My latest 7Dnews piece on Brexit is not untimely:
We’re at risk of getting washed away by the torrent of Brexit adjectives.
Soft Brexit? Hard Brexit! Slow Brexit? Fast Brexit! Furtive Brexit? Bold Brexit! Introspective Brexit? Global Brexit! Flaccid Brexit? Proud Brexit!
On 23 June 2016 the British people were asked a simple referendum question:
Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?
The truculent British masses voted Leave, by a respectable majority. Thus, a practical question presented itself to the UK’s political elite. What does ‘leave the European Union’ in fact mean?
This question was lost in the hullaballoo of the referendum rhetoric. The Leave tendency itself was divided on this, preferring to press the case through abstract language of freedom and opportunity. The Remain side did not want to talk about it either, lest the impression be conveyed to voters that Leaving was a real option with only the details to be worked out.
And that’s more or less where we still are.
The British government have struggled to answer these questions, peering unhappily at two huge policy and philosophical fault-lines: the legal reach of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), and migration.
Basically, if the UK wants to keep its current access to the EU ‘single market’ as if it were an EU member, it needs to accept the jurisdiction of the ECJ and core Single Market principles including free movement of people. This (one argument goes) is no Brexit at all – how can the UK be outside the EU if the ECJ is still pronouncing on our own laws and we can’t limit migration from EU countries?
Indeed. The attempt by the Prime Minister to answer this question is making huge chunks fall off her government. Brexiteers liked/like the rhetoric of ‘free trade’. But what IS trade?
The UK might break decisively from the EU and its Single Market and opt for the sort of arms-length trading relationship of (say) China and Brazil and the USA. In that case global corporations that like being in the UK precisely because it is in the Single Market framework may find themselves incurring heavy new costs. See – for example – Airbus or BMW.
This goes to an important and little understood point about the world economy. When we mere mortals think of ‘international trade’ we take it to mean something Kenyan coffee growers selling us coffee, or Indonesian textile factories selling us shirts. What’s not to like?
In fact a significant proportion of world trade is giant multinational corporations selling goods and services to themselves across international borders, taking advantage of different taxes and incentives. For these sprawling businesses trade is a lot about cunning accounting that is more than sensitive to the confusion and uncertainty that Brexit is creating.
Imagine you are a UK customs officer in Dover or a French customs officer in Calais:
Hence the horrible practical issue Brexit presents. What happens to all those lorries crossing to and fro from the UK into mainland Europe on the day the UK formally leaves?
Dover on the English coast handles thousands of lorries a day in each direction. Each lorry is carrying its own load of goods and parts and represents a teeming pile of regulations from the UK and EU and beyond:
- Are the goods safely packed?
- Are they all legal?
- Are refrigeration standards for perishable goods respected?
- Are the hours driven by the drivers properly monitored?
- Is the lorry the right weight?
- Are the drivers licensed to carry loads in and out of the UK?
- Do drivers have the right passport?
- Is all the paperwork correct?
One might add to that already long list the need to be sure that any lorry does not carry concealed ‘migrants’ trying to enter the country illegally.
In the UK’s case, we have spent decades adding layer upon layer of UK and EU regulations and standards and processes as part of building the EU Single Market. How if at all to tip-toe away from all that without creating queues of lorries that stretch from London to Paris? That in turn means horrendous disruption if not systemic breakdown as ‘just in time’ delivery systems for food and supplies crash on both sides of the Channel.
We are going to find out soon enough.
“Ideals? How nice to meet you! May I introduce you to Reality?”
The key point, it seems to me, is this.
If you are in a swampy quicksands bog, there is a lot to be said for summoning up all your might and leaping prodigiously to firm dry land. But in fact that might not be possible. Verily, the act of leaping may get you even more stuck, or you may leap into an even deeper smellier place.
So perhaps it’s wisest to edge cautiously towards safety, even if this takes a long time. That lacks ambition. It is arguably embarrassing or humiliating. But at least you keep some control and maybe increase your chances of success.
Thus Brexit. ‘Hard’ Brexit is impressive. But how realistic is it? Isn’t there a lot to be said for eg the EEA Option as a strong firm but above all controlled step in the right direction? Get there. See how that goes. Then decide if that is a bad compromise.
Maybe or maybe not. Getting the right answer and a political consensus around it is obviously horribly hard. But PM May and BoJo and all of them – and all of us – are now paying the price for having kicked the can stupidly down the road for far too long.