Professor Michael Dougan spoke at the Salisbury for Europe 2018 Annual General Meeting
His talk is also on video here
Thanks very much for the invitation to come to Salisbury.
I’ve been asked to talk for about 45 minutes: giving a general overview of where we’ve got to, in terms of some of the key issues surrounding the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. To that end, I’ll begin with some fundamental – obvious maybe, but still fundamental – contextual points. Then I’ll say a few words about each of the three main sets of negotiations between the EU and the UK – on separation, on transition and on future relations – as regards each of which, there have been some important developments over the last several weeks. After wrapping up with a few concluding remarks, that should leave us some time for questions.
Let’s begin with our obvious but fundamental contextual points – of which there are 6, and all of them can be briefly put.
First, the institutions of the UK state were almost completely unprepared for the outcome of the 2016 referendum, or indeed the impetuous decision of the May Government to implement that referendum outcome in a relatively extreme manner, let alone within such a short and inflexible timescale. I can assure you, from my travels: the UK’s international reputation as a competent and sensible political and administrative system is in shreds…
Secondly, the UK remains utterly divided about the future direction of travel, not least in terms of its relations with the EU, with deep fissures evident not only in British society but also (perhaps especially) within the Conservative Government. Theresa May keeps giving speeches about how she can feel the country coming back together, rallying around her vision of “Brexit means Brexit – a red, white and blue Brexit, a Brexit that works for everyone”… Looking even at her own Cabinet and Party, let alone beyond, I wonder how she can say that with a straight face?
Thirdly, ideological Europhobia has taken advantage of the situation to emerge from its essentially hard right fringes and become perhaps the most vocal and confident force in British politics. Conversely, the moderate and surely still significantly more representative mainstream (in the Labour and Conservative Parties alike) often gives the impression of having been rendered virtually impotent. What sort of world do we live in, where a rabble of hard right extremists on the Tory backbenches, together with the medieavalist brethren in the DUP, are effectively dictating the future of this entire country for generations to come – while the Labour frontbench, to say nothing of the Government itself, are letting them get away with it?
Fourthly, for all of those reasons, it is unsurprising to find that the UK Government’s approach to the Article 50 TEU negotiations has wavered between the weirdly unrealistic and the wildly incoherent. The UK has consistently struggled to comprehend basic issues around the sequence and timing of the negotiations; it appears confounded by the unified front of the EU27 and often unwilling to respect the integrity of the process they have mapped out; it seems barely capable of processing let alone engaging with the EU’s emphasis on the importance of building mutual trust; and of course, the British come across as obsessed with their own exceptionalism. My colleagues in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Sweden look on the UK with a mixture of fascination, disbelief and pity (when they even think about the UK at all any more…).
Fifthly, it is important to recall that a significant constituency within the triumphant Leave campaign positively want these negotiations to fail: after all, a complete break that would set the UK free from the tyrannical embrace of the “EUSSR” was key among their motivations and ambitions – not least because (in their twisted little minds) it opens the door to the sort of political / economic / social / cultural revolution that they dream of inflicting upon this country and have blamed the EU for preventing – a point we’ll come back to later on….
Last but far from least, one of the primary strategic objectives of the Leave campaigners, within as well as outside Government, is now to construct a narrative that can be sold relentlessly and effectively to the British people: responsibility for everything that might go wrong, over the months and years and decades to come, lies firmly with everyone else in the world. Indeed: it often feels that the main goal of the leading Leave Campaigners is not to formulate a plan to deal with this situation in anything like a rational or effective way, but rather to find the scapegoats and enemies who will take the blame when (not if) things go wrong – anything to avoid their own responsibility and accountability.
With the malignant authors of Article 50 TEU, who deliberately set out to make leaving the EU as punitive and difficult as possible; with the rabble of traitors, saboteurs and other “enemies of the people” now working so hard to undermine Britain from within; but most of all, with the vengeful foreigners in Brussels, Paris and Berlin who spitefully treat the UK’s newfound independence as incompatible with their project for “ever closer union”. Brexit could have been so big, so beautiful, so bold, so brilliant. But we all ruined it for poor little Britain and its brave battalion of freedom fighters…
It is against such a background that one needs to consider the entire process of Brexit, in all its thousands of incarnations, as virtually every sector of our economy and society seeks and struggles to understand the full implications, the short and longer term impacts, of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
But for present purposes, we’re going to focus on the three main sets of EU-UK negotiations taking place under Article 50 TEU: separation, transition and future.
First, the “separation agreement”, which will deal with the immediate issues required to ensure an orderly departure of the UK from the EU.
