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May's disingenuous Brexit vision

Bruce Oliver Newsome
December 16, 2017

Theresa May's Brexit doesn't mean Brexit at all, argues Bruce Oliver Newsome. It sees us continue to sacrifice our national sovereignty, continue to pour money into the EU's coffers, all the while increasing our economic uncertainty and stability.  

Seventeen months ago, a new Prime Minister said that "Brexit means Brexit." Yet Theresa May has contrived to delay the separation, to separate without a final deal, to extend the EU's jurisdiction, and to extend Britain's payments to the EU. Effectively, we won't be sovereign, but we'll still be paying, driving more uncertainty, and enabling more instability.

Let's consider the first problem: we won't be sovereign. The deal that Theresa May claimed in the wee hours of 8 December 2017 wasn't a deal to leave, it was British surrender in return for further talks. May committed to pay a divorce bill (without specifying what Britain is paying for), to keep Britain's border with Ireland aligned with all EU principles (such as the free movement of people), and to align British law with the European rights of the 3.3 million EU citizens in Britain (including the right to remain indefinitely).

Thus, Britain won't regain economic, judicial, or border sovereignty. All alignments are subject to the European Court of Justice, but the government hasn't admitted this, although May smuggled into a letter to parliamentarians an admission that both sides must agree "at the point of exit" the ECJ rulings to which British "courts will pay due regard". She discussed only the reduction of the ECJ from superior court to consultant, for a period of eight years, over the rights of EU citizens in Britain. The EU won't reciprocate any British rights or laws to protect British citizens inside the EU, except contribution-based entitlements.
British-Irish alignment at the border has no expiration. The illegal migrants and traffickers who use France as their preferred stepping stone will displace to Ireland, but Britain's obligations not to interfere will remain the same, and the ECJ will judge.

After the collective Euphoria, commentators are only just realising that the deal won't deliver economic sovereignty. British business leaders are complaining of more uncertainty, not less.

The second problem is: we'll still be paying. May had secretly raised her offer to at least £40 billion, just to enable further talks on leaving: her letter to parliamentarians did not admit any amount, while underlings held to a line of "about" £39 billion, to be paid over indefinite years, although they conceded that the final total could be much greater. Probably it will surpass £50 billion.

This will hurt Britain's economy, public services, and political stability. Other than border control, the most appealing argument by Brexiteers was that Britain should spend at home what it pays to the EU. True, Britain gains economically from the single market, but it pays exorbitantly for the privilege.

The uncertainty about what Britain pays is a scandal in itself. In 2015, Britain paid to the EU £14.6 billion, after rebate, in fees and costs, and another £1 billion for the EU to spend on international aid (although the British government counts that billion towards its own spending of 0.7 per cent of gross domestic product on international aid). The EU's grants or subsidies to Britain amounted to something less than £6 billion in 2015, but since Britain doesn't control EU spending, EU spending does not directly reduce Britain's contribution. In any case, some proportion of EU spending in Britain is overhead that is returned to Brussels, and some is not spent in Britain, such as when British academics are sponsored to see how great Brussels is.

Thus, a fair measure of Britain's contribution to the EU is at least £15.5 billion per year, or £42.5 million per day.

The EU is expensive because it is a profligate, inefficient socialist enterprise, redistributing wealth to the least deserving, while hypocritically privileging the unelected administrators, journalists, and academics who pretend otherwise.

The EU frankly admits that it wants Britain to pay not just for operational obligations but to fill a hole in its finances, but that is the EU's fault. It taxes the most valuable single market in the world, but wastes its revenues keeping afloat its distorted programmes, including the Common Agricultural Policy (to keep French farmers producing unwanted food) and the Eurozone (to enable Greek socialists to keep spending without passing the bill to voters).

Here we're talking about centrally-planned outward spending, without adding the operating costs of its extravagant central government in Brussels, which gets nothing done until the last minute of farcical summits, when everybody emerges to praise each other for reaching an agreement, and the journalists are bribed with free meals and booze to overlook the lack of substance.

The third problem is: we're planning for longer into the future with greater uncertainty. Britons voted for Brexit in June 2016; May promised a quick deal to reduce uncertainty, then perversely promised a long transition period and multiple options from "hard" to "soft." The British government has just reached its first "interim agreement" towards further talks – incidentally, on a last-minute schedule driven by the EU's upcoming summit.

The interim deal was immediately disputed: Ireland said Britain had committed to keeping the whole island of Ireland aligned with the EU, but May's letter to parliamentarians confirmed her earlier pronouncements that "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed"; over the weekend, her chief negotiator (David Davis) said the deal had no legal status. However, both soon conceded to EU demands that the deal should be enacted into British law; otherwise (you've guessed it) the EU won't allow further talks. Yet the deal was so badly worded nobody can be certain what might be enacted. Secretly, civil servants are already consulting about what would be acceptable to Brussels, but don't expect either side to admit to renegotiation.

May had set a date for leaving the EU in March 2019, but has promised years of transitional arrangements. The EU has refused to discuss trade until after that date. For Britons, it will feel like giving up the deeds to the house but not the mortgage. Experience suggests that the EU will spend years on trade talks. Even then, everything will remain up for reinterpretation and renegotiation. Once Britain has committed its treasure and sovereignty, what leverage will it have?

We already know from the EU's handling of migration that it makes final deals that it ignores. To whom would Britain appeal? The ideal arbiter would be the World Treaty Organisation, but May's government has characterised WTO rules as the worst alternative to any deal with the EU.

In short, Britain's relationship with the EU is getting riskier. The fourth problem is: the British government is enabling more regional instability. By funding the EU without securing EU reforms, Britain will be bankrolling the agendas that are destabilising the EU.

Additionally, a government of fake Brexiteers inevitably destabilises itself, by putting the multinational elite before the national majority. Most Conservatives rushed to praise the interim deal, in the hope that unity would help to improve the next one, but Conservative rebels defeated the government's policy to implement a final deal without Parliament's ratification. Meanwhile, the opposition has tabled more delays and deletions. One commentator characterised the interim deal as a "treason" that will ruin the Conservative Party, once ordinary voters get a chance to vote again. Another pointed out that provincial and local governments are looking for special rights to stretch the EU-Britain "hybrid" in their own favour, pushing Scotland further towards secession.

Even before the interim deal, a poll showed that three times as many Britons agree than disagree that the EU is winning the negotiations. The main material for dissatisfaction is the divorce bill. Most respondents opposed a bill over £25 billion. About a third preferred not to pay anything.
The government cannot pay that bill without ruining its claim to fiscal prudence. British governments have added £1 trillion of debt since 2008, a trend accelerated by Philip Hammond's most recent budget, which raised forecasted-borrowing by £29 billion, even before the government's pledges on Brexit, infrastructure, and defence.

In other words, the government's approach to Brexit is making everything riskier. The only way for Britain to reduce these risks is to renounce its commitments to the EU, switch to WTO rules, and negotiate from a state of sovereignty and a relationship of certainty.

Bruce Oliver Newsome, Ph.D. is a lecturer in International Relations at the University of San Diego
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