The BREXIT victory in and since the referendum is as pyrrhic as it is tragic. As of October 2016 it rests on four fundamental falsehoods (and three ‘killer clowns’). These shall destroy this country if they are allowed to endure in the upper echelons of the May government.
First, sovereignty in an era of globalisation is relative and post-BREXIT relativity is far, far inferior to pooled sovereignty within a reforming EU. Second, the ‘global trading powerhouse’ is abject nonsense – because there are neither the trading partners nor the architecture who will want it to succeed. Third, the current three Brexiteers mediating UKs new relationship with the world are dysfunctional in every sense except Tory/UKIP party politics – and that is no way to run a country. Finally, there is little evidence Government either has or will assemble the competence to manage the complexity and tactical details of BREXIT effectively.
This piece illustrates these four ‘truths’ with respect to the major trade and consequential aid issues that the May Government needs to address over the remainder of the decade, and the awful start they have made during and since the Tory party conference.
It is quite difficult to pretend other than ‘the world is mad’ and the UK is infected with a particularly nasty BREXIT strain of the post-truth virus. The current symptoms of madness range from the ‘Marmite shortage’ in Tesco, to various Sunderland interviewees on R4 Today Programme effectively daring Nissan to leave – with supreme BREXIT confidence that the Japanese are bluffing; to the implicit threats (from the tax-haven owners of the tabloid press) to those they categorise as ‘remoaners’ fighting the BREXIT infection in this increasingly intolerant country .
Meanwhile, the May Government shows how deeply infected they are. One day they float ‘naming and shaming’ companies employing foreign workers; the next they suggest only UK passport holders can give advice to the Brexiteer departments. Then they position the 3m EU residents of this country as hostages to the BREXIT negotiations – to be punished if the negotiations don’t go the UKs way. Johnson uses parliamentary privilege to enjoin people to protest outside the Russian embassy over Syria. If anyone listens to him and gets arrested, I hope they will tell the judges how complicit the Foreign Secretary is in their alleged crimes.
In May’s bunker this week we saw the Government reluctant U-turn to allow a debate, but not a vote, on whether parliamentary sovereignty has a formal decision-making role on Article 50 and BREXIT negotiations. In the courts, Government is arguing that it does not – and that the whole thing can be done by Royal Prerogative. In Government Ministers, the virus has been rampant. ‘It is not for Parliament to second-guess the voice of the British people‘ – when, as this figure shows, any rational argument recognises the voice as just about as uncertain as it could be. ‘Government must be allowed to negotiate in secret’, although the EU institutions and 27 states with whom we shall be negotiating have absolutely NOT agreed that confidentiality will apply. We know that all 28 Governments and EU institutions will leak negotiating positions like sieves and as domestic politics (including French and German elections) requires.
In a rational world, the opposition parties would get together with a significant number of Tories for whom parliamentary sovereignty is important, and determine a whole-UK agenda. In the post-truth world, we have Corbyn – not even leader of his MPs, let alone the ‘opposition majority’ – essentially parroting the May narrative that the ‘people have spoken’.
So let’s move on to one of the many unintended consequences of the virus.
How might the UK extricate itself from EU trade and aid regimes, and find a new position in the world – in Trade Minister Dr Liam Fox terms (he of dubious charitable activity, expenses overclaiming, and MoD lobbying improprieties fame) as a ‘global trading powerhouse’?
May has indicated that her Government requires a bespoke agreement with the EU and its 27 Members which combines market access with control of immigration. If that is unachievable the fall back option is departure and reliance on the WTO (World Trade Organisation) as a foundation and backstop for negotiating progressive trade agreements bilaterally.
The problem is, membership of WTO is extremely problematic (given our relationship is now largely determined through the EU’s collective membership). New separate membership will need to be adopted by consensus of all 163 other WTO members, and takes many, many years. The most recent member (Afghanistan in July 2016) applied in 2004, and was offered an ‘accelerated’ membership process in 2012. This Accession update shows UK would be joining a list of 19 applicant countries ranging in terms of application date from Uzbekistan (applied 1994) to Equatorial Guinea (2007).
There is an argument that UK’s existing membership could be extracted relatively easily and quickly (with goodwill) from the collective EU membership without this fresh application process. But this requires all 27 EU Member states to agree the division of quotas and tariffs between UK and EU 27, and this to then be endorsed by the other 135 WTO members – some of whom are seeking changes to those quotas and tariffs! Were goodwill not to be forthcoming, then any resolution is uncertain. And the position of agreeing trade deals bilaterally becomes highly contestable (if not impossible).