As we all know, in December 2017, the Union negotiator and the UK Government endorsed a Joint Report expressing their agreement on a range of key issues. On that basis, the European Council decided that “sufficient progress” had finally been achieved in the initial phase of negotiations.
More recently: in March 2018, the Union negotiator and the UK Government endorsed a first draft of the Article 50 agreement – the text of which was usefully colour-coded – either in green (agreed in principle and in text), or in yellow (agreed in principle but without a common text as yet) or in white (still under negotiation).
Many of the key issues were marked as “green” – including such important topics as the future legal position of existing EU and UK migrant citizens; as well as the methodology for calculating the UK’s eventual “divorce settlement”.
But many other issues were not and indeed still are not yet finally agreed: that includes various technical questions (for example) about the legitimate use and protection of previously shared data the protection, the protection of geographical indications on foodstuffs, or the completion of ongoing judicial and administrative procedures etc.
And some issues were and indeed still remain a matter of more serious disagreement. That includes two subjects which are central and fundamental to the final withdrawal agreement. In the first place: provisions on governance of the withdrawal agreement and mechanisms for the settlement of disputes between the EU and the UK. And in the second place: the situation of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
I’ve paid close attention to the “Irish Question”. That is true for both professional and personal reasons – after all, I’m a Belfast boy; I grew up in working class, nationalist West Belfast; I did so during some of worst of the social division and violence that the Good Friday Agreement has helped address.
Make no mistake: it was entirely predictable that the “Irish Question” would emerge as one of the most problematic consequences of the Leave victory in the 2016 referendum; and indeed, that it would rapidly morph into one of the most difficult subjects within the current separation negotiations.
The challenges facing Ireland are myriad and deeply worrying: not just the border, but a whole range of problems. Indeed: such is the potential scale of the damage and disruption that UK withdrawal could impose upon the North and the South, small wonder many Irish citizens view Brexit almost as an act of hostility on the part of the UK Government. But it’s the border issue – or to be more precise, the prospect of a physical border for the movement of goods across the island or Ireland – which has (quite rightly) attracted particular concern and attention.
Partly for its potential economic impact. But also for the likely social disruption. Yet most of all: for its political significance, especially as part of the wider settlement to secure cross-community support for the peace process.
The imbroglio is entirely of the UK Government’s making. The Government says that the UK is leaving the customs union and the single market. That inevitably means having a customs and regulatory border with the EU – including the Republic of Ireland.
But the Government also promises there will be no return to a hard border on the island of Ireland – which the Government defines as having no physical infrastructure and indeed no related formalities such as checks or controls.
The only feasible way to deliver that promise is for Northern Ireland to remain (de facto) within the customs union and at least parts of the single market (even if the rest of the UK does not).
Yet the Government has also repeatedly reassured the DUP that Northern Ireland will be leaving the customs union and the single market along with the rest of the UK and that there will be no new trade barriers within the UK.
In other words: the Government is promising apparently irreconcilable things to different groups of people; but assuring all of them, over and over again, that they will each get what they have been promised.
That brings us to the Joint Report of December 2017, in which the Union negotiator and the UK Government set out their agreed approach to the challenges facing Ireland / Northern Ireland in general, and the issues surrounding the physical border for goods in particular. Remember: it was solely on the basis of the promises made by the UK Government in that Joint Report, that the leaders of the EU27 decided to allow negotiations to proceed (as the UK so desperately wanted) on to the crucial issues of transition and future relations.
The Joint Report laid down a “three tiered strategy” to try to find some solution to the conundrum of the goods border. It is worth quoting in full: “49. The United Kingdom remains committed to protecting North-South cooperation and to its guarantee of avoiding a hard border…. The United Kingdom’s intention is to achieve these objectives through the overall EU-UK relationship. Should this not be possible, the United Kingdom will propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland. In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement….”
The UK Government is clearly pinning its hopes on finding some agreed, permanent solution that would dissipate any need for customs and regulatory enforcement, into the longer term: first option, between the UK and the EU in general; or second option, at least between the Republic and Northern Ireland in particular.
The Government’s proposals – originally published last summer – were greeted with widespread bemusement. Yet apparently: they are still the only proposals on the table. And apparently: they not much further developed since their original publication. Not that we would know – since the Government hasn’t yet taken the trouble to make the subsequent versions of its proposals publicly available for any of the rest of us to scrutinise. Though what we do know is that the EU remains as unconvinced today as it was last year about these proposals being at all credible or acceptable. But we can only work with what we’ve got, so let’s look at the 2017 proposals.
In the first place, the Government suggests that the EU and the UK (as a whole) could pursue close cooperation in customs matters. Combined with extra provisions to deal specifically with Northern Ireland, such close cooperation would dissipate any requirement for a hard border.
