by Damon de Laszlo, ERC Chairman
“We are in uncharted waters” would seem to describe the current state of Britain in the Brexit negotiations. The reality, however, is that the waters are perfectly well charted but the good ship G.B. has no functioning Captain or Navigator.
The Prime Minister should receive full marks for courage, persistence and energy, but nil for negotiating ability – her most profound statement from what seems like an age ago, that no deal is better than a bad deal, stands opposite the European Chief Negotiator’s original comment that Britain’s position was not negotiable. The upshot of negotiations so far has produced a proposal – The Chequers Brexit Deal – pulled the day before the vote in Parliament, was the final position. The ‘deal’ however in itself is extraordinary and Orwellian in its drafting. It is an agreement to agree, legalistically by definition this is not an agreement, although it can, at a stretch, be called a deal: – Britain leaves the EU at the end of March but continues to pay all the Club Dues and abide by all the Rules, including not being able to enter into any trade deals with countries outside the EU, and Britain ceases to be on any of the committees and regulatory bodies within the Market; and this position persists until a new agreement is reached and ratified by all 27 other member countries.
The situation succinctly summarised by the French President’s statement that he was delighted with the “Deal” as France could keep the UK in the backstop for ever, unless the UK allowed French fishing boats to fish in UK waters. Similar sentiment has so far been aired by Spain re Gibraltar, Greece and Germany, and it is confirmed by the UK Attorney General’s legal advice that, in theory, this situation “ could last for ever”. Of course, European Heads of State and Brussels are thrilled with the situation. They get the money and don’t have the pain of dealing with any further British representation.
Before the vote, it has to be remembered that the Remain lobby, headed by the Chancellor and the Bank of England, produced outrageous forecasts of the economic consequences of leaving the EU. At the time these establishment opinions went unchallenged as a majority of economists and economic Think Tanks are recipients of government funding and are, therefore, not allowed to comment in the election period. Subsequently, these extraordinary forecasts were proved wrong as they failed to destabilise business confidence and investment. Since the “Leave” vote, a few senior ex-government economists have had the courage to challenge the establishment view. However, in the run up to the tabling of the Chequers Deal, the propaganda from the Bank and Treasury, joined by public announcements from Ministers as far afield as the Health Secretary, have been redoubled – a disorderly exit could leave the Health Service short of drugs etc. So far the public has failed to panic and put pressure on MPs to back the deal. While “disorderly exit” and “crashing out” are intentionally emotive, it is entirely down to the government to choose whether to flood the Channel ports with customs officers to hold up the flow of lorries, which would cause chaos on both sides of the Channel. It is, however, doubtful whether the blocking of the motorways to the south coast ports, which would probably back-up to the M25, and similar chaos on the other side of the Channel, would last long before the population demanded the free movement of goods.
If duties are to be levied, then governments on both sides could relatively quickly agree to no duties or put in place the WTO duties which are paid and dealt with by computer systems already in place for trade between Europe and the outside world.
Maybe we do have to have a serious European/UK trade crisis in order to bang heads together. As a general rule, it seems that governments find it difficult to act until there is a good crisis and the public vents its fury.
The ‘Remain’ movement, which has done everything possible to destabilise the negotiations and promoted a re-run of the Referendum, has now had a major win by getting the European Court to change the rules, allowing Britain to withdraw its Article 50 letter. We have to remember that the European Court is not a Court of Law in the British sense, it is there to “interpret” the rules in favour of the EU.
Putting aside the immediate fascination of the minute-by-minute government circus act of spinning plates, there is a background feeling of growing democratic deficit in western countries. In America, the election of Trump was the expression of the feeling that the majority was unrepresented and ignored by Washington and the US establishment.
The Brexit vote was largely the result of similar feelings, further confirmed by the subsequent election in the UK. Across Europe, Left and Right populist movements are on the rise and indeed have erupted on the streets of France.
The crisis I fear most would come from calling a referendum and seeing an angry public demonstrating on the streets of London, and a referendum is so divisive it would be difficult to see how the government could square the circle.
Whether May is pushed, or a General Election produces a Corbyn government, we are running into exceedingly dangerous political disruption. Ostensibly Parliament could, between now and March, withdraw the Article 50 letter, and we could have an election. Parliament could also call a referendum, although this is supposed to require six months’ notice under electoral law as it stands.
The government and parliamentary antics are in danger of creating a frightening constitutional crisis, potentially more damaging than anything the Brexit debate has so far engendered.
Damon de Laszlo
December 11th , 2018