Overall it is unlikely that any third party (including big beasts like the US) will wish to conclude bilateral agreements with the UK until the terms of our extraction from the EU-WTO trade regime are clear; until they understand what the implications of a bilateral UK deal will be for their relations with the much bigger EU market. Some major countries (arguably even the US) are prevented by their domestic laws from doing so before the UKs WTO detailed membership schedule is agreed.
The desirability, if not requirement, of clear UK WTO membership within an unambiguous post-EU collective regime gives Haiti and many other poorer countries unprecedented influence over the UK’s future – because the WTO adopts changes by consensus of all 164 members. But why might there be compelling reasons for those countries to use that influence aggressively and even malevolently? This is where the aid side of the BREXIT equation comes in.
The EU is now the largest aid donor globally – comprising the bilateral programmes of the Member States and the collective EU programmes (EDF, DCI etc). UK has been a generous contributor to these programmes – financing about 15% of collective resources. EU collective assistance amounted to $14bn (over 10% of total global aid) in 2015. When UK leaves, presumably, collective EU programmes will reduce commensurately. These programmes are extraordinarily important for many countries (as the accompanying figure illustrates) – supporting health, education, humanitarian and productive purposes. For much of sub-Saharan Africa budget support is provided for mainstream Government spending. Amongst and beyond the hundreds of questions Brexiteers and Government have so far not answered are the complexities of unravelling this set of aid relationships.
The pattern of aid spending by EU collectively is quite different to UK bilateral aid (which is actually at least as large as EU multilateral facilities). For Haiti, for instance, latest OECD figures show Haiti in receipt of $163m from the EU in 2013/14, but under $8m bilaterally from UK. A 15% reduction in EU assistance post-BREXIT (approaching $25m) is a very real ‘damage’ to Haiti as a result of 17m BREXIT voters and Government’s interpretation of the June 23rd voting pattern.
Haiti has relatively little that it can do to bring influence to bear to mitigate those losses – but absolutely one thing it can do is be a real nuisance in WTO. And, once Haiti is joined by all the other ‘losers’ of EDF reductions, the bloc might be extremely important and powerful.
There are several issues arising from this argument – none of which are made frivolously.
First, and probably most importantly, ‘sovereignty’ in an era of globalisation is such a vague and highly-bounded concept. There is no absolute sovereignty in this era – just a set of choices about how you mediate and manage multilateral relationships. As one of the pieces hyperlinked above says “Britain has chosen to give up ceding sovereignty in a controlled way [i.e. influential within an EU family], and instead to give it up in an uncontrolled way [e.g. to an ad hoc range of countries as the mood and politics takes them…]”.
Second, the ‘trading powerhouse’ strategy is very, very high risk – because it depends entirely on, firstly, EU 27, and thereafter the rest of the world to actually want us to be a trading powerhouse. Why might they want that and want to pursue it urgently and benevolently?
Third, and related to point #2, the three Brexiteers and May in the thrall of a UKIP-lite Tory party are just not very nice people. Continual statements of intolerant, illiberal, arrogant, and untruthful nonsense is just NOT going to play well with those who actually hold the levers of power in impending trade and aid negotiations – both within and outside the EU.
Fourth, this is all extraordinarily complex. Brexiteers have demonstrated no basic competence in understanding, formulating and then executing strategy that recognises this complexity. Indeed, far from triggering Article 50 by end of March 2017 being a sign of May’s strength and grasp of the post-referendum environment, it is a signifier of extreme weakness and cowardice. If she had a clue what she was doing, she’d trigger it now and get on with the detailed negotiations that would then be unlocked.
Watching Brexiteers cede sovereignty to May and her Brexiteers, who then cede it to any one of 163 WTO member countries who just fancy poking the UK for whatever reason takes their fancy over the next decade or so, is not funny. But it engenders the sort of ridiculous humour that the best episodes of MASH do in the midst of the horror and futility of war.
Parliament needs to do its job with the utmost vigour and rigour to hold to account the unelected May with her delusionary mandate from the tyranny of the 26% BREXITEERS. If it doesn’t we need a new ‘social movement’ way beyond Corbyn’s inward-looking ‘castles made of sand’. And if that too doesn’t happen, I suppose we must fall back on the benevolence, wisdom and generosity of Haiti, Democratic Republic of Congo and those other nations to whom the Brexiteers have ceded our future…the UK’s suicide is shaping up to be far more painful than the MASH theme song…