But the UK proposals – even the basic ones, let alone the added extras – rely on technologies that don’t appear to exist. Those that do would still involve a considerable physical infrastructure. Such infrastructure would still need to be installed across a large number of border crossing points in Northern Ireland. Such crossings would become an easy and inevitable target for violent attack. And in any case, technology could only ever address certain parts of the customs and regulatory enforcement challenges posed by the border. After all: it can’t stop smuggling, counterfeiting, and all manner of other threats to public safety, security or policy – of the sort that it is precisely the purpose of customs borders to detect and prevent.
In the second place and as an alternative, the Government suggests a new EU-UK customs partnership – under which the UK would agree to police the EU’s own customs and regulatory borders on the EU’s behalf, while simultaneously maintaining and administering the UK’s own independent customs and regulatory regimes.
If that sounds a bit bonckers, that may be because it is: even the Government admits that is entirely speculative and untested. And at the very least, it would entail creating and imposing a massive bureaucracy for every single public service and private economic actor right across the UK – effectively intended to track the manufacture, import, export and sale of all goods within the domestic market – a truly remarkable proposal, the like of which would have made even Soviet Russia balk.
In any case: it’s not clear yet whether the UK proposals would also require the EU27 to create some comparable level of new bureaucracy, so as to ensure compliance with their own WTO obligations, in separating trade and taxes with the UK from trade and taxes with other third countries. And of course: all of that is assuming that the EU itself would even be content to contract out its border controls to a third country – “taking back control” cuts both ways, you know… Especially at a time when the UK stands accused by the Commission of failing in its obligation properly to enforce and collect billions in customs duties for imports from China – hardly a strong basis for “mutual trust”…
Given the continued lack of any detailed and credible UK Government proposals that could help provide the basis for an agreed solution, the EU insists upon holding the UK to its promise of enacting a third, default solution: full alignment with whatever EU rules are required, now or in the future, to avoid a hard border and protect the all-island economy. The logical implication of that promise is that either the UK as a whole, or at least Northern Ireland itself, will remain de facto within the customs union and effectively tied to various single market regulatory regimes.
And so: the draft Withdrawal Agreement includes the EU’s proposals translating the UK’s “third option” for avoiding a hard border into more concrete legal terms – by creating a “common regulatory area” that would keep Northern Ireland fully aligned with all relevant EU regulatory regimes.
As the draft text says, very clearly: this is the agreed default solution, that should apply unless and until some alternative arrangement is agreed between the EU and the UK, based on more credible and detailed proposals coming forward from the UK Government.
When I read the EU’s draft text – like every single colleague I’ve talked to, across the UK and the rest of Europe – my reaction was: it spells out the logical implications of the agreed, default solution; and does so in terms which are entirely in line with the Joint Report.
Yet the UK Government reacted with outrage and bluster (to say nothing of the quasi-hysteria of the DUP and the other Leave fanatics). This is the wicked EU deliberately trying to break up the UK… Or weirder: this is the wily Republic, conning the rest of the EU into using Brexit as an opportunity to annex Northern Ireland… Or weirdest of all: the entire situation has been hijacked by Sinn Fein, who are now blackmailing the whole of Europe into supporting their dastardly plot to destroy Northern Ireland…
Back on planet earth, there are only 3 possible explanations for the UK Government’s reaction.
1) Theresa May and David Davis etc did not understand what they were signing up to in December 2017 – in which case they are incompetent.
2) Theresa May and David Davis etc understood and genuinely agreed the terms of the Joint Report when they signed it, but have now decided to backtrack and try to disown the agreement – in which case they are untrustworthy.
3) Theresa May and David Davis etc understood but never genuinely agreed to the terms of the Joint Report, signing it off purely as a tactic to move negotiations forward, and simply biding their time for the opportunity to disown it – in which case they are dishonest.
The EU’s proposals remain “white text” in the draft withdrawal agreement. And instead, last week, the Government published its own alternative “backstop” (third option, default) solution to the Irish border question.
Except of course, it wasn’t really a solution at all. As Michel Barnier quickly pointed out: the UK’s plans only dealt with customs issues in a strict sense, not the broader question of regulatory standards – so the UK plan was only addressing half of the actual border challenges. Moreover, the UK proposal was explicitly presented as a temporary arrangement, though either with or without a firm end date, depending on which Cabinet minister you asked – in any case, certainly not the long term or permanent solution that any default plan is meant to provide.
Though I would actually go further than Michel Barnier and suggest that the UK’s plan seemed to be less concerned with providing a practical solution to the Irish border problem; and more to do with helping the UK Government sort out some of the wider trade and logistical problems created by its Brexit “plans”.
