Saturday, 15 July 2017

The Brexit that can work

I don't like the EU. I don't like the idea of it. I don't think it can ever be a democracy and I don't think it even wants to be. There are few, if any, means by which the people can achieve reform and for as long as the UK is structurally outvoted, too much of our law is beyond the reach of politics to a point where we can say that the UK is no longer democratic. The nation state is the only level where you can have meaningful democracy. I'm glad we are leaving the EU.

This, though, can go one of two ways. We can either make such a heaving pigs ear of it that Britain never fully recovers or we can recognise the limitations of our predicament.

When Brexiteers talk about Brexit they make some fundamental errors. They point to CETA as an example of a future trading relationship with the EU. But what one should note is that Canada is not twenty miles off the coast of the EU and indeed has never been in a forty year long economic and political union with it. It is far easier to enter such an arrangement than it is to leave one.

The second mistake is to assume that outside the EU you have sovereignty and inside you don't. The moment anyone enters a trade agreement where regulatory harmonisation is a feature, some control is ceded in the common good. Brexit is really about how much is too much. On that score I'm with the Brexiteers. The EU is a bridge too far.

The third mistake is to believe that the EU is bureaucratic tangled mess of regulations and red tape and that outside of the EU there's a light touch regulation world just waiting for leadership by a buccaneering Brexit Britain. I'm not sure if that was ever true, but if it was, that world has not existed since about 1992 - and since the birth of the internet and the dawn of hyper-globalisation, all the rules have changed.

But then it's not just the Brexiteers who have some daft ideas. Our remainer friends seem to think the fullest extent of international engagement is membership of the EU and somehow not being a member of it makes us some kind of international pariah. And as bad as Brexiteers are with their "regulation is baaaaad" routine, the remainers who insist that EU regulation couldn't possibly be anything other than wholesome and benevolent are equally absurd. When it comes to the far extremes of the Brexit debate I hold them both in equal contempt.

The fact of the matter is that that we can have extensive economic and customs cooperation with the EU and others without political subordination. Personally I can't see why you would want it any other way. What makes the EU toxic is that it is a centralising and homogenising force which takes no account of cultural and political differences to the point where it will use coercion to enforce its integrationist agenda. It is profoundly antidemocratic.

The problem for us, though, is that it will continue to exist long after we have left it. So really this process is a matter of finding a relationship that satisfies our desire for economic cooperation along with our need for greater democracy and self-rule.

This is going to require something that both sides have a phobia of. Compromise. On both sides you have conspiratorial nutcases. Remainers believe that we are some kind of backward Tory island populated by drooling racist savages - with our worst impulses held at bay by the benevolent EU, while the Brexiteers think the EU is basically the fourth Reich and run by Marxists who want to turn us all into androgynous clones with no genitals, slaves to our Muslim overseers. There's all stripes of stupid to contend with.

What we actually want though is a collaborative, cooperative and consultative relationship with the EU. As a member we are a legal subordinate - and that is why for many of us the ECJ is a bit of a red line. It's not that the ECJ is especially malevolent but it is an instrument of integration and a means by which the EU accumulates more power. Powers which are not given freely by way of EU treaties are taken by court rulings.

This has never sat right with me. There are of course plenty of examples where the UK does abide by supranational court rulings simply because we prefer the rule of law, but what we note about the ECJ is that it is an agenda driven court - and one which has sovereign power over us in ways that the WTO does not.

We are told that this political subordination is necessary for there to be economic cooperation but Norway shows us that is not true. It participates in the single market but adopts EU rulings via the Efta court, a non-binding court, where they are at liberty to disregard it if they are prepared to accept the inherent trade-offs.

Personally I don't see the problem with that in that we do want regulatory cooperation to an extent and though the powers of veto are not absolute, they are adequate. The independence and sovereignty gained by entering such an arrangement is more than just symbolic. It excludes the aspects of the EU acquis designed to bring about the vision of nation called Europe.

As much as this relationship is suitable it also take into account that the economic aspect of our relationship extends far beyond the movement of goods and services, encompassing hundreds of areas of cooperation where there is little to be gained from acting unilaterally and where there are greater costs to acting independently, often for little advantage.

