So, What Next?

 

I was clearly on the losing side in the vote on the Withdrawal Agreement from the EU.  The Withdrawal Agreement was shot down by a clamour of conflicting voices. Our MPs knew that they did not like the Agreement but their reasons for disliking it were wildly different, based in many cases on ignorance both of the EU and how it works and of the terms of the agreement before them.  How many of our 600 plus MPs had read the 585 pages on which they passed judgement?  Some of those who voted against it thought it ‘bad’ because it kept the UK too close to the EU, some that it would place the UK too far from the EU.  Some thought that it kept the UK subject to EU law, some that it meant that the UK would deviate from EU law on employment and the environment.  Above all, a large number of MPs objected to those elements of the agreement implying permanent special arrangements for the Irish border.  Many of them muddled up the terms of withdrawal with the future terms of the UK’s relationship with the EU.  Close examination of the Hansard Records by future scholars searching to explain the vote will reveal a kaleidoscope of largely uninformed views.  As a whole the House of Commons threw out what was on offer but made no constructive suggestions for alternatives.  It is hardly surprising that the general population is losing trust in its elected representatives.

We must remind ourselves that not only did the people as a whole vote to leave the EU but the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly to trigger Article 50 and then in a general election the major contenting parties all promised to respect the result of the referendum. Few voters opted for parties that promised to reverse the result.   The first question the House of Commons must now address is ‘is the House still sure that it wants the UK to leave the EU?’   Then, after a week in Committee (perhaps of the Whole House supported by Select Committees working in tandem) the House should, section by section examine the Withdrawal proposal.  It should vote on each section in turn so it is clear which parts of the agreement on withdrawal are acceptable or unacceptable just as it would in respect of any major item of legislation.   Before voting all MPs should be required to read the terms of departure – all 585 pages so that they, avoiding accusations made against voters in 2016, can confirm that they were fully ‘informed’ before making a decision.   While judgement as to what is best in the national interest may be based to some degree on sentiment that judgement should at least be based on an understanding of what is on offer.  Once it is clear what the UK House of Commons does want in the withdrawal agreement the government can take its conclusions back to Brussels.  For once the EU negotiators have a point when they complain that the UK does not seem to know what it wants.

The members of the House of Commons need to be reminded over and over again until they understand the point – once they accept that the UK will leave the EU two separate decisions have to be made.  The first is the terms of the UK”s withdrawal.  The second is the terms of the UK’s future relationship with the EU.  These two decisions need to be clearly separated.  As for the future relationship there is much loose talk of customs unions.  There is need for precision here.  There is a big difference between being a member of the EU’s customs union – an arrangement made internally a decade after the adoption of the Treaty of Rome  – and being a member of ‘a’ customs union with the EU.  Turkey has ‘a’ customs union with the EU which notably excludes agriculture and services.  The UK could agree ‘a’ customs union with the EU covering manufactured products which represent almost all the intra EU trade – notably vehicles.  That would satisfy the demands of big business and its unlikely new spokesman in Parliament, the leader of the Opposition.  But ‘a’ customs union or any other trade deal with the EU can only be discussed with EU negotiators after the UK has left, and they have warned us off ‘cherry picking’.   It is time for someone to bring logic and clarity into the heated atmosphere of uniformed declamation which has characterised the last few days of non-debate in Parliament.

 

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Decision Day

Tomorrow the UK’s House of Commons votes on the ‘Withdrawal Agreement’ brought back by the Government from its lengthy negotiations in Brussels.  It is widely expected that it will be rejected.

What would I do were I a member of the House of Commons?  I voted ‘Remain’ after changing my mind day by day before the Referendum.  Were I asked again I would vote ‘Leave’.  The EU is not working for the benefit of the peoples of its member states but in the interests of its own future.   Dreams of a European state have not disappeared – the President of the Commission is even now pressing for the abolition of the national veto on tax proposals.  In its present form the EU is not a well functioning organisation.  The single market is a dangerous myth because it promises what it cannot deliver.  A single European market for all products and services is unattainable and undesirable.  The single market is primarily useful for vehicle manufacturers and their industry is, like coal and steel in the past, in a perilous state.  New technology will transform the way we move around by the end of the century.  This requires diversity rather than unformity if new products are to be developed and sold within the European space.