For example: the UK proposal says that the UK will enforce the EU’s customs policies (including preferential tariff rates for other third countries) at the UK’s borders – but also insists that the UK should keep all the benefits of those customs policies (including preferential tariff rates for UK goods) in the UK’s bilateral relations with those third countries.
That has nothing to do with Ireland. It has nothing to do with finding a solution to the border problem. That is about Liam Fox trying to hijack the Irish Question so as to find some sort of “quick fix solution” to his own abject failure to maintain even the UK’s existing trade deals across the world – let alone deliver the full round of new global trade agreements which he explicitly promised us when he took up office.
Does the UK Government really think the EU institutions, and the other 27 Member States, are so stupid that they wouldn’t see straight through such a cynical and self-serving ruse?
At some point, the Government is going to have to admit that it played politics with the future and well being of both Northern Ireland and the Republic. Promises are going to have to be broken, and some people are not going to be very happy. Who will that be?
If it’s Ireland and the EU that the UK decides to jilt: that could have very serious consequences, not just for the border, the economy and political stability in Northern Ireland; but also for the prospects of any negotiated agreement with the EU (whether on withdrawal or transition or into the future); and indeed for the UK’s basic credibility as a trustworthy international partner – a high price to pay, one might think, not least for the Government’s vision of “Global Britain”.
If it’s the DUP that has to be disappointed: not only could the Government see its parliamentary support evaporate; but we’ll all be reminded of the fact that the hard right leadership of Ulster loyalism is perfectly capable of provoking all manner of political upheaval and disorder in Northern Ireland itself.
Last but not least: the Government could accept that the only feasible way to avoid a hard border in Ireland, without detaching Northern Ireland entirely from the rest of the UK, is for the entire country to remain within the Customs Union and related aspects of the Single Market – not just temporarily, but on a permanent basis – in which case, it will be for the Leave Ultras to feel the bitter taste of betrayal. But I’m sure they’ll cope with that in a suitably restrained and mature fashion – they are such rational and reasonable people, after all…
We’ll find out the answers to all these questions over the next few months. Because as the EU has made clear: if the UK does not either come up with credible proposals, or at least commit to its own default solution, then the entire negotiations could break down – perhaps over summer, perhaps by October. And if that happens: it means no withdrawal agreement, no transitional agreement; and the prospects for a reasonably prompt negotiation on the future relationship set back considerably.
Brexit-enthused UK Ministers and their backbench mob love to compare these negotiations to a poker game. It takes a particular sort of arrogant fool to risk throwing an entire country’s well-being into jeopardy for the sake of perpetuating their own lies – but then lying, like gambling, is probably quite an addictive passtime.
So much for the negotiations over the “separation agreement”. Our second set of talks concern the UK’s request for a “transitional period”.
The PM first requested this transitional period in her “Florence Speech” from September 2017 – and already in that speech, the two main characteristics of the proposed transition were made clear.
First, this will be a post-withdrawal transition. The UK has not requested a temporary prolongation of its EU membership (as explicitly provided for under Article 50 TEU). The date of withdrawal remains as planned: on 29 March 2019, the UK will become a third country in relation to the EU.
Secondly, the transition should (as far as possible) be based on preserving the status quo, so as to give public bodies more time to prepare for withdrawal (for example, when it comes to the physical preparation of ports for the expansion of customs controls); and likewise for private actors – since all across Europe, supply chains need to be adjusted, recruitment and training to be rethought, new legal structures to be adopted, fresh supervisory requirements to be fulfilled.
Of course, that is the understatement of the century. It is no exaggeration to say that the UK quite simply needs more time, to complete the necessary preparations for its withdrawal from the EU, at even the minimum acceptable level of completeness and competence.
After all, the task the UK Government has brought upon itself is mind-boggling. If not done properly, it risks causing serious and wide-scale regulatory and administrative malfunction. Here, we’re not just talking about the vast amount of complex technical work, important policy choices and new institutional arrangements that need to be completed once the (already seriously delayed) European Union (Withdrawal) Bill is adopted – simply in order to safeguard basic standards of legal continuity and certainty, in order not to throw significant parts of UK law and administration into a state of serious mal- or dys-function.
The UK also needs to design and implement new regimes to govern entire sectors such as agriculture, fisheries, customs, trade, nuclear safety, international sanctions and (EU) immigration.
That is besides reaching agreement on a resettlement of the devolution regimes for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – an issue which we all know remains deeply contested and could yet provoke a genuine constitutional crisis, particularly between London and Edinburgh.