The fact of the matter is that good regulation is often the product of good science. It costs money to produce and when these regulations are designed to protect us from transboundary threats, international cooperation is necessary and it follows that we would want collaborative institutions.

We are told that the EU is the manifestation of this but EU institutions are not collaborative. They are branches of the EU government which supersede our own. Again this is something of a red line for us. Cooperation we want, subordination we do not.

And then there is trade. The problem with the EU is that trade is view in abstract of foreign policy and has become a sanitised technocratic domain. Much of it is conducted out of sight and often disconnected entirely from broader foreign policy which hampers our leverage when acting internationally, denuding us of a vital tool. A nation that is not free to pick and choose who it cooperates with is not a nation in its own right.

This is why the EEA agreement is ideal for the UK in that it does give us the extensive EU cooperation we want but at the same time gives us back those vital powers to explore other opportunities using different methods to the EU. As much as I see this being beneficial to the UK, I also think it better for Europe if nations can play to their strengths and forge greater links with their more traditional partners.

Ultimately Brexit is about breaking away from ideological political union for its own sake. I see absolutely zero reason to bring an end to economic cooperation and no real value in erecting new barriers with our European allies. Were there the possibility of compensating by way of trading with the rest of the world, it would still be a shame to lose any trade or place restrictions on the freedoms we enjoy.

The problem we have is that those steering Brexit have a flawed idea of what Brexit can and should achieve. There are no economic admirals waiting in the wings for when we leave the EU. Whatever gains we make will be hard fought for and we can only prosper if they are in addition to the economic cooperation we have with the EU. The gains come from further cooperation and in many cases from collaborating with the EU, who should still be a close ally after we leave.

Prosperity does not come from salami-slicing economic freedoms, nor does it come from pruning regulations to the bone. Prosperity comes from lifting other nations out of poverty and enhancing their ability to trade. This is why we need a combined trade, aid and foreign policy where we don't have to seek permission from Brussels.

Britain now stands at a crossroads. Ending political union with the EU should not be all that controversial. We are still a first world leading economy, we are still signatories to multiple global conventions on everything from climate change to human rights and we are still, despite the wailing of remainers, a liberal country. What could hurt us though, is an unnecessarily hostile attitude to the EU and turning our backs on European cooperation. In that respect the remainers are right in that there is a strong element of europhobia behind Brexit - and it is that which will hurt us more than Brexit itself.

From the beginning I argued that leaving the EU would have an economic cost. The uncertainty would likely drive us toward a manageable recession from which we could recover - but this government is making that far worse than it needs to be by holding on to those dismal misconceptions outlined here. This insane drive for an absolutist sovereignty that doesn't really exist, in pursuit of an independence that is neither desirable or even possible in this interconnected world, is one that will ultimately destroy British credibility and ensure that we will likely never recover what we lose.

This is why the fight must continue to the last hour, to the last man. The Efta EEA solution is far better than either remainers or Brexiters paint it. It is neither a leash nor does it especially exclude us from influencing the rules - not least since the globalisation of regulation. What we lose in terms of EU influence we gain by way of being able to design our own path in the world. It makes the EU a partner, not a master.

As pointed out before, the EU is not the sole proprietor of the single market. It is a collaborative venture between Efta and the EU. It is a rules based system, largely based on global standards and one that has been enormously beneficial to the UK. Britain has always been about extending liberty and prosperity and there is no reason why we cannot use our new status to continue in that tradition. We can use our soft power and aid to ensure that more countries can participate in the single market to a point where the EU is no longer the dominant influence within it. As much as that is compatible with our own ends it also speaks to the spirit of EU cooperation with third countries - and there is a good chance we can do it faster than they can. 

If we enter Brexit in the spirit of continued collaboration and friendship then there is every reason to believe Brexit can be a success. An Efta EEA solution would maintains much of what we value while dispensing with much that we do not. Something that most of us can live with - save for the miserablists on either end of the spectrum who can never be appeased. This is the future I want for Britain, not the miserly, dated and clueless vision offered up by the Tories.

Ultimately Brexit can either be a catastrophe or the breath of fresh air we have all been waiting for. It's all still to play for. It really all depends on winning the arguments now and moving to stop the Tory zealots from smashing us on the rocks of ideology. If we fail to do that then the outlook is quite bleak indeed. Let's make sure that doesn't happen.

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