The Brexit debate is no longer about whether it is a good thing for the UK to leave the EU.
Now the UK government has finally agreed to a Brexit plan, the one which drove Boris Johnson and David Davis to run away, the EU has eagerly read through it, hoping it would find the answers to the same questions it has been asking for a long time. Throughout this process, the EU has been asking Theresa what she wants, and she has responded by asking what the EU is prepared to offer, although it is the UK which is changing the status quo by leaving; she knows exactly what the EU wants because it is already getting it as a member.
Maybe the EU is ignoring whom it is negotiating with. The only time the UK states anything unequivocally is when it is making it up, as with Saddam´s weapons of mass destruction and the idea that the Novichok which poisoned Skripal, and now apparently an apolitical British couple, was manufactured in Russia. Even if Theresa had a clue what she wanted, or how to achieve it, she wouldn’t say it in as many words – everything would be left for negotiation, interpretation, and compromise, so everyone and no one can be satisfied at the end of the day.
It is this approach, often described as “typical British compromise”, which has given the UK the opportunity to lead in Europe. It has the traditions and skills to unite warring parties by finding formulas acceptable to everyone. A classic example was the Cod War with Iceland in the 1970s – the agreement which ended it would have been regarded as a humiliating defeat for both the UK and the EU if any other country had brokered it, but eventually passed with little comment, despite the fact that the Foreign Secretary responsible was Anthony Crosland, MP for Great Grimsby, the town which stood to lose most of all from the loss of fishing waters
But now the UK wants to throw away this advantage and replace it with running around the world begging for money and deals to stay afloat. The EU is not asking its questions because it wants the UK to answer them, but to demonstrate that, despite the great diversity of its membership and the complexity of its processes, it can answer them itself. It is saying it no longer needs the UK, even if it wanted to return because its members can now do what had seemed impossible when they first got together in the 1950s.
The questions asked are to demonstrate just how far the EU has come since its six original bedraggled members got together in self-protection. It is now waving them in the rest of the world´s face, even daring the UK to wave something of its own to match them.
The Redcoats are coming!
Theresa´s government has nothing to offer but the mentality of those 19th-century British generals who insisted that the army should continue to wear red coats because no enemy would dare fire when they saw them approaching. It has no intention of trying to answer the EU´s questions because it can´t, but unless it finds something better to ask of its own, these questions will come to define exactly what is wrong with the Brexit con.
You said it
The first question the EU has asked is: will agriculture and food standards be guaranteed? The UK is proposing that standards be harmonised only on goods checked at the border, not on food grown in the UK itself.
One of the longstanding objections to the EU in the UK is its agricultural policies, which have been seen as rewarding inefficiency, a bribe to the French which punishes the more effective Brits. These are the policies which led to the creation of butter mountains and wine lakes, seen as wilful mismanagement created by bureaucracy and dirty-dealing.
All this was before the more recent enlargements which have incorporated countries whose industries have been devastated since the fall of Communism, and are therefore seen, rightly or wrongly, as being dependent on agriculture and supporting their weakness. Yet now the EU can say to the UK that, in spite of all that, food standards are common and real, and part of this same policy.
It is also saying that if the UK won´t play be the same rules, it can stop importing British food, thereby boosting the agricultures of its remaining member states. It is also saying that the other wealthier members of the EU, who should logically have the same objections to its agricultural policies, are happy to go along with these because they are not queueing up to leave the EU over them, as was originally predicted.
The UK can only reply by citing the alternative it is being offered: American food standards, which include things like chlorine-washed chicken. British consumers who voted Leave would still rather have EU food safety guarantees, and the EU knows it. Get out of that one, Theresa.
Similarly, the EU wants to know how the customs authorities will know the final destination of goods. Obviously this is not an issue if everyone has the same standards, but becomes one when imported goods need to meet different standards in different destination countries.
Again, this is an issue where the EU was once seen as more vulnerable than the UK. Portugal, to take one example, claims that harmonisation of standards and free movement of goods have merely resulted in greater economic dominance by Spain, an outcome Lisbon has always tried to avoid as a matter of national identity. In the ÛK the “flood of cheap imports” comes from the Far East, not the EU, as in areas where EU goods can be imported cheaply British firms can still largely withstand such competition.
If the UK customs authorities will need endless trails of paper backward and forwards to identify what is going where, and whether it should, the countries who feel their economies have been flooded by EU imports will still feel better off than one which has to introduce such a system. All countries have such systems to some extent, but the EU has generally managed this process successfully through its common customs arrangements. Those will no longer be available to the UK, and the EU is again demonstrating that whatever problems its members have with it, they will still back the positive aspects of the EU in spite of them, and UK residents won´t back their own system over the problems it will cause when they see the consequences.
You said this too
The EU must also be rejoicing at being able to ask: won´t these proposals leave customs operations open to fraud? Once again, this cuts to the very heart of a key UK objection to the EU.
It has long been said, with considerable justification, that the workings of the EU are inherently corrupt because secret deals are the only way to get anything done. The part of its business which is done openly, rather than secretly by examining evidence no one is allowed to see. It has to satisfy the European Parliament and Commission and all the various national parliaments before it can be ratified, meaning that backroom deals still need to be done, in terms we do not know, to ensure these measures pass.