And the challenges are not just internal: the UK still has a mountain to climb in regularising / rebuilding a wide range of its international relations in fields such as trade, the environment and security. After withdrawal, the UK will no longer be covered by existing EU agreements – many, many hundreds of them, across every imaginable field of cross-border cooperation. The UK needs actively to adjust and rebuild its international legal relations in a large number of situations with a large number of international partners based on an extensive programme of bilateral and multilateral negotiations.
To illustrate that, let’s return to a point we touched upon just before. Liam Fox keeps talking about his great programme of ambitious trade talks with all sorts of dynamic countries right across the globe – deals that will bring a new surge of prosperity to the UK, far in excess of what the tired, cumbersome, inward looking EU could ever deliver.
Now: there are any number of reasons to question Liam Fox’s arrogant assumption that – on its own, outside the EU – the UK will simply step into its preordained role as a leading power in the world economic order – running rings around not only the EU, but also the US and China (meek and selfless international charities that they are).
But even without having to get that far: let’s remind ourselves that the UK’s trade policy currently consists of trying to persuade third countries to replicate the terms of their existing EU trade agreements with the UK on a purely bilateral basis – subject to whatever concessions those third countries can squeeze out of such a desperate and inexperienced government – which can then be implemented into UK law by executive decree, with only the most minimal parliamentary scrutiny, under the sweeping powers which Liam Fox has claimed for himself, on a potentially indefinite basis, under the Trade Bill. We are effectively sprinting on the spot, in an attempt not to go catapulting backwards – and sacrificing basic democratic principles in order to do so.
And the next time you hear some deranged Leave campaigner screech: let’s just default to WTO terms… You might care to remind them that – although the UK is a member of the WTO in its own right, we are not yet capable of acting as a fully functioning WTO party, since various aspects of our membership (including the permissible tariffs quotas we can apply to a wide range of agricultural imports) still remain to be approved by the other (160 or so) WTO members. And you might also remind them that the initial joint EU-UK proposal for doing so was rejected out of hand, not least by none-other-than our good Anglo-Saxon friends and allies: the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. And you might also point out that there is still no sign of a solution on the horizon. It’s nice to be part of an international club that looks after its own, isn’t it?
But let’s put all that together. And it simply beggars belief that any developed country would willingly expose itself not only to challenges of such a nature and scale but also to any even vaguely serious chance that it might fail to fulfil them. Yet that is precisely what the UK has done.
Requesting a “status quo” transitional period is, from the perspective of a UK Government tied up in its own ideological straightjacket, now the only credible method for reducing the risk to a more acceptable level – in effect, buying time to help make the preparations that any responsible country would have planned for well before holding such a referendum in the first place.
Largely (though not entirely) for those reasons: when it came to the March 2018 round of negotiations on the draft Article 50 text, reaching a provisional agreement on transition proved much faster and much easier than many of us had previously anticipated. Basically because: on almost every significant point of contention or even outright disagreement – and there were many – the UK simply caved in to the EU’s demands.
For example, on the duration of duration of the transitional regime: as the EU said, it will expire by 31 December 2020 with no provision for extension, even if the UK realises it still isn’t enough time to prepare properly for what comes next.
On changes to EU law during the transition: as the EU said, the UK has to adopt, respect and enforce any new EU developments – but without having any say in their formulation or approval.
On the free movement of persons: as the EU said, not only are free movement rules to continue to apply in full during the transition, but new arrivals will also be entitled to claim future protection under the Withdrawal Agreement, just the same as previously resident citizens.
It’s difficult to think of another contemporary example, of an international negotiation between two developed parties, in which sheer desperation drove one side to capitulate so quickly and so fully to the demands of the other.
Jacob Rees Mogg might well shriek about the UK being treated like a “vassal state”. And he isn’t so far wrong. Except he conveniently forgets to mention that, in fact, it is he and his fellow Leave fanatics who are entirely responsible for the UK’s international degradation – because all of their boasts about “taking back control” were never more than an arrogant delusion.
But we shouldn’t smirk too much at the sight of the Brexit Brigade fuming and raging. After all: the UK Government didn’t just request a transition because it would protect us all from a cliff-edge catastrophe in 2019. It also conceived and designed that transition with another, less benign goal in mind.
The UK will leave the EU in 2019. But thanks to the status quo transition, many people aren’t going to notice much of a difference – at least not until 2021, when the real consequences of withdrawal start to become clearer – by which time, it will be too late for anyone to do anything about it.
So let’s be clear: the Government was desperate to secure its “transition at any cost”, not just to give us all more time to prepare, but also because that transition is a key part of their overall plan to deliver “Brexit at any cost” – and to shield themselves from responsibility let alone accountability for the ultimate consequences of their own actions.