Never, never, never believe that the EU’s single market has delivered on its promise of more growth and jobs.  Italian GDP per capita is now actually lower today than 20 years ago, for example.  EU unemployment, particularly among the young, remains high.

I voted remain because at heart I am a European, not a North American or an African.  The EU was a good idea until it got too big for its boots.  Free trade may have advantages but all the add ons, notably the Euro, have had adverse rather than positive effects.  Reform of the EU seems impossible.

But, what about the agreement on the table?  How bad is it?  I have read but a few of its 585 pages (several only have one paragraph to be fair).  The worst bit is undoubtedly the Irish Backstop.  But even here there is hope.  Whatever the UK House of Commons decides tomorrow it cannot bind its successors.  That is the essence of our Parliamentary sovereignty based on the sovereignty of the people.  In twenty years time circumstances will be quite different, the people will have different views, they will convey those to their representatives who, using their judgement, will decide on ‘great matters’.  Whatever the words on the withdrawal agreement concerning the Irish border by then the EU will have changed, the Irish may have decided to unite or we may be at war.  Who knows?  I would vote for the agreement subject to caveats reaffirming the sovereignty of the British people.  There is a huge pile of defunct Treaties and an unacceptable commitment on the Irish border could well join it.

Above all, the tower of Babel that is the House of Commons is talking about the wrong thing.  All they have to do tomorrow is to agree on the terms of withdrawal.  Then, and only then, they can debate until they drop the many different versions of future arrangements including those for the Irish border.  The EU insisted on sequencing.  The House of Commons has muddled the two parts of what has to be agreed – how we leave, pay the bills and respect accrued rights (always a big issue in Treaty law) and what we do next.  There will be nearly two years in which the MPs can shout at each other about our new relationship with the EU.  Tomorrow is not the time for that.

 

 

 

 

If the EU can let Japan ‘cherry pick’ on a trade deal why can’t it offer the same to the UK?

The EU signed a new trade deal with Japan last week.  It is worth reading (at least in summary)  its provisions.  There are a number of striking features in this deal which expose the weakness of the EU’s current negotiating position with the UK.  The UK is constantly told it cannot ‘cherry pick’ and that the four freedoms come in a package.  Those principles do not, it seems, apply to deals with the land of the cherry blossom.

The EU Japan deal is primarily about the reduction and/or elimination of tariffs i.e. customs duties.  In some cases like cheese there will be duty free ‘quotas’ not absolute free entry.  As far as non-tariff barriers are concerned the provisions of the deal refer frequently to joint application of international standards on products such as motor vehicles and medical devices.  Services are only partially covered.  Public services are excluded from the deal.

The second striking feature of this deal is that it does not provide for unfettered free movement of people between the EU and Japan.  It only facilitates the temporary movement of company personnel and their families.

Finally, disputes will be settled by an independent arbitration panel as is usual practice in international trade agreements.   There seems to be no problem with allowing the Japanese to ‘cherry pick’ bits of the single market it seems.  This deal must surely point the way to a similar deal for UK.  Only problem, this would not suit the Commission negotiators who have consistently refused to consider any such flexibility towards the UK.   Time to hand over to the member states who are likely to have a more balanced and pragmatic approach.

 

 

 

 

 

Mr Raab’s pointed present – the Hedgehog and the Fox

It has been reported that the new UK Brexit Secretary of State, Dominic Raab, presented Michel Barnier, the EU Commission’s chief negotiator, with a copy of ‘The Hedgehog and the Fox’ by Isaiah Berlin.  At first I thought what a wonderful sense of humour – and then I thought what a very, very pointed present this was.

