Brexit – countdown to disaster?

It seems like an age since the Chequers Agreement, which failed even to result in an agreement inside the Tory party. When first revealed, Theresa May was hailed as having achieved a great victory in uniting the warring Tory ranks around a softer Brexit, and it was possible to see how this might have been seen to be the case.

The two major features of the May’s White paper were agreement on common rules for trade in goods but not in services, and a customs arrangement that would see the UK collect European Union tariffs on imported goods and hand over the money to the EU.

As an initial negotiating position it was not impossible to see agreement on common rules become acceptance of the Single Market, and the customs arrangement become a continuation in all but name of the EU customs union.  On top of this, there was acceptance of a role for the European Court of Justice and some words on particular freedom of movement for EU citizens.

Of course, it still involved cherry picking – there aren’t separate markets in goods and in services, and it would be difficult to disentangle them.  There is one Single Market, the clue’s in the name, and that’s the whole point of it.  Would you buy an expensive piece of equipment from Britain if the British firm couldn’t offer a long term service agreement?  What if it didn’t work properly – would the UK company be able to service it?

The White Paper acknowledged there was going to be no passporting rights given to the City of London as it had become obvious that the EU was already picking the bones of this morsel, with weekly reports of banks and other financial firms moving to Paris, Amsterdam and Dublin.  That boat was already sailing and it wasn’t going to be stopped

That services are much more important to the UK than industry just demonstrates how fucked the British position is.  But at least it showed some Brexit consistency: if you weren’t going to go it alone on services what would be the point?

On the plus side, it was widely reported that Michel Barnier didn’t dismiss the British White Paper out of hand.  Instead he just said it would not be the basis for the negotiations.  In other words, the EU would pick the bits it could agree or develop and ignore the rubbish that was never going to fly.

For there to be a deal now, his approach would have to be accepted by the British Government, and no one thinks it can.  If anyone thought Theresa May was secretly inching towards a soft Brexit the revolt of the idiot supporters of Rees-Mogg has put that to bed. The only hope of such a deal rests on a soft Brexit parliamentary majority made up of non-ultra Brexit Tories and the Labour party plus most of the others.  But such an outcome would be the end of the Tory Government and open warfare in the party.

And this speculation ignores the question of Ireland.  Either what border controls that are necessary will be at the Irish Sea or there will be no deal that would ensure no ‘hard’ border inside the island. In the former case the DUP would probably stop supporting Theresa May on the grounds that she would be finished anyway and seek out a new Tory leader to cling to.

Even if such soft Brexit deal came to pass, it would be so glaringly obvious that there was no point in being outside the EU that the transitional period gained would only see the current process of disintegration continue.

A second reason to believe that there cannot be a deal is the British habit of threatening to break agreements they have already made, while some stupidly claim that the Chequers deal is the ‘final offer’ © Andrea Leadsom.

Three issues were to be agreed before substantive discussions on the future relationship between the EU and the British were to start – on EU and UK citizenship rights, on the ‘divorce bill’ and on the Irish border.

Some sort of agreement was agreed on each, with citizenship rights and the ‘divorce bill’ the cleanest, while there was the text of a protocol functioning as a  backstop position on the Irish border if no other agreement could be reached.

Assorted Tories however, continue to claim that there can be a no deal scenario (while denouncing the EU for preparing for it!) on the grounds that no deal would not be the worst outcome.  And for Brexit ultras, this is indeed the case.

In such circumstances there would be no agreement on the rights of millions of EU citizens in Britain and none on the rights of UK citizens in the EU.  As for the agreement on the bill owed by the UK relating to existing commitments at the point of departure, the new Brexit minister Dominic Raab, has already threatened not to pay it if there is no deal, and he’s only been in the job a few weeks. As for the agreed backstop, which would be the default position if no other arrangement was agreed, it has now been described as totally unacceptable by May.  In its place is a proposal to avoid a border that could best be understood as one of the six impossible things to believe before breakfast.

The proposed UK deal would allow the British government to accept or reject European legislation, which would blow up the Single Market if the EU accepted, as the ultra Brexiteers would not be slow in picking something to reject.  If the EU has not immediately shot it down it is because it too will suffer from no deal, although by not nearly as much.  Better to postpone than accelerate.

Meanwhile, it is becoming clearer every day to anyone who cares to notice, and who is prepared to accept what is more and more obvious, that no deal would be a disaster, and not just for British capitalism but for British workers as well, who do, after all, have to work within it.

The volume of imports and exports would fall as queues at and before ports cause huge delays; disruption to trade will cost jobs as some goods will not have the necessary regulatory approvals to go anywhere; the decline in economic growth will reduce state receipts, so reducing any scope for increasing public expenditure; there would be no agreement in place allowing British flights over EU countries or that would allow British planes to land in EU airports, and no deal to allow flights to the US; while more and more companies will wake up to the reality of Brexit and decide to get out so they can register in the EU.  Only in some weird fantasy is this a step forward for working class people.

Upon exit, the UK will then be able to negotiate deals to address some of these issues, but this may not be done quickly or all at once.  The British will have to hope that the approach of ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’ does not follow upon a no deal outcome.

