not only have an enormous bearing upon the final result but also upon the political environment and incentives that exist post-referendum. In that sense, how we win matters just as much as winning… without a coherent exit plan outlining how Britain would leave the EU, a vote to leave could all too easily become an excuse for yet more “renegotiation” and “reform”.

I wrote those words in October 2015. Now, look at where we find ourselves, in November 2016, having voted to leave the EU.

The idea of “transitional arrangements” is finally being mooted amongst the think-tank crowd. Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform and Anand Menon of UK in a Changing Europe have both put forward alternative proposals which purport to solve the problems associated with the two-year negotiating window granted under the terms of Article 50 (TEU).

Open Britain just hosted an event at which Nick Clegg, Anna Soubry and Chuka Umunna called for Britain to remain in the Single Market—and Remain-minded think-tank, British Influence, is proposing to instigate legal proceedings to determine whether leaving the EU necessarily means leaving the EEA (Single Market) as a matter of course.

If that all sounds oddly familiar, there is a reason for that, though I can understand why you may not be able to shake the idea that there is something very wrong with the picture being described.

This blog has long supported Dr Richard North’s proposal for a staged approach to EU exit, encompassing mutually beneficial relations with our European allies and domestic reform to revivify our faulting democracy.

To that end, Phase One of the Flexcit plan outlines how Britain could leave the EU within the two-year Article 50 timeline without suffering undue perturbation in terms of trade. First amongst three linked fallback positions is the idea of rejoining EFTA so as to participate in the EFTA pillar of the EEA agreement. This would immediately remove the European Commission and the European Court of Justice from Britain’s national life, and return policy control over trade, aid, agriculture, fisheries, justice & home affairs, foreign affairs and defence to the UK parliament.

The one thing that recommends the EEA exit route (sub-optimal as it may be) above all other transitional arrangements is that it involves leaving the EU first. Of course a transition is only acceptable provided there is a destination mapped out. The only circumstances under which an apparently necessary interim deal would be acceptable to Brexiteers (this one included) is under the proviso that it leads on to further disentanglement in the future.

The later stages of the Flexcit plan start to discuss these issues, taking us well beyond the bounds of the current legacy debate. The cleverness of what is labelled “Stage Three” of the Flexcit plan derives from the fact that the processes Britain could use to decouple the administration of the Single Market from the EU are already in tow. The WTO Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade is extant. International standards form the basis of a very large proportion of the EEA acquis; the scope for deviation from those standards when shaping associated regulation is limited. The EU is already in the process of losing control of the Single Market.

The comparative “safe harbour” of the EFTA/EEA arrangement would also grant Britain time to enhance its policy-making capabilities. The evidence of the referendum campaigns and the debate that has followed indicate that there is a lot of learning to be done before Britain is ready to act as an independent force in the world.

I have had the idea described back to me in the following terms: First the UK must leave the EU in one piece (an EEA type deal) then the UK must discover/rediscover the art of democratic self-governance and become a fully independent, sovereign nation-state. The second cannot happen without the first and the first is contingent upon the second.

Crucially, the matter of “parliamentary sovereignty”, about which we have heard so much over recent weeks, will need to be properly addressed. It was parliamentary sovereignty that allowed MPs to take Britain into the EU without our consent and to keep us there for the next 43 years, signing one integrating treaty after another. Most of the MPs now in Parliament have no idea what Britain’s role in the EU is supposed to be or even why we ended up in the EU in the first place. The ignorance our elected officials display on a daily basis is truly staggering. Yet, even the low-grade standard of debate surrounding the topic of Brexit makes for a night and day contrast with the absence of discussion that accompanied new EU treaties and policies. The oleaginous, Peter Hain, even had the gall to describe the Treaty of Lisbon (the rebranded EU Constitutional Treaty) as a “tidying-up exercise”.

If this is how we have come to expect our MPs to behave, we are going to have to learn to hold them (and ourselves) to a much higher standard.

Perhaps we could begin with this, written by Kwasi Kwarteng MP, who campaigned to “leave” in the recent referendum. To say that his article is full of errors is an understatement. Frankly, it is an embarrassment. But, that is sadly what I have come to expect of the Tory “eurosceptics”, not one of which had the guts to call out the farcical Vote Leave campaign for attempting to corrupt the honourable cause of national independence and democratic self-government.

At this crucial juncture, as the debate begins to shift to the topic of “transitional arrangements” and what form they should take, the people and groups associated with the Vote Leave campaign are ceding the ground to ineffectual Remainers. Rather than insisting that any interim deal can only be acceptable if it involves, first of all, leaving the EU, and second of all, an alternative destination, the “Tory 60” are instead making non-proposals for unilateral withdrawal and trade on WTO terms. The alternative to a transition deal that takes us out of the EU is a “transition deal” that does not. What side are Tory “eurosceptics” on?

Losing The Plot

The go-to correspondent for reports from the SJW safe space, Sam Hooper, recently published his take on the “post-truth/post-fact” idiom which the political and media establishments in the UK and the USA have pushed since the pro-Brexit referendum victory in Britain and the election of Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, across the Atlantic. The venerable Pete North offers his thoughts on the matter here.

For my part, I find it extraordinary to see politicians and pundits, who still struggle to distinguish between the Single Market and the EU Customs Union, scolding members of the public and the alternative media for challenging the dominance of the increasingly lazy and feckless legacy media old-guard. In spite of being written out of the story (in Britain, in particular), bloggers, YouTubers and other grass roots campaigners undoubtedly played a major role (maybe even a definitive role) in swinging the referendum result towards Brexit.

