The inertia surrounding the Government’s handling of Brexit, matched with its double-dealing, mean the best course of action now is to commit to an effective separation in March 2019 without a transitional period. Once outside, we will be better placed to dictate the terms of our future relationship, argues Bruce Newsome.
What would you expect: if you were to procrastinate on a deal, but urgently want some sort of deal? You’d expect a bad deal. That’s Theresa May’s Brexit: having spoken rarely on what she wants, then spoken vaguely and contradictorily, she is in a rush to concede what the EU has always demanded. Her officials are working towards a transition deal within a week, which they will declare a victory – but it will be another capitulation.
The political spin and superficial commentary is of progress, but the reasons are as vacuous as her speeches. Ironically, she is enjoying a temporary boost from Russian aggression, despite her ineffective response. In comparison to the leader of the opposition (Jeremy Corbyn) – who refused to blame Russia for the chemical weapon attack on a Russian defector, his daughter, and British first responders in Salisbury – she looks confrontational, but in practice May’s response to Russian state-terrorism was inconsequential (the expulsion of some diplomats – who can be replaced, the withdrawal of ministerial and royal plans to attend the football world cup, and promises to strengthen legislation and border checks that just need to be enforced). She won plaudits for “fist-bumping” a member of the public on a tour of Salisbury and cooing over a baby on a separate tour, which are newsworthy only because of her dire reputation as robotic.
In fact, the practical consequences of the May government’s contradictions are coming home to roost. Earlier this month, May made her latest of her rare speeches on Brexit, which doesn’t seem to have been read by most of the commentators – certainly not those who characterized it as a major break from May’s reputation for indecision. In fact, it was uselessly contradictory, especially on trade – it’s nominal focus. Take her promises to both separate from the customs union but to maintain a “frictionless” border, or to regain national control of trade but without “the introduction of any tariffs or quotas”.
Two weeks later, the Transport Secretary (Chris Grayling) now says that he wants no new physical checks on flows between Britain and the EU after nominal separation from the EU in March 2019. A pro-EU group of Members of Parliament (Open Britain) pointed out the contradiction with May’s promise to take back national control of Britain’s trade, while the Freight Transport Association pointed out the contradiction with the obligations on EU members to inspect external trade.
In the same week, May’s government conceded EU rights to fish in British fisheries, as I predicted, given her contradictory speech on EU trade early in March. The contradiction is worth revisiting, as an exemplar of more concessions given other contradictions. In one breath, she promised that “the UK will regain control over our domestic fisheries”; in the next breath, she promised “to continue to work together” with the EU “to agree reciprocal access to waters and a fairer allocation of fishing opportunities for the UK fishing industry.” A week later, the Chancellor (Philip Hammond) admitted that the government was “open” to trading access to Britain’s fisheries for a deal on some other industry. A week after that, her government conceded access to the EU.
In the same week, British civil servants secretly briefed ambassadors in London from six other EU members on the government’s plan to keep Britain integrated into the EU’s own military structure, which is of no military use and is contradictory to Britain’s prior commitment to NATO.
For barmy Brexit-bashers, naturally, such contradictory concessions are signs of “progress.” The Bank of England now says that “progress” since November has reduced Brexit risks – but this statement comes from the same director and other members of the board who have not changed since being exposed by independent economists (such as Economists for Free Trade and Cambridge University) for insulated hysteria about the risks of Brexit. The Bank’s rating of “progress” from November includes the “interim deal” that May signed with the EU in early December, which is so contradictory that it is still in dispute, such as its promise to keep Britain’s border with Ireland aligned with EU principles.
The EU continues to demand that the post-Brexit border should be between the island of Ireland and the British mainland. One of the few red-lines voiced by May earlier in March is along the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, but given her other u-turns and climbdowns, the EU and Ireland are emboldened. The Irish government continues to threaten to veto any transition deal unless May backs down.
What is the solution to this mess? First, we need to avoid the utterly counter-productive solution offered in the same week by Parliament’s select committee on Brexit, chaired by Hilary Benn of the Labour Party – this week’s barmy Brexit-basher of the week: he led a majority recommendation to delay nominal separation beyond March 2019, on the grounds that Britain is unprepared. This is utterly circular: Britain is unprepared because the government keeps procrastinating on leaving.
In this, Benn and May are complicit. The separation that May scheduled for May 2019 is no separation at all, because Britain will enter an indefinite “transition period”, in which May has promised no change in Britain’s rights or responsibilities, and which still has no agreed end.
To add to the uncertainty, May has secretly sent officials to suggest a transition period to at least March 2022 – that’s four years from now. The EU has declared that it should not go longer than 2020, but that just gives it something to trade in return for yet another concession.
The only solution at this late stage is to commit to an effective separation in March 2019, without a transitional period, and to specify how Britain will practice its post-separation relationship with the EU. Then the EU would be forced to respond to British practical specifications – what a nice change that would be, 21 months after Britons voted to separate.