Negotiations will begin with the UK as a competitor to the EU, which will not be inclined to indulge a state that has just split from it and which will be compelled to draw closer to other blocs that also compete with it.  It will be able to negotiate trade deals with the consistently stable genius that is Trump; and the Chinese and Indians, who will have quite forgotten what bastards the British were during the days of Empire, will just ignore British vulnerability.  The British will also be seeking deals with Canada and Japan, who could not really be expected to offer the same deals, never mind better ones, than those just agreed (after years) with the EU.

Given this dawning reality for some, we are now getting more messages that really, Brexit will not show its benefits for 50 years; while the spivs supporting it continue to shift their hedge funds out of the UK.  We can be sure that investors in these funds are certainly not being told to wait 50 years.  When even a Tory can mock the mendacity of fellow Conservatives you know that the shit hitting the fan is real and coming your way.

That a no deal would be disastrous will not be possible to dismiss as nonsense when it happens, so to continue to sell it will involve ratcheting up nationalist, xenophobic and racist rhetoric.  This process has already started, started before the referendum itself, was part of the campaign, and received an enormous boost from the result.

Now that it has helped produce large street demonstrations by the far right, some on the British left want to replay the Ant-Nazi League from the 1970s.  Like the general who wants to fight the last war, these groups want to fight a war before the last one.  This includes groups who supported Brexit and thereby provided their own assistance to the rise of the far right, limiting their guilt only by their small size and irrelevance of their arguments.

The polarisation of politics around Brexit has, so far, been greater on the right than on the left.  The rally around a hard Brexit resulting from the incoherence of the attempt at a soft one, leaves the Labour Party with a policy on Brexit that is more or less the same as Mrs May’s, if even more deluded, because it believes something progressive can come out of it.

The Labour Party can also be said to support Brexit because it has said that it’s not going to stop it, which is all that matters.  Like the Tories it also wants to re-negotiate the rules of a club it is leaving.  In other words its proposals couldn’t be acceptable to the EU either.  If meant seriously, its negotiating position would also have to be abandoned or also result in a no deal disaster.

In other words the Labour Party has no practical alternative to the Tories, except in the case that it were to abandon Brexit.  If it doesn’t, it will be attempting to challenge the Tories by opposing a no deal scenario while its own policy would achieve the same outcome.  Many remainers supporting Labour will not be conned by such an approach and would find it easier to understand a policy based on reforming the rules of a club that you’re actually a member of.

If it stuck to its present policy Labour would therefore be supporting Brexit when the only way to guarantee that it would be achieved would be through no deal, the perspective of the Rees-Moggs and Farages and their radicalising supporters.  The Labour Party would be disarmed and useless in stopping this lurch to the right.  The newly ‘sovereign’ polity would quickly come under the tutelage of the US and accelerate the  project of becoming a de-regulated dream of the maddest free-marketeer.

A theoretical soft Brexit is membership of the European Economic Area through being part of the European Free Trade Association, but there is now no constituency for this.  The Tories have ruled it out and the Labour Party position excludes it.  It still means Brexit but does not satisfy its core supporters, while those who want to remain will hardly fight for it.

While the EEA is a sort of “have cake and eat it”, Britain is not Norway and is not Norway+ either, Britain wants much more.

Membership of EFTA is, in any case, only the first step to making agreements on the precise trading arrangements with the EU and the same potential conflicts leading to a hard Brexit could not be expected to disappear in these negotiations.  The British Government has shown itself to be such an unreliable negotiating partner that the EU will hardly look at this option with anything other than suspicion, and so would the other EFTA members if they had any sense.

According to a YouGov poll for the Sunday Times, just 12 per cent of the British public think the Chequers plan would be good for Britain, while 43 per cent disagree. Sixteen per cent think Theresa May is handling negotiations well, compared to 34 per cent who believe Boris Johnson would do a better job!  Around 38 per cent would vote for a new party on the right that was committed to Brexit and 24 per cent would be prepared to support an explicitly far-right anti-immigrant, anti-Islam party.  It is no comfort to the left that the opinion poll also records that one in three voters would be prepared to back a new anti-Brexit centrist party.

It is not unreasonable to have some suspicion about the accuracy of the poll but totally unreasonable to believe it is completely wrong.  It is inconceivable that dramatic events such as Brexit, or worse, a no deal exit, will not radically shake up political forces. The view that Corbyn can continue to lead many remain voters while offering nothing of substance as an alternative to a hard Brexit is delusional.

The opinion poll is a warning of the dangers threatening, and exposes the naivety of the view that a ‘progressive nationalism’ can compete with the rabid xenophobic variety.  Corbyn holds out the promise of a soft Brexit that cannot be delivered unless it exposes Brexit as a failure in the very process of it being negotiated.  In such circumstances no one will be happy and everyone will know who to blame.

The only principled policy, and the only one consistent with self-interest, is opposition to Brexit. It is after all, hardly the case that Brexit will not provide more and more ammunition for a campaign against it.  As it becomes more and more identified with the hard right, it will become more and more impossible to pretend it means anything else.

A clear campaign on an internationalist basis would go far to challenge the lies and scapegoating of the far right and Tory ultras, and would go far in demonstrating that nationalism is a road to disaster.

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