Such is the degree of dishonesty and cynicism into which our politics has sunk, that it is almost tempting to hope that the “Irish Question” does cause the whole rotten spectacle to fall apart at the seams.
So: we have negotiations over the “separation agreement” and negotiations over the “transitional period”. Our third and final set of talks concerns the future relationship between the EU and the UK.
Here, the EU’s plan is that a definitive legal text covering separation and transition, plus a political declaration outlining the overall shape of future EU-UK relations, should be finalised by October 2018 (so as to allow sufficient time for both the EU and UK to secure their respective institutional approvals before the date of withdrawal itself).
However, the future framework for EU-UK relations will only be properly negotiated and settled after withdrawal, with the two sides saying it should be done by the end of transition – though it is worth stressing that the proposed transitional period offers no guarantees whatsoever of sufficient time to conduct, conclude and ratify such complex and sensitive multilateral negotiations – especially since the final agreement will almost certainly require approval by all 27 Member States through their national (and where relevant regional) parliamentary processes – perhaps also popular referenda (as the Dutch experience with the Ukrainian association agreement showed). We might just be pushing back the dreaded “cliff edge” by 21 months.
Nevertheless: how far have we got with the talks on future relations?
For over a year, the UK Government has been proposing a “deep and special partnership” with the EU, but without offering any detailed and credible proposals for what such a new and bespoke relationship should look like.
The PM keeps claiming that the Government knows the UK cannot have its cake and eat it. But upon closer inspection, this still feels like exactly what the Government is asking for. We’re leaving the key institutions and core policies of the EU – but surely not that much really needs to change in our mutual relations! Indeed, surely our cooperation can become even closer than it is today? Just without the UK having to play by the same rules or be bound by the same obligations as anyone else.
That fantastical delusion has been evident in almost every major Government speech on the future relationship since the White Paper of February 2017. It also runs through most of the “future partnership” papers so far published by the Government during the Article 50 TEU negotiations – not only the series of papers published back in the summer of 2017, but also the most recent sets of powerpoint slides and technical notes published by DexEU over just the last few weeks.
The basic message in each case feels the same: we are leaving, but so many of the benefits of EU membership are so important to our prosperity and security, that we simply do not want or cannot afford to lose them. So please can you (the EU) come up with some creative and innovative ways for the UK to leave, but still keep those benefits? Be warned: history will judge you harshly if you fail!
Let’s take just one example to prove the point: Theresa May’s “Big Speech” on 2nd March 2018. Yes, there were some “hard facts” for Leave campaigners to swallow: that the Government lied when it told us everything was going to be done and dusted by October 2018; when it assured us that the UK could still maintain market access to the EU on its current terms; when it promised that the “reign of terror” of the European Court of Justice was coming to an end.
But fundamentally, this speech simply repeated the same message as all the others: we want a deep and special partnership, in which the UK gets to step outside most of the institutions, the regulatory frameworks, the legal obligations, the enforcement processes – all of the things that make the EU the unique international organisation it currently is – yet the UK still gets to keep many of the same benefits and privileges as before, at its own convenience and of its own choosing. And remarkably: the PM closes, by telling the EU – let’s get on with it!
In other words: the UK position has at least evolved beyond “we want our cake and we want to eat it”. Now: we want to have our cake… we want to eat… but we also want you to serve it to us… and we’re going to blame you when it runs out!
The EU has already made clear from the very outset and again at regular points since, that this is the stuff of delusion and fantasy. Let’s recall some of the key principles laid down unanimously by the elected governments of the 27 remaining sovereign states of the European Union:
– the EU shares the desire for a close partnership, but no partnership – no matter how close – can offer the same benefits as Union membership
– any trade agreement should be balanced, ambitious and wide-ranging; but it cannot amount to participation in Single Market or cherrypicking parts thereof. The Union’s overriding priority is to preserve the integrity and proper functioning of its greatest single achievement and most valuable asset, the Single Market
– the EU must preserve a level playing field (so that the UK does not engage in distorted or unfair competitive practices)
– and the EU must avoid upsetting its existing relations with other third countries (such as Norway or Switzerland, Turkey or Japan).
And so, in March 2018 and entirely as expected: the European Council adopted fresh guidelines that will steer preliminary and preparatory discussions with the UK about the actual framework for a future relationship.
At their core, these Guidelines contain a simple message. Given the UK’s self-imposed red lines, representing choices freely made by its own Government, the UK can only realistically expect a free trade agreement (of the sort already in place with Canada or South Korea); together with additional agreements on third country cooperation in fields such as research collaboration, educational exchanges, security cooperation and defence policy.
