By Russell Bruce
Or perhaps just chaos. Brexit, as presented by Leave was articulated, if that is not too strong a term, as much the same as not renewing your sub to the local golf club. All very simple and the money saved would pay for more balls for the local free pitch and putt.
Nothing is simple in International relations and especially not when it comes to complex treaties and trade deals. But not to worry! Many hundreds of jobs will be added to the civil service payroll and up to £5k a day each for outside private consultants to sort it all out. Westminster will have reports, debates and a legislative programme to replace all that foreign stuff it had to adopt as members of the European Union. The cost is expected to come to about £5bn on first estimates. This exit cost is not a one off. It will last years. The erroneous £350 million a week ‘saved for the NHS’ that Brexiteers lied about would be 14 weeks short on this £5 billion estimate.
But look! The sky hasn’t fallen in! London has not disappeared into the North Sea and the stock market is doing well! The UK will become a big player in international trade overnight and Blighty will stride about the globe to show them all what Blighty is really made of, once free of all that EU nonsense. The producers of British Pathetic Films have a super B-rated movie in production and are delighted to have secured St Theresa for the lead role, fresh from her mountain retreat in Switzerland consulting the edelweiss. The supporting cast of Boris and Liam, as lookalike Laurel and Hardy – “that’s a fine mess you got us into” – are joined by not to be out-foxed David Davies, in charge of finding some friends left in Europe willing to talk about an unlikely future.
Perhaps Out does mean Out. According to a report in Politico, hard-line Outers are advocating triggering Article 50 and passing an act to annul the 1972 European Communities Act. Hey presto, UK could be out without an agreed deal, sailing off into the sunset with no sail, no motor and Boris deployed as a rudder.
There are lots of problems with this. From a position of not knowing the outcome of a negotiated exit and a future relationship with the 27 remaining members, the UK would instantly ferment the unknown into a state of virtual permanency. Tearing up all the relationships built up over 40 years with our closest trading partners, without attending to a process designated in the Lisbon Treaty we signed – in apparently good faith – would make us unreliable partners for the new bilateral agreements The Fox is searching the globe for.
Europe matters whether our southern neighbour likes it or not. Good relations with these 27 other nations are in the UK national interest. A hard exit will inevitably affect essential cooperation on security, defence, policing and the visa free movement of citizens for work and leisure.
Free movement of people is a core principal of the EU. The four freedoms – goods, services, capital and people may not be perfect but taking one out diminishes the other three. Capital will always find a way of crossing borders. Allowing people the same rights within a trading union evens up the democratic score. None of the relations with the EU, by the few countries that have not joined, seem acceptable to the Brexiteers. A Norwegian or Swiss arrangement provides some access to the single market but they have to pay in and have no representation in the European parliament or a voice in the Council of Minsters. That is a democratic deficit and does not fit with ‘taking back control’.
The complexity of the bilateral agreement with Switzerland is unlikely to be considered in Europe as an option for the UK. The political classes and business interests are in favour of Switzerland joining, but the Swiss population is not convinced. The EU believes it is just a matter of time until they do join. The UK has decided to leave so any ‘helpful terms offered’ will not be on the basis of any expectation of the UK renewing its membership.
The fall-back position is World Trade Organisation membership. Unilaterally tearing up our trading relationship with 80 countries through our present membership of the EU will not inspire trust in the UK’s future intentions and trading relationships, whatever those might be.
European and international businesses based in the UK and major UK businesses are mapping out possible scenarios. They have to do so. The UK will remain an important market, but could be an unsuitable base from which to trade with Europe if things do not work out well. Downsizing UK operations to fit the greatly shrunken ‘internal market’ have to be considered to protect existing and future scale opportunities. Standard Life has already despatched an IT team to Frankfurt to set up EU trading systems with a remit to plan for rapid expansion in the event of a hard exit.
Before the referendum Remain had an overwhelming majority in the House of Commons. Westminster insists it is sovereign but a referendum hands decision making to the electorate. As a result parliament is not sovereign, the people are when they decide an issue by referendum. Pity about the 2014 referendum but the opportunity may be with us again.
The Tory party has long been deeply split over the EU, even although the leavers did not command a majority. Now they are even more split with some advocating a “Swiss with knobs on” deal, or the Norwegian model, both of which are unlikely. A Canadian style bilateral deal leaves the UK on the outside but is the best deal obtainable for a UK determined to end free movement. A Canadian style solution would mean triggering Article 50 and turning up to negotiate in good faith. The “b****r off” option means UK manufacturers and primary industry exports would face tariffs and customs delays at borders across Europe. Think what that will do for Scotland’s pelagic and shellfish exports.
Half of UK exports are in services but a negotiated Canadian style deal provides little for the services sector and the certain loss of passporting rights for the financial sector that are important to Scotland.
St Theresa’s cabinet meeting this week to discuss how to move Brexit forward, although that is something of a contradiction from a Scottish perspective. All sides are preparing their case and releasing statements to the media thereby emphasising the deep divide within the Conservative and Disunity Party.
But what do we have in HM’s official opposition? I think they still go by the name of the Labour Party, but months of inept Corbicide and no thought about how to operate the business of opposition because opposition is a reserved internal matter. At a time Labour should be making progress the Tories have increased their lead from 8 points to 11 over Labour according to the latest YouGov poll.
The UK is in abeyance, in a period of unreality and great uncertainty and the cry from south of the border seems to be “What do we want? We don’t know. But we want it now.”
In Scotland we have a First Minister very clear about finding a path to deliver the outcome we voted for and very clear about the complexities in front of us. Despite the complexity that route might just promise to be much more straightforward than what is happening in the distorted polity south of the Border.