Perhaps the lack of a casus belli explains why Britain has no agreed Brexit goal or negotiating strategy
One of the most striking aspects of the Brexit process is that, a year and a half after the EU referendum of June 2016, the British government has no clear idea of the type of future relationship that it wants with our European neighbours. Without an agreed goal, negotiations are bound to be pointless.
To the extent that there has been a search for a goal, it has focussed mainly on future trading relationships. Bullied by hard-line Brexiteers, Theresa May has decreed that the UK should move out of the Customs Union and Single Market, but she has not said what arrangements she would wish for instead, except that they should be “bespoke”. Now that Whitehall has told her that any trade agreement other than the present one is bound to damage Britain’s future economic growth prospects, she should have the guts to admit that she is leading us down a self-harming path. I suspect, however, that her first step will be to question the validity of the estimates and blame her civil servants for bias. Perhaps, if that fails, she might try to make the excuse that, had she known how dire the consequences would be, she would never have proposed to turn the UK’s back on the present market arrangements.
This would be a blatantly deceitful argument, given that, during the Referendum campaign, she had argued that “If we do vote to leave the European Union, we risk bringing the development of the single market to a halt, we risk a loss of investors and businesses to remaining EU member states driven by discriminatory EU policies, and we risk going backwards when it comes to international trade.” In the same speech, she also told us that “We export more to Ireland than we do to China, almost twice as much to Belgium as we do to India, and nearly three times as much to Sweden as we do to Brazil. It is not realistic to think we could just replace European trade with these new markets.”
This is hardly the “strong and stable” leadership that she claims of offer!
What she and her more vocal ministers seem to forget – or want us to forget – is that membership of the EU is about much more than trade. There are around 40 decentralised agencies which facilitate inter-country collaboration on a wide range of vital issues that impinge positively on the quality of our daily lives – including maritime and air safety, cooperation in research and pooling knowledge, student exchanges, the environment and climate change, collaboration between national police forces, registration and upholding of intellectual property rights, assuring food safety. If we leave the EU, we will almost certainly lose our right to play a part in the management of these agencies, but, as long as we want to continue to trade with the rest of Europe, engage in multi-country research or travel in the Region, we will have to adopt their standards and regulations as well as set up parallel institutions to fulfil similar functions within an isolated UK. This seems bound to involve higher costs for assuring the provision of similar services, while excluding us from the processes of revising and setting policies, standards and regulations.
Thinking a bit about these matters, it struck me that there are two main reasons for Britain’s failure to identify end goals and to negotiate to achieve them.
First is the absence of any casus belli. Until the idea of Brexit was promoted so energetically during the referendum campaign, most of us had no particularly antagonistic views about the EU. I suspect that, if asked, very few of us, even if we voted “leave”, could point to any specific EU-driven instances that we could claim had impacted negatively on our own lives. The situation was very different, therefore, from Grexit when Greece started playing with the idea of leaving the Eurozone to respond to widespread popular dissatisfaction with the hugely negative impact on employment and living standards of the austerity policies imposed by the IMF and Eurozone managers. Perhaps it is significant that Greece has stayed in the EU as well as the Eurozone!
Secondly, leave campaigners attributed almost every problem faced by British voters to its EU membership, whereas we are now beginning to see that many of them are home-made. Britain’s austerity policies were not imposed by Brussels but invented by its own Chancellor of the Exchequer. Parliament voluntarily approved policies for freedom of movement of European citizens several years ahead of the EU deadline – and the UK, through its own negligence, still has no system in place for registering their presence. London competed with other EU capitals to get the headquarters of the European Medicines Agency and the European Banking Authority located within its boundaries, and is now driving them out. Much of the new investment in urban renewal in the UK has come not from UK sources but from EU institutions including the European Investment Bank.
In a recent article on Michael Gove’s rather plausible vision for Post-Brexit UK food management policies, I made the point that these could mostly be implemented right away while Britain was still in the EU rather than have to wait, as he proposed, some 6 years before starting. The only explanation for this procrastination on the part of a leading Brexiteer was that he was opportunistically trying to build up farmer support for himself and his party in the next general election. What hypocrisy!
The call to “take back control” may have been persuasive but it is largely meaningless because any trade deal requires the setting of mutually agreed standards and conditions, reflected in each partner’s laws.
What must be happening now in the negotiating process is that many of the quixotic arguments advanced by the “leave” campaigners are evaporating simply because they were based on wrong assumptions about where the blame for Britain’s woes lies. It will prove very difficult to show that it will be in Britain’s national interest to leave most of the decentralised agencies and Euratom, yet it seems that our country will be required by the European Commission to renounce its memberships if it opts for any kind of Brexit. This looks like another case of incalculable self-inflicted harm.
One can only hope that Ollie Robbins, protected from Cabinet mud-slinging and the glare of the press, is quietly and discretely beavering away with his opposite numbers in Brussels, sketching out the shape of a possible agreement that would be in the British national interest and also find favour amongst the other European countries. Hopefully he will soon be able to present a plausible proposal to his boss, the Prime Minister, that could garner cross-party support in Parliament, even if opposed by vociferous extremists on both sides. If she does not dare pick it up – if it really exists – Corbyn could well adopt it!
He could even go one step forward, concluding that it is in Britain’s interest to stay in the EU and to continue to shape its policies until we next run into a real casus belli that truly justifies a full-blown divorce.