The implications of that – which have actually been clear and obvious for a long time but are only now beginning to sink in among many UK citizens and businesses – are stark.
Any free trade agreement – even the very best of them – will be but a pale shadow of what we have now as full members of the EU and of the Single Market. And so, if withdrawal goes ahead as planned, even with a status quo transition to give more time to prepare, the end destination is now pretty clear: the regulatory conditions for UK companies doing business across Europe (and vice versa) are set to become substantially less favourable than they are now – actively creating a vast array of barriers to trade, which will increase costs (at best) and seal off markets either in law or in fact (at worst).
The EU27 have said: these are the consequences of the choices which have been made in London; and London should accept responsibility for those consequences. But equally: should the UK change its mind, the EU will be prepared to upgrade its offering.
So what are the options open to the UK Government?
In economic terms, the choices are clear:
– Either there is no special agreement, with the UK and the EU trading on WTO terms. Every rational actor agrees: that would be deeply damaging.
– Or there is a free trade agreement, akin to that between the EU and Canada, or similar to that being finalised between the EU and Japan. Every rational actor agrees: that wouldn’t be quite as bad, but it would still have significant negative repercussions.
– Or there is a close cooperation agreement, which would entail continued UK participation in the Single Market and preferably also the Customs Union. Every rational actor agrees: that is the preferable outcome, since it would preserve as far as possible the existing terms of trade and economic development.
So: continued Single Market and Customs Union membership makes the best economic sense. But that brings us on to the equally important political choice.
– do you want to be a leading member of the club that makes the rules, with a full voice at the table and a full vote on the legislation?
– Or do you want to be an outsider who follows the rules which are made by other countries, with little influence or say of your own?
That isn’t a real choice: of course, you want to be the rule maker, not the rule taker. But this sums up the problem not only with the “hard Brexit” fanatics but also with the advocates of a “soft Brexit”.
The hard Brexit lunatics – even though they are too bigoted to realise or at least to admit it – want both to inflict serious economic damage upon the UK and its people, and also to radically diminish our influence in the development of the global economy, as well as the realistic scope for our own independent policy-making over the regulation of important economic and social questions here at home.
The soft Brexit advocates – which make up an important constituency within the Labour Party but also the moderate and mainstream Conservative Party as well as in Scotland – are to be applauded for trying to minimise the economic damage that Brexit will inflict upon the UK and its people. But they cannot provide an effective answer to the political dilemma: isn’t it better to be in the club, making the rules; rather than outside the club, taking the rules?
I appreciate that the world is not always a very rational place. But if the economic logic calls for continued close alignment between the UK and the EU, then the political and constitutional logic is equally compelling: we should halt this entire lunacy and remain what we have been for so many years – a leading power within one of the most important international organisations on earth.
Where does that leave us, in terms of the overall negotiations?
It’s now almost 2 years since the referendum. There are only a few months left to reach a full and final agreement on separation and transition. And there are only just over 9 months left until the planned date of actual withdrawal. But as events continue to demonstrate with painful clarity, on a daily basis, the underlying problems in the UK remain the same: a deeply divided country, with a deeply divided government, as yet lacking any credible plan for dealing with this most crucial of situations.
Events may yet take a(n even more) dramatic turn. A “coalition of the sane” might emerge in Parliament, particularly if the Government fails either to negotiate an acceptable deal or to bring back any agreement at all. The prospect of reversing the decision to leave is obviously very welcome. But we all know that it only raises more difficult questions.
Does the UK feel sufficiently constitutionally at ease with itself to change its mind through Parliamentary legislation alone; or would the impact of the 2016 referendum remain such that only a reversal of public opinion as expressed in a second plebiscite, or at least in a general action explicitly fought as a proxy for a second referendum, would feel politically legitimate?
And if the UK did change its mind, would the EU27 even be prepared to accept it? If indeed the rest of the EU is even legally entitled to have any say at all, over what might well be seen as the rightful prerogative of a withdrawing state unilaterally to rescind its own Article 50 TEU notification?
In every direction: we find problems, on top of questions, on top of uncertainty.
It’s time for me to wrap up.
One of the main reasons I find Leave campaigners – those within as well as outside the current Government – just so difficult to listen to, is the way in which they repeat and reinforce the same distorted narratives over and over again. That the only voices that count in the UK anymore belong to those (the narrow majority) who voted leave on 23 June 2016. And the only people entitled to interpret the “will of the people” are divine oracles like Liam Fox or Jacob Rees-Mogg – doing their job with all the authority and confidence of the fellow fascists through the ages.
Apparently, “we” – the British – never really felt that European anyway. Apparently “we” – the British – never really believed EU membership to be anything of real value. Apparently, “we” – the British – want back control of our laws and our money and our borders, since we don’t like foreigners meddling in our affairs.