The Hedgehog and the Fox contrasts two ways of looking at the world: the monist and the pluralist.  Archilochus, an ancient Greek, said: ‘The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing’.  Guess who is the hedgehog – the EU of course.  It is monist, Utopian and rigid, imbued with the philosophical ideas of continental Europe.  The UK’s philosophical underpinnings are those of the fox – it is pragmatic and rooted in the real world of human beings.  By offering M Barnier this essay by Berlin Mr Raab is signalling that he wants to be a grown up wily fox in his dealings with the EU hedgehog. At present he is still very much a cub.

The fate of the two animals in the natural world is instructive.  Where is the hedgehog?  Crushed under a fast moving vehicle as he exercises his single minded ambition to cross the road, eaten up by an ever growing tribe of Badgers who are bigger and nastier than him.  Where is the fox?  He seems to be doing exceptionally well, give or take a few road accidents.  The fox is in the ascendency not only in the countryside but also flourishing in urban areas.  I often saw fox or smelt his presence (faint whiff of skunk) when I lived in central London.

Mr Barnier, the EU’s chief hedgehog of the day, needed reminding of the dangers lurking in a monist, intransigent attitude to the creation of the European Utopia.  Hedgehogs, with only one big idea (the purity of the single market) cannot allow that big idea even to be questioned.  Mr Raab will have his work cut out if he is to become a grown up fox. What he now has to do is to emphasise the realities of human life, of economic activity and the merits of pluralism.  Isaiah Berlin would have been cheering him on.

Meanwhile, the Irish PM, Leo Varadkar, says he will stop UK planes flying over Irish air space unless Irish fishermen can fish in UK waters.  He is trying to be a good hedgehog but the wily fox knows that if he got his wish Irish planes could fly direct only to Spain, Portugal and the Canaries.  Better, better by far for survival for the EU and its negotiators to start to behave a bit more like a fox.

Boris exits stage right (or left perhaps) without a script

Boris has left the stage and is out of the UK/EU exit drama.  He is now without a script.   Unless he and those who think like him can rewrite the scenario they will be out of the cast as the drama moves into its final act.

Perhaps back of his mind, and that of Jacob Rees Mogg and other would be thespians, he has the notion that the UK could just leave the EU and trade with it and the rest of the world without any rules of the game at all.  Do they see UK exporters as pirates sailing round the world with cargoes of illegal goods?   That is an extreme view.  Do they have an alternative plan to that drawn up by the UK ?  There have been suggestions that the UK falls back on WTO rules. This still leaves the UK as a ‘rule taker’.  Like the EU, the WTO has rules and a dispute settling mechanism.  It is true that the WTO has not been working very well in recent years having been thwarted in its last major round of negotiations and having to watch while bilateral and regional trade deals muddied the global waters.  Nevertheless, free trade in a global context means accepting rules and standards.  If a UK firm wants to sell into any country it has to accept that country’s product standards.  The mighty German auto manufacturer Volkswagen learned that lesson to its cost.  Some of its top employees have landed in US courts and even in US jails for breaking the rules on emissions standards.

If the UK wants to continue to trade with the EU as it gradually builds up its global markets it surely makes sense to agree a free trade deal.  Like all free trade deals that means respect for common rules and standards – most of which are international anyway.  Free trade deals rarely cover much of the service sector and do not include total free movement of people between the countries.  A free trade deal with the EU is a pragmatic proposal.  Pragmatism is not, however, a feature of the EU’s approach.

The bad fairy in the UK/EU drama is the EU Commission which is the keeper of the religion of the ‘four freedoms’ as if it were the pure Christian theology of the Holy Trinity.   The purity of religious belief must be upheld even if the mass of the people living in the European continent suffers as a result.  The Commission is as wrong as are ‘hard Brexiters’  in its extreme viewpoint.  There should be no room for religious belief or ideology at the expense of the mass of the peoples of Europe.  For a happy ending to ensue in any drama there must be rejection of rigid positions and reconciliation between the players.

 

Mr Davis resigns without an alternative plan

After apparently agreeing to the Government’s Brexit plan at Chequers last week, David Davis has now resigned.  He could not face the long walk down the Chequers drive and the impossibility of hailing a taxi home so he waited a couple of days.

