Sunday 24 September 2017

Brexit: drifting toward a catastrophe

It is a widely accepted view now that the UK leaving the EU without an agreement for future relations would be an unmitigated disaster. Only a very small minority of people believe it to be otherwise. The problem, however, is that this very small minority is actually in power.

It is terrifying to imagine what would happen if these people succeed in their aim of severing all formal relations with the EU. What they have failed to understand is that, as we are part of the EU, all of our trade agreements with the rest of the world are between the EU and third countries, thus if we sever our ties with the EU, we lose all our trade. Volumes have now been written about this but since our politicians live in an isolated political bubble the message is not getting through.

A responsible government would seek to avoid this eventuality but it would appear this government is trying its level best to make it happen while making it look like it’s the EU’s fault. If it’s how it looks then it is quite a clever scam.

When the UK invoked Article 50 to leave the EU, a sequence of exit talks was agreed. Before we discuss our future relationship the terms of separation must first be agreed. This deals with the financial settlement (settling the accounts) followed by future citizens’ rights, and the thornier issue of the Northern Ireland border.

Because the UK has instigated this process, the onus is on us to make proposals on each of these issues. These are put forward in the form of position papers. Ordinarily these would be highly detailed serious proposals measured against existing legal and treaty constraints. What has been put forward, however, are sloppy and indifferent screeds full of empty rhetoric and vague aspirations.

One might have thought that this was typical government incompetence. That is entirely plausible. However, I think there is a different game in play. The UK government believes the phase one issues ca be negotiated concurrently with a future trade deal. They have been told this is not possible and is not going to happen, but the government continues to press for trade talks as though the EU Commission had never said anything.

Time after time the EU has reiterated that phase one issues must first be resolved and when the UK position papers are so bad, there is really no basis for negotiation. Serious proposals are still expected from the UK government.

That is where Theresa May’s speech in Florence this week was supposed to break the deadlock. What we got, though, was yet more fluffy rhetoric about future partnerships without laying down anything concrete as to how the divorce issues can be addressed. Consequently we are nowhere - having made no progress at all.

However, to the uninitiated, the UK government looks as though it has done what is required. Offers have been made only for the EU to rebuff them. This is all part of a ploy to make it look as though the EU is being unreasonable and inflexible.

The Florence speech was billed as a game changer. Talks were suspended for a week in order for the EU to consider its response. It was delivered in a historic location to give the speech gravitas and institutional significance. Everything about the presentation was calculated to present a grand gesture.

When I listened to the speech my first reaction was that Theresa May has been got at by her extreme fringe in cabinet. How could she have made all this fuss to have delivered such an empty speech? Was it switched at the last minute? But then it hit me. This government never had any intention of breaking the deadlock. It only sought to give the appearance of engagement.

It didn’t take very long for the EU Commission to deadbat the speech. A Twitter thread appeared within hours effectively restating what we already know. Concrete proposals fleshing out the rhetoric must be submitted.

One might have expected that if this were a serious gesture form Mrs May then it would be accompanied by quality and detailed propositions – and that might well have bought some goodwill from the EU in order to talk about future relations. But no such documents were forthcoming.

Unless I have read this wrong it really does look like the UK government is giving the EU the run-around - and with the backing of the right wing media is able to paint the domestic message that the EU is refusing to cooperate. This is with a view to building up the necessary party backing for a walk out – where the EU takes the blame for the subsequent disaster.

The only other explanation is that the government is playing an irresponsible game of brinkmanship expecting that the EU will blink since the EU is to a large extent dependent on EU funding. It’s a zero sum game the EU will not stand to be blackmailed. The UK stands to lose a lot more than the EU and the EU would recover faster.

The problem is that the UK government is absolutely convinced that the UK can walk away without a deal and continue to function on WTO trade rules alone. Probably the greatest political miscalculation in history.

More bizarrely, you would expect, with stakes being so high, that we would see a mobilisation of the opposition – but this is not happening. The Corbyn clan is unable to come up with a coherent position at all and refuses to even debate it at the Labour party conference. Here we are facing the biggest political crisis since World War Two and the opposition has absolutely nothing to say.

But then there is an air of unreality about all this. Mrs May called her snap election to reinforce her Brexit mandate – and that election should have been a raging debate about our approach to Brexit. Yet Brexit sat there on the backburner while we debated anything but. And now, at a most critical juncture, when the prosperity of the nation is on the brink, a petition on reinstating Uber’s London operating licence can attract 500,000 signatures – yet barely a whimper on this unfolding cataclysm.

What I think we are seeing is our collective animal instinct kicking in. This is a complex undertaking that few really understand and even fewer comprehend the danger we face. We have become dumb to it after two solid years of media distortions and ill-directed histrionics. Collectively we have our heads in the sand - though silently bracing ourselves for the mother of all political rows.

We know something seismic with tangible consequences is going to happen in the near future and I think many are simply keeping their powder dry. There will be many questions needing answers. How could we have drifted into a crisis like this and how could all of the democratic safeguards have failed? Why could the opposition not organise itself? Why did Tory moderates stay silent? How did this mess happen? And why couldn’t we stop it?