These Europhobic charlatans and demagogues can speak for themselves and their army of brainwashed zealots. But they bloody well don’t speak for me – or for the millions of other UK citizens who very much see British participation in the European Union as an integral part of our national story and our national identity and who – make no mistake whatsoever – are very much determined, and entitled, to make sure it either stays that way or becomes that way once again in the nearest possible future.
In case anyone needs reminding, I’ll read a quotation from the introduction to our book:
“I have had no hesitation in making and repeating the assertion that – taken together, since they were not one but several (often mutually contradictory) movements – the Leave alliance of 2016 conducted the most dishonest political campaign in modern British history. In doing so, those responsible not only demeaned and debased our democracy. They also sought to inflict immeasurable damage upon some of the most important values which the academic profession is entrusted to represent and defend: the commitment to pragmatic, rational, evidence-based scientific investigation, which seeks to inform and better our society through the cultivation of expert skill, knowledge and experience, to be tested and refined through a process of objective and rigorous peer review. It is simply impossible to reconcile those values with a politics which is proudly ideological and, with it, indifferent to evidence, immune to persuasion, cynically selective and self-serving in its analysis, and ultimately anti-democratic in its intolerance of dissent.”
Make no mistake: what has happened, is happening in this country, is a scandal.
Indeed: it’s hard to believe that any rational person could look at the situation in the UK and feel that it was anything other than a slow-moving disaster. Even your average Leave supporter must surely be wondering: what sort of benefits are they really going to see; at all, let alone compared to what they were promised; and how could such benefits possibly justify so much disruption and damage?
It’s not just that the referendum campaign made a mockery of the UK as a mature and responsible democracy – which it did. Any time I’m accused of refusing to respect democracy, I recall one single example, that tells you everything you need to know about the relationship between the Leave campaign and democracy: Nigel Farage at 10pm on 23rd June 2016…
It’s not just the genuine risk that the UK might experience systematic regulatory and administrative malfunctions upon withdrawal, particularly if we end up with no transitional period to protect us from the Government’s own woeful lack of preparations.
It’s not just that – even without any such short term disasters – Brexit is so self-evidently a disastrous act of long term and profound national diminishment – squandering our leadership and influence within one of the most important international organisations on earth, and through it, an important part of our leadership and influence in the world at large.
It’s also the vast waste of time and energy and money and resources that is being poured – not into trying to improve our country and the lives of its people – but simply into trying to limit the self-inflicting damage that Brexit will bring (is already bringing).
And it’s the fact that, for millions of people now and into the future, our life choices and horizons have been diminished: many of the freedoms and opportunities and protections and aspirations that I have taken for granted throughout my entire life will no longer be open to you, or to your children, or to your grandchildren.
And it’s the stirring up of deep seated bigotries and long-lasting social division that will tarnish our collective morality and undermine our social cohesion for years to come.
And even if there were no other cause for concern, no other cause for complaint: the very fact that millions of people, here and across the rest of Europe, have seen their lives and futures thrown into uncertainty and anxiety is an unforgiveable act of cruelty for which the Leave Campaign deserves to be called out as utterly morally bankrupt.
And it’s the damaging legacy of what happens when a democracy normalises, legitimises and indeed actively rewards and encourages systematic dishonesty by its political leaders.
And it’s the fact that the population of Ireland, north and south, might well bear the very worst of Brexit’s full force.
And last but not least: it’s also the fact that – for many of the leading Leave Campaigners – leaving the EU is not just an end itself. It is merely a means to further their ulterior political objectives: ill-defined and confused, but still very dangerous, hard right dreams of some sort of political, economic, social and cultural revolution in the UK.
Let’s not forget the depressing correlation between many of the leading Leave campaigners and other politically and socially regressive ideologies: from climate change denial, to the return of capital punishment, opposition to equality legislation, the final destruction of the welfare state, and other hard neo-liberal economic preferences – all reflecting their natural affinity with the hard American right.
And let’s not forget that Brexit hasn’t just fuelled support for anti-rational, socially divisive, politically aggressive movements in this country but elsewhere too. In America and all across Europe, Brexit has become an inspiration for nationalists and populists, charlatans and demagogues. See what can happen when you lie big, when you play on people’s fears, when you offer up enemies rather than solutions? You can win too!
All of which means this isn’t just about fighting a Hard Brexit. Or fighting Brexit full stop. We’re also fighting for the fundamental values that we want our country to respect and represent. And for the fundamental values that we want to see reflected in the world around us.
Thanks very much for your attention. And I’ll look forward to your questions and discussion.