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First Stage Reality and Brexiters

Now for the hard part, pronounced various media commentators after the first stage Brexit deal had been signed. The chances of No Deal have diminished, said others. It is strange watching the MSM sometimes. On political issues that involve expertise, like austerity and Brexit, it is generally an expert free zone. With Brexit you have to turn to the Financial Times and Economist who understand what is really going on, or other knowledgeable bloggers like Chris Grey. [1]

It is not difficult to discover how things really work in these strange days. You just need to see what the important facts are, and continue to apply them relentlessly despite what politicians say. The latest important fact that tells you all you need to know is that a Single Market and Customs Union needs a border to, as Martin Sandbu setsout, not just collect tariffs but also check compliance with rules of origin and standards. Therefore to avoid a border in Ireland, you need Northern Ireland to comply with all the tariffs, standards and regulations of the Single Market. The UK has now agreed, as I thought it would, that this must also apply to the UK as a whole.

This logic leads you inevitably to the conclusion that, after Brexit, the UK will to the first approximation [2] continue to obey all the rules of the Single Market and Customs Union. So it will be as if we are still in the EU, with the only difference being that we no longer have any say on what those rules are. Fintan O’Toole quotesSherlock Holmes: eliminate the impossible and whatever remains, however improbable, must be the solution.

But, you may respond, all the UK have signed up to is that this is a default position, if they fail to find a technological fix for the border, or if they fail to conclude a trade agreement with the EU in stage 2, and what does alignment mean anyway? Here you need a second fact: there are no technological fixesthat remove the need for some form of hard border. We also know two things from this first stage agreement: the UK desperately want a trade agreement with the EU and the EU will not allow any agreement that implies a hard border in Ireland. It therefore logically follows that, to a first approximation, any trade agreement will have to involve the UK staying in the Single Market and Customs Union.

Why then are the Brexiters not up in arms? It is partly because the agreement plays on their lack of realism, as I suggestedtwo days ago. The UK government and Brexiters still pretend that they can, through some magical means, avoid a hard border. Given that belief, how can they object to this fall back position? And that will be the line that the UK takes from now into the indefinite future, and because the broadcast media mainly talks to politicians rather than experts that is the line the media will take as well, with some honorable exceptions like those noted above. In may come apart as the cabinet finally discusseswhat the trade deal might look like, which is why the threat of No Deal has not gone away. Or Brexiters like Gove may decide instead that as May will not be making these trade agreements, it is politically wiser to maintain unity and instead try to win the ultimate prize from Conservative party members.

Why is it important that this deceit continues? Because if everyone was honest, and respected the reality of the border issue, people would rightly ask whether our final destination (obeying the rules but with no say on the rules) is worth having. They would note that being to all intents and purposes part of the Customs Union means Mr. Fox cannot make new trade agreements. People might start asking MPs why are we doing this, and the line that we have to do this because the people voted for it would sound increasingly dumb.

Unless something amazing happens and the MSM do not allow this deceit to continue, we will end up with the softest of soft Brexits. If that is where the UK stays [3] there is a huge irony about all this. The Brexiters’ dream was to rid the UK of the shackles of the EU so it could become great again, but it is a legacy of empire that has brought this dream to an end. All the stuff about bringing back the glory of a once great trading nation will not happen. Instead we will still be acting under the rules of the EU, but because we are not part of it the UK will be largely ignored on the world stage. A rather large country, which nevertheless gets other countries (like Ireland!) to set its trade and associated rules for it, and which it is therefore not worth bothering with in the international arena. A Britain that can no longer pretend to be a world power, not as a result of the actions of some left wing government, but because of the delusions of Brexiters.

[1] To be fair to the broadcast media (as I always am), yesterday I did see interviews with ministers which raised the issue of what the implications of the border agreement are. But for whatever reason these interviewers allowed those ministers to bat away the question with waffle, and I strongly suspect the point will be forgotten in the days ahead.

[2] What do I mean by first approximation? For a start, we will not be part of the Customs Union and Single Market, but instead be part of bespoke versions of both. That may allow wiggle room, which in turn might just possibly allow something that could be called a deal on free movement, although this will probably just mean Free Movement to a first approximation. So a bit like Norway or Switzerland, but with rather less room for maneuver than those countries because both have borders with the EU. For more details see here.

[3] It will not be where it stays. First, there is the question of who May’s successor will be, and what they will do. If a soft Brexit goes ahead, the Brexiters will choose the right time (for them) to cry betrayal. It will only be a matter of time before they make a new attack, arguing that the UK should strike out for true independence. As I argue here, bigger things than just one failure have to happen before the UK rids itself of this particularly British form of plutocracy.  

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