Davis has been notable for his absence from the Brussels negotiations for some time.  The Commission officials have been talking to UK officials.  No surprise at that.  Mrs May meanwhile has been touring the capitals of EU member states.  No surprise at that either.  The idea that a Minister should be locked in day to day negotiations with a bunch of Commission officials was always nonsense.  No surprise, therefore, that Davis felt sidelined.  His position was always impossible.

His resignation does not alter the fact that the UK Government has agreed on the outlines of a new trade agreement with the EU to take effect after Brexit.  It is not a ‘soft Brexit’ but a new trade deal with the EU.  All trade agreements come with strings attached – keep to the rules and product standards and ensure that there is a dispute mechanism.    Mr Davis has not resigned on principle.  He has not published any alternative plan.

The EU, for its part, is defending the integrity of its single market with its ‘four freedoms’ including the free movement of people.   Funny that it has been able to negotiate trade deals with many third countries, most recently with Canada, where there is no requirement for the free movement of people.  Why should the UK not be treated as other third countries are treated in EU trade deals?  Because it must be punished for daring to leave the EU’s Utopian project.

Here the EU reveals its own confusions.  The ‘free movement of labour’ enshrined in the EU Treaties morphed into the ‘free movement of people’ and on the back of that the EU is challenged from outside its borders by mass migration.  The Schengen Agreement on internal borders is already in tatters.  Time for the EU to reconsider just what is and what is not really required for its internal market to operate for the mutual benefit of all citizens of its member states.

 

At last – the outlines of a free trade arrangement between the UK and the EU – what took them so long?

This blog has been silent for four months.  Why?  Because so much utter nonsense has been circulating among political actors and the media about customs unions and single markets.  Unrealistic demands have been based on complete ignorance.  Having decided to leave the EU the UK by definition leaves its institutions including the Council of Ministers, the European Parliament and the Court of Justice.  It also leaves the customs union.  As for the ‘single market’ that is largely a myth.   To assume that it exists for all products and services is to fly in the face of all evidence and common sense.  There are global markets for some products, regional and local markets for others.  The scope of any market depends on the nature of the goods and services on offer and the preferences of consumers.  In so far as a European single market exists it exists for basic manufactured goods and some foods.  But many products and almost all retail services serve local markets.  Even the European Commission recognises that the single market is far from ‘complete’.  Any arrangements concluded between the UK and the EU for trade post Brexit have to confront the facts of. economic life.

The British Cabinet agreed on Saturday to the terms of a White Paper to be issued on the arrangements for trade between the UK and the EU after Brexit next year.  Cue howls of rage from ultra Brexiteers.  This time they are wrong.  By this time next year the UK will no longer be a member of the EU or its institutions.  But the UK and the EU member states still want to trade with each other.  Critics of the UK government position have no alternative to offer if they want a degree of free trade.  Any free trade agreement with the EU, the US or China for that matter would require recognition of common product standards and a mechanism for arbitrating disputes. Falling back on WTO rules for trade means acceptance of the same principles.

Why are people so hung up about ‘European Standards’?  Because they do not know that EU product standards are, by and large, developed in international, not EU, forums.  The EU is a ‘rule taker’ from international organisations as far as standards are concerned.  Were it not to follow international standards it would become a closed autarky trading only with itself.  That is not, at present, its espoused ambition.  The UK will be free to play an enhanced role in the development of international standards once its voice is no longer blended with those of 27 other countries.

From the start Mrs May has talked about a free trade deal with the EU.  Now we have the outlines of that deal.  What is astonishing is that it has taken her administration two years to draw up a proposal based on first principles.  There are obviously details to be finessed, but the UK government should be praised for finally coming to a pragmatic sensible conclusion that fits in with global practices.

But, and this is a big but, the EU Commission may well pull a face and talk the proposal down.  If it does so it risks its own long term future as the member states finally come to the conclusion that they, not the Commission, must be in charge of the international organisation they have created.  Any new relationship between the UK and the EU must one that benefits the citizens of the EU’s member states not one that fulfils the Commission’s dream of a uniform closed Utopia bound together by a tight mesh of inflexible law.