Sunday, 14 May 2017

Brexit: many questions, still no answers.

I have to confess that Northern Ireland has not been at the top of my Brexit agenda. The politics of Ireland are such that the half informed are better off saying as little as possible. As a rule, I try not to comment on things I know nothing about - though some readers may dispute that. That said, I am far from treating Northern Ireland as an afterthought and I am sure that its peoples are more entitled to a sense of abandonment than any other UK region.

It is odd, therefore, that Northern Ireland should become central to the entire question of what Brexit looks like. EUreferendum blog has detailed some of the more technical considerations which raise some fundamental questions.

The working assumption is that we first deal with the terms of divorce and the financial settlement and then we go on to discuss trade and the future relationship. I have often questioned whether this is possible in that I do not see the issues as divisible. If we are to have a "frictionless" border in Northern Ireland then it threatens the border integrity of the single market. If the UK is seeking to leave the single market there are certain frontier controls imposed elsewhere. These become entirely useless if the border with Ireland is not policed.

Here is where it gets difficult to predict in that the law, to a point, will have to be subordinate to the politics. It has become a red line that Ireland continues to enjoy an open border internally and the legal systems will have to bend to that. Whatever is established as the means by which this happens then becomes the baseline for all EU frontiers.

This could mean that the EU can only really offer an ultimatum of single market membership or a hard border. As much as this is likely to spark political conflict it brings the whole question of future trade back into the Article 50 process. Something of an irony since that was my working assumption in the beginning. We are then back to the fundamental question of how Brexity is Brexit?

Even if Ireland were to be reunited all it would do is shift the problem between the EU and the mainland in which both Ireland and the UK would insist on the maximum possible free trade. That then begs the question of how far can the EU flex, and what is it able to do under WTO rules? It could be that this previously under-acknowledged issue becomes the very thing that saves us from a hard Brexit but then it could also be the one irresolvable issue that sees the whole process collapse. Should that happen then Northern Ireland will be facing a year zero scenario in amongst many other equally serious issues competing for attention.

To me this seems like the elephant in the room in an election where we are talking about pretty much anything but Brexit. All the while the clock is ticking. This is almost understandable. The public is largely settled on the idea that Brexit is happening - and nobody doubts the seriousness of it, but in the absence of an alternative to the Tories the issue has become one of "wait and see". Consequently the media has retreated to its comfort zone of trivia and self-indulgence.

What is of concern is that May continues to be tight lipped and the most recent signals still suggest a "cake and eat it" approach. This presents us with two possible scenarios. Either May is still way behind the learning curve and still doesn't anticipate the complexity, or it's that she is waiting until she is safe before dropping a bombshell.

There are any number of intractable contradictions in Brexit where at some point the UK will have to concede on certain red lines. We can only guess what those are. The real question is how much damage is May prepared to inflict on the UK in order to meet a largely pointless immigration target.

The central question is how do the legal matters impact on the political? I fear we are not equipped to resolve such issues. The obvious answer would be to stay in the single market - and though it doesn't solve all of the problems it significantly reduces the workload. We could then shape that arrangement to something more suitable later on. Since Norway is also seeking reforms to its relationship with the EU there is sufficient Efta clout to force the issue of EEA reform and Brexit could be the catalyst. It would limit the economic impact of Brexit while turning it into an immediate positive for all of Europe.

Whether or not this happens is still in question. Some would have it that the window is already closed but in the face of all the cans of political worms we are about to open, it could be that pragmatism prevails. Wishful thinking I fear.

More likely May will continue to bash her head against the wall in pursuit of undeliverable aims for nonexistent benefits. Not knowing though, and having a media seemingly unwilling to press these questions makes this one of the most unhealthy elections we have known for some time.

In respect of that one is forced to conclude that a spoiled ballot is the only real option. The Tories do not inspire confidence and on the Marr show yesterday, Emily Thornberry says we don't have enough frigates to get troops from Salisbury Plain to Europe if the Russians invade. Frigates?? We would be better served if we simply dragged people off the streets to serve as MPs.

In all likelihood the new Conservative crop will be little better. Most likely party hacks with much ambition but no real knowledge. With MPs incapable of engaging in the detail and poisonous misinformation being fed into the system by Conservative Home and Brexit Central, it is likely that the debate will be diverted to less substantive issues like the financial settlement. We are already seeing antagonistic foot-stamping as to whether we are legally obliged to pay anything in the divorce settlement. Compared with everything else on the immediate agenda I cannot think of anything that matters less.

Until polling day the entire debate is treading water. Over the last week I have struggled to muster the energy to blog this charade of an election. The hollow mantras and electoral bribes are coming in thick and fast. We can only look on in wonder as each day we see yet more evidence our political class has lost the ability to engage at a grown up level.

For a while now we have been in a Brexit phoney war where the gravity of Brexit has yet to be felt. We might have thought invoking Article 50 would have brought minds into focus. No such luck. We continue to drift without substantive answers to crucial questions, resigned to the fact that the least worst option is still bloody awful.

If there is any hope for a reasonable conclusion it will be in the form of a pragmatic offer from the EU. With so many of the outcomes being dictated by the legal the possible, obvious avenues may present themselves. That will be the true test of this government. We can either settle on a functioning compromise or we can go all out for a Brexit that leaves us all worse off and in no position to be making any demands. The latter seems more likely under this government. It lacks the knowledge, intelligence and skill for it to be any other way. It then becomes a matter of how they will spin their abject failure.

If there has been one defining feature of this entire debate it is the overwhelming political naivety of nearly everyone involved. You can very easily argue that the Brexiteers are clueless but that extends to the rest who have been unable to mount a coherent opposition. We get mixed messages from the Lib Dems, when we all know they want to stop Brexit at any cost regardless of the political consequences. Then there is Labour who have been given any number of a open goals. Their lack of interest and lack of curiosity has given the Tories a free pass. Worse still are the Tory moderates who have done as all Tories inevitably do. Conform.

It will be a matter of considerable interest to future historians as to how a parliament holding a remain majority so sheepishly rolled over and abandoned the country to the very worst instincts of the Tory right. How could it be that one of the most significant political processes for a century slipped into autopilot? When we have good answers to those questions we can then set about fixing the conditions that brought us here to begin with. If there is any point to Brexit, it is that.

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