To that end, this short clip of James O’Brien speaking on LBC distils the deadly combination of arrogance and ignorance which has come to define what some people still mistakenly refer to as the “mainstream” media. O’Brien begins, “What is it, the ten-minute hate? The three-minute hate? What is it in Nineteen Eighty-Four?”

Pause for just a moment. The fact that O’Brien cannot even recall that Orwell’s Oceania has a daily two-minute hate is a tad—I was tempted to say, “ironic”, but I think I shall settle on pathetic. James, if you’re going to lecture other people about publishing inaccurate content it helps if you do some research and get your facts right. Onward.

The amazing thing about Nineteen Eighty-Four is that Orwell presumed that when the totalitarian era began—and he, of course, saw the beginnings of it in Stalin’s Russia—he presumed that the media which just pumps out lies to a completely complacent public, he presumed that media would be built by the government.

At this point, one does begin to wonder if James O’Brien has ever read Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell did not make presumptions about the “totalitarian era” because he did not need to. The book was called, Nineteen Fourty-Eight, until his publisher said that was too controversial. As well as describing Communist tyranny, Nineteen Eighty-Four was a satire on the Hampstead “liberals” and “socialists” Orwell had known and grown to despise; the people of whom Orwell wrote:

Sometimes I look at a Socialist—the intellectual, tract-writing type of Socialist, with his pullover, his fuzzy hair, and his Marxian quotation—and wonder what the devil his motive really is. It is often difficult to believe that it is a love of anybody, especially of the working class, from whom he is of all people the furthest removed.

Back to O’Brien:

He presumed that the manipulative, dishonest media would be created by the manipulative, dishonest politicians. Even George Orwell did not foresee a world in which the population, the punters, the voters would create their own manipulative, dishonest media. Even George Orwell did not foresee how mad things have got in 2016, where an election has been pretty much decided on the other side of the Atlantic, and arguably a referendum has been decided here, based on absolute lies, disseminated by man-made media not government-made media. It was not the state-sponsored, if you will, media that pumped out nonsense.

The polite term for what O’Brien is doing here is “selection bias”. As much as the Vote Leave campaign told tedious, needless and destructive lies, which we in The Leave Alliance called out at every turn and at considerable volume throughout the referendum campaign, the state-supported Remain campaign was no better.

One of the most oft-repeated lies of the Remain campaign was that Norway, a country outside the EU yet inside the Single Market, has “no say” over Single Market rules. This assertion was repeated ad nauseum on BSE literature, on the BBC and by no less a figure than the Prime Minister when speaking to the House of Commons. The essence of the lie is in the use of the word “no”, which denotes a nullity, whereas the fact of the matter is that Norway is an active participant in what is known as the “decision-shaping” process and has full self-representation on global standards-setting bodies.

While the infamous £350 million lie was called out on so many occasions very few people could have been in any doubt that the figure was at best disputed, the “no say” lie, which was repeated with almost equal frequency by the Remainers, was never scrutinised by the BBC or even the government-backed Vote Leave campaign.

There is a phrase among the revolutionaries in the world of Winston Smith, “If there is hope, it lies in the proles”. Citizen-led media is ultimately the only kind that is worthwhile. If the legacy media absents itself from that role, other people will take over.

Once people start making their own media, the next thing you know they’ll be making their own government; of the people, by the people and for the people.

“Our Sovereign Parliament”

The legacy media coverage of the High Court decision to refer the judgement of the British people to the politicians elected to serve the British people emphasises one phrase in particular: “parliamentary sovereignty”.

This is interesting for several reasons. The campaign to leave the EU was not about “restoring” parliamentary sovereignty. Restoring—perhaps one should say, “taking back control”—of parliamentary sovereignty doesn’t make sense because parliamentary sovereignty was never lost. Parliamentary sovereignty was the means by which “British democracy” was made to serve the European Union (and its predecessors) these past 43 years.

The Brexit vote was an exercise in direct democracy—an unmediated expression of the will of the British people.

The political, academic and legacy media establishment, which dismissed as marginal obsessives those people who noted the extent of the economic, political and judicial integration to which the country was subject, are only now beginning to discuss the fact that, according to one report doing the rounds, “the Brexit process will test the UK’s constitutional and legal frameworks and bureaucratic capacities to their limits – and possibly beyond.”

That is about as clear an admission as we are ever likely to get that we were right and they were wrong. Establishment academics, politicians and journalists have been misleading people about the most important issue in British politics for the last four decades—and, in all seriousness, I think that a sincere apology is in order. Those people on the other side of the debate who argued that the EU is only a “trade bloc” (still a persistent refrain) or that the British state is not that integrated into the EU, and that therefore there is little to worry about, should take a long hard look in the mirror.

If the extent of the entanglement that is beginning to be described had been understood and communicated to people at the outset, there is no way that the British people would have given positive assent to UK participation in the EU political and judicial integration process. Parliament, on the other hand, assented to treaty after treaty which handed more and more policy-making power to the EU.

In closing, I think it is also worth noting that, in her statement outside the court room, Gina Miller called for a “proper debate in our sovereign parliament”. Note the use of the word “our”. Where else do we see that?

We had the debate, we made the decision, we don’t need our elected officials to assent to our democratic will.