What do we know about Brexit?
August has produced a slew of new UK government papers on Brexit, on topics ranging from data protection to customs arrangements, judicial cooperation, dispute settlement and the Irish border, as well as a major policy shift by the opposition Labour Party towards a ‘soft’ Brexit. Evidently, the sheer complexity of disentangling from the EU is now sinking in, at least amongst Britain’s political classes, as is the need for a substantial transition period after March 2019. But what else, reading between the lines, do we now know about Brexit?
The Irish Conundrum has no real answer
The finest minds have now had a year to come up with a solution as to how Britain can both properly leave the EU and maintain an open border with the Republic, and have failed to find one. Faced with the choice between jeopardising Ireland’s peaceful future and settling for an incomplete separation from the EU, the UK government have, mercifully, opted for the latter. But it will mean that, as Britain bars