Poor David – Saddled with an Impossible Task
I have held very little respect for David Davis. He has come across as a bumbling and seemingly ill-prepared negotiator who is too easily pushed into a corner by a more polished Michel Barnier. He gets himself into a hopeless mess in Westminster about his department’s assessments of the sectoral impacts of Brexit when, after boasting of their existence, he had to deny this because their analyses were so dire. And then he muddles along with promises of a frictionless border in Ireland, without being able to explain to anyone how it would actually work.
Now, however, I have come to feel pity for the poor man because I realise that he has been given an impossible task and has been forced to make a fool of himself – and of us – to keep his job. The idea that Britain can enjoy all the advantages of the close relationships with other European countries that have grown up over more than 40 years without assuming the obligations that inevitably go with this is a non-starter. Yet this is what Mrs May has required him to do by her unilateral announcement, apparently not even discussed with her full cabinet, that Brexit must mean removing Britain from the Single Market and the Customs Union and excluding it from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.
Cooperation with neighbours – whether it is between people or countries – can offer many mutual advantages. Above all, it contributes to peace and harmony, but it also provides benefits of scale and those attributable to pooling of efforts, greater resilience to external threats and higher levels of efficiency as well as the economies that come with these.
Successful cooperation requires the mutual acceptance of commonly accepted behaviours, progressively honed through continuing dialogue and experiential learning. And, as new challenges and opportunities arise, it calls for progressive adjustments in the topics into which cooperation is extended because there are apparent benefits that can only be attained through concerted action. In the case of international cooperation, this applies particularly to the handling of issues that have cross-border dimensions, especially those related to the movement of people, goods and services, including the assurance of fair competition. Cooperation may also be seen as beneficial if it extends to measures aimed at promoting commonly held “values” such as those that relate to a preference for democratic systems of government or respect for human rights.
Cooperation between countries – even if simply for the purposes of enhancing trade – demands agreements on standards as well as means of assuring that these are applied, including systems of arbitration to guarantee fair dealing.
Fostering and maintaining cooperation between many countries with diverse cultures, histories, languages, causes for national pride, economic strength, comparative advantages and so on, is bound to be cumbersome and to require compromises and a building of trust between participants. Sometimes, when a country feels that an agreement requires it to sacrifice national values, it has to consider whether the benefits outweigh the pain: sometimes – as Britain has done in the past – it may opt out of reforms that it feels go too far, as was the case when the Euro was launched.
Any effective cooperation between countries necessarily involves voluntarily ceding elements of national sovereignty, if only because of the requirement to adopt certain common standards and regulations. If taken literally, the mandate to reclaim sovereignty, given by the victory of leave voters in the EU referendum, is inherently incompatible with the concept of re-negotiating a new trade deal with Europe or entering into free trade deals with other countries. There is, however, space for some selective reclamation of sovereignty on issues in which regulatory authority has been extended into essentially national issues which have few implications for other countries or their citizens – for instance on building construction standards or road signs.
I suspect that, as negotiations proceed, Davis and his team of civil servants are finding that there is inherent good sense in almost all of the agreements that have been made, usually with the endorsement of Parliament, with the other members of the EU. This would not be surprising because the UK has been a leading proponent of many of the existing agreements and a founder member of most of the 40 decentralised agencies that promote cooperation on setting and enforcing standards – whether for food safety, prudent bank management, approval of medicines, air travel, crime prevention, defence, mobile phone management, control of pests and diseases, research cooperation and so on.
They may also have come to realise, as in the case of environmental standards and women’s and workers’ rights, that membership of the EU has helped to lever beneficial changes in national legislation which would have been unlikely to have come about without the external accountability implied by being part of the club.
Davis and his colleagues may also have discovered that, contrary to public perceptions, many of the affronts to nationalism that voters have attributed to the EU and its Brussels bureaucrats are home-made or self-imposed. There was no obligation for instance for the UK to abandon what May now describes as its “iconic” blue passport cover! The Scots have made it perfectly clear that it is possible to combine national pride with a strong commitment to EU membership.
They may also be seeing that, in spite of the EU’s appearance of inflexibility, personified by Barnier, there may be room for agreement on future adjustments in policies that would go a long way towards meeting British public concerns over continued membership. It would not be surprising for instance if the EU would agree to a proposal to level the internal EU migration playing field by supporting the concept of enhancing parity between countries in their social protection policies, thereby reducing one of the major drivers of internal migration.
I suspect that Davis would welcome a change of job, but, if he is not given this, he must be relieved of the impossible constraints imposed on him by a fantasy perception of a future relationship with our neighbours that would give Britain all the material advantages of remaining in Europe without accepting the obligations that this implies, and denying it a voice in future policy making.
The logical conclusion is that UK should revoke – or put on hold – its Article 50 application and its related commitment to pay an exit fee. Instead, it should enter into an informal process aimed at exploring the options for remaining in Europe while reclaiming those aspects of sovereignty of essentially national relevance and engaging in an agenda for EU reform covering the drivers of internal migration and possibly the adjustment of agricultural and fisheries policies with a focus on promoting truly sustainable natural resources management.
If the ruling party cannot bring itself to admit that it is barking up the wrong tree, then a change of government becomes inevitable. This could be hastened by a shift in public opinion about the wisdom of Brexit, driven by its already visible negative impact on their costs of living.