Nevertheless, even the second tier EU states, who joined for very different reasons than the older members, put up with all this and then use it to their advantage. Hungary and Poland are getting away with domestic policies the other countries often find unacceptable because they have learned how to play the system to their advantage – exploiting the weakness in developing common policy by continuing to profess the European ideal, and remaining members, but saying that they want a different sort of Europe which they think is better than the old one.
For the EU to accuse the UK of encouraging corruption is rather rich, but it can do so without alienating its own members, who know the score and can make the same complaint if they want. If the UK wants to take the moral high ground, plenty of things can be said against it by other countries. Its electoral system hardly encourages governmental legitimacy, as a minority of votes frequently gains a majority of seats; there has been a succession of scandals over expenses and child abuse which its fabled parliamentary structure has actively encouraged. So if the UK wants to invent a new system, is it not just as likely to be as bad as anything the EU has in place?
Similarly, the EU is hitting a raw spot by asking what additional costs business will have bear because of May´s Brexit vision. The EU is often derided as a collection of unnecessary rules, strangling initiative with all its red tape. One of the primary claims of the Leave camp was that business would be free to succeed without having to abide by this or that arcane regulation, like the fictitious one about “straight bananas”.
Now the UK is expecting to impose a ton of new regulations, or as the EU would insist, a tonne of them. It is the EU which is now complaining about the costs its businesses will have to bear as a result of UK red tape. Before Brexit, no one would have listened to such an argument. Now they have to listen, as this is yet another unforeseen consequence of the decision to leave which even the staunchest Europhobes are finding increasingly difficult to explain away.
You wrote the book
The EU also wants Theresa to tell it what will happen if the UK sets lower tariffs than the EU. As London will now be competing for partners and terms with the largest trading bloc in the world, it is highly likely that May will have to come out with some new offer. Implementing lower tariffs is the likeliest one, as the pain of their delivery will not come until later, and they can be presented as “liberation” from the tariffs of the EU.
If such goods were then imported into the EU, EU member states would have to pay additional customs duties on them. They could refuse to do this, and thus close this loophole. This would mean that the UK would not be a cheap way into Europe, and thus the UK´s competitive advantage under such arrangements would be lost, while the 27 would take an initial short-term hit but reap advantages later, when the countries which tried to get their goods in by the back door see the benefits of sending them through the front, as they do now.
Setting different tariffs would ignite a trade war with the EU which the UK cannot win. In the days of the Empire On Which the Sun Never Sets it would have won, but it is finding even its own former colonies aren’t interested in going back to those arrangements. Another area where the UK could have claimed victory after Brexit is shown to be no such thing, merely by the fact, the EU can stand up and make such pronouncements and the UK can´t answer, whatever its gut feeling may be.
Under the “harmonised arrangements” Theresa wants the UK would also be applying EU tariffs on those goods it considers they should apply to. Does it have any legal right to do that? If goods from Spain were sent to Canada via the US, could the US apply tariffs which were not its own on those goods? On what authority, when those tariffs were a Canadian and not a US law?
It would be an interesting scenario if a British woman were travelling to Saudi Arabia with her unmarried partner and before they got on the plane the British authorities arrested and jailed her for having extra-marital sex, in line with Saudi law. That is the arrangement the UK is now proposing. No one will agree to it, and it would be unworkable, as every customs action the UK took could be challenged in international courts. After two years of thinking time, the UK cannot have any excuse for coming out with a proposal as stupid as this.
The same applies to the last area the EU is concerned about: services. The UK eroded its own industrial base during the Thatcher years because she reckoned the country couldn´t afford to keep subsidising it, however you calculate costs and benefits. It has however retained a strong services sector. Therefore, Theresa has sought to protect this by reaching a new agreement on goods but treating services as a separate entity, whose standards will not be aligned in the same way as those of goods.
Services also use goods, of course. So there has to be some sort of correlation of standards. Goods can also be used as services. In practice, you can´t separate the two. Theresa´s plan was to give financial services in particular “carte blanche” to do as they liked, regardless of the consequences. But they will still be part of a global economy, and after all these years in the EU the UK should know that the bigger a market gets, the more rules it needs to work.
British service providers who do not follow the global rules the EU is in harmony with will only have criminals as their clients. This will destroy them before it destroys the criminals. Rather than liberate the UK´s once-proud service sector, these proposals will eliminate it, and the EU which once envied the UK service sector, and allowed it to get away with a lot, now has no qualms in pointing this out via its rhetorical questions.
So what’s the last chapter?
We have all found ourselves in situations where we cannot justify our position, however strongly we hold it. Throughout the referendum campaign, the Leave side had all the snappy answers and the Remain side kept apologising for its own existence. Now it is the Brexiteers who are facing tough questions they cannot answer, with even the old fall-back position – that the vote was democratic, and the electors knew it would be binding for evermore – sounding hollower by the day.
Even six months ago it would have been impossible for the EU to ask its seven rhetorical questions and get away with it. Any such intervention would have swung support further against it. You can hardly blame the EU for behaving like those third world regimes whose members were excluded from power for so long, and then start using the same previously hated laws and mechanisms against their former persecutors.
The Brexit debate is no longer about whether it is a good thing for the UK to leave the EU. It is about whether the UK wants to save itself from Johnny Foreigner, or allow the EU to save it from itself. As with everything else, this is a matter of priorities. The fewer arguments the UK has, the more those are likely to change, and the EU knows it.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.