Brexit negotiation paradoxes – and what they point to

Brexit negotiation paradoxes – and what they point to

by Miles Saltiel
article from Friday 14, July, 2017

AS DAVID DAVIS approaches his second meeting with Michel Barnier it is fair to say that Brussels has played something of a blinder. It has fastened the principle of extraterritorial powers to the emotional topic of citizen’s rights and it has succeeded in placing the issue at the outset of talks. This has weakened HMG, as providing the powder and shot for nominally principled domestic opposition from those claiming the Government is “playing political games with people’s lives”. May’s team seems to be too demoralised to point out that Brussels kicked the game off with its ludicrous demand for ECJ jurisdiction. I guess we have to put this down to the self-inflicted damage of the grisly electoral outcome.

HMG’s offer of five years’ residence is no concession, as this is already the standard period to qualify for naturalisation. It’s perfectly understandable if the offer cheesed off the Europeans as it is transparently lowball. What’s more HMG’s fifty-nine paragraph response fell further than necessary into the EU’s trap of painstaking detail. It would have done better to offer “all legacy rights save for…” In addition, conceding “…commitments in the Withdrawal Agreement [with] the status of international law” (para 58) feels very much like the thin edge of the wedge.

There’s going to be a lot of this stuff. Europe is deft at dressing up the unreasonable in self-serving guff about rights, the rule of law and much else by way of high-minded twaddle. There is an avid appetite for this in our own country from the soft-hearted, the soft-headed and those who are neither but are willing to whip up support from the useful idiots of our day. These intriguers comprise the usual suspects, (Heseltine, Major and so on) reinvigorated by the sniff of blood in the water, plus a Labour party willing to say and do almost anything to effect one last push. 

I am old enough to remember the news reports of Suez but too young to have made sense of the bitterness it left. By contrast, I entered into adult life in the Seventies, the disorder of which actually extended for fifteen years after the late Sixties. This left me with a greater understanding than I would wish of national turmoil and political weakness. Even so, the lavish spread of turbulence driving the current crisis - for once no hyperbole - is new to me.

How pleasant to believe that June’s election marked a local climax, but we have been disappointed before. But say it's so: let's make the heroic assumption that the summer recess allows the present chaos to resolve into more amenable patterns; for protagonists to return with clearer heads. How to resolve the paradoxes bedevilling us?

First, domestic politics: Conservatives then Labour.

1.       The Tories increased their share of votes but lost seats.

2.       May remains in office but cannot control her party or Parliament.

3.       She is reduced to soliciting support from the predecessor and the opposition she once gloried in despising.

4.       She survives only because no-one is rushing to take over and her party has turned gun-shy of the voters.

It’s a commonplace that next time the Tories had better beef up their strategy, targeting and resourcing. Not to say, leadership; I remain confident that May is out by year end, with her replacements bravely overcoming their reluctance. How confident? - a good question as I’ve been as much caught out as anyone. Say two chances out of three. As that reopens legitimacy - that pesky electoral mandate: the Tories can only hope for a leader with some razzle-dazzle.

5.       Corbyn failed to win the election but acts like he did.

6.       Labour MPs once hostile to him are now cowed.

7.       His party handily beat expectations but is splitting on Brexit and MP selection.

I’m calling peak Corbyn. His voters can’t map their discontents onto him indefinitely. The youngsters I run into see him as mirroring their ambitions for everything from ending austerity, through repudiating foreign wars, forgiving debts and celebrating the transgendered, to simply shaking things up a bit. Note that this last is absolutely of a piece with the “give the rascals a kicking” populism behind Brexit and Trump. Meanwhile, the party’s centrists are squaring up for - what is it? - round seven? eight? I’ve lost count - I expect they have too. 

Now to Brexit itself: first Remainers and Leavers, then the negotiations.

8.       Both major parties campaigned to leave the customs union and single market, but a revisionist wind has caught the Remainers’ sails.

9.       May’s humiliation leads them to regret failing to crystallise the Europhile vote, but the parties so inclined either got nowhere (LibDems) or lost seats (ScotNats).

10.   This means Remainers still fear to challenge the referendum itself, so they seek to undermine the process or the outcome.

11.   As to process, they talk up Brussels’ strength, while insisting that sovereignty is not at issue.

12.   As to outcome, they talk up “soft Brexit”, despite its political incoherence.

May’s disingenuous (and almost certainly futile) approach may nonetheless serve her parliamentary purposes of aggravating Labour’s inherent split on Brexit. For once, Corbyn’s metropolitan supporters are adrift from him on this, complicating Labour’s next manifesto. Meanwhile, Remainers have been savvy in fastening upon the loss-aversion which behavioural economists find to be central. Even if Europhiles don’t necessarily have the best of the argument, at present no Brexiteer has the kishkes to take them on. I’d expect this to change over the recess, with arguments joined with greater gusto thereafter.

13.   Davis may be a Leavers’ Leaver but he lost no time in yielding to Brussels’ agenda.

14.   Frustrated partisans may be tempted by disruptive tactics but have no interest in outright continental destabilisation.

The “agreement to agree” between Japan and the EU attests that loss-aversion applies universally. It is remarkable that Brussels’ Article 50 position confines its advertisement on this score to citizen’s rights. Despite the weekend’s methodical denials from the associations of German employers (BDA) and industry (BDI), this can’t be kept up for ever. Meanwhile, the G20 enthusiasms of Trump and Turnbull for trade agreements saluted the niceties which give the EU precedence, but no-one expects them to close a deal before Britain - always assuming Trump and Turnbull are still in power!

15.   HMG’s discomposure may increase its bargaining power, as a principal with no room to manoeuvre.

16.   The EU27’s unity involves “promises of everything to everybody” which cannot be kept.

17.   The consequent hard-line intensifies Brussels’ fears of a disorderly breakdown of talks.

This is simply to remind us of the imponderables of negotiation. No-one has an interest in disorder; loss-aversion afflicts us all equally. That particular penny doesn’t seem yet to have dropped for Barnier and maybe it never will. In which case, we’re back with “no deal is better than…” and May or her successor should be prepping lay and official opinion - at home and overseas - accordingly.

The initial foray seems to confirm fears that HMG has lost its nerve. If so, May will fall, for failing to fight the UK’s corner. Her team is certainly showing little public enthusiasm for the position it set out in the February White Paper and threatens to allow the incoherence of the “soft Brexit” lobby to win the battle for public opinion by default. 

·       The customs union and single market are at risk of becoming shibboleths of sweet reason. It is reasonable enough to prize stability in our commercial arrangements, but not at the price of forgoing the central benefit of Brexit, trade sovereignty, indeed sovereignty in general.

·       Immigration continues to throw up paradoxes all round. Business is disingenuous in pressing for the maintenance of its cheap labour business model, as better organisation and capital substitution pave the way for the universally-sought benefit of a high-productivity economy.

The common sense of “no deal is better than a bad deal” has become close to outright toxic. Hammond in particular is playing a risky game. Once again, it is reasonable enough to act as a standard-bearer for business, but plain dangerous to give the impression of lining up with Starmer’s “exact same deal”. This is an impossibly high bar and undermines the government at the negotiating table by denying the possibility of walking away.

This is a sorry national moment, with: febrile politics and a truculent public. The season may not bring respite: London’s watch commanders will be ramping up for the summer nights. Wherever holidaymakers fetch up, let us hope they find some refreshment. Although we cannot be sure of the balance of sentiment on their return, we can attempt to resolve the paradoxes, cut through the passions. The salient facts remain that the nation voted for Brexit a year ago, that both major political parties campaigned for it a month ago, and that Barnier’s obduracy is the price Brussels has had to pay to keep the EU27 on side. Something has to give: either the UK or Brussels changes course or the talks fail. I’m still going for the last of these.

You can read more from Miles Saltiel at his Blog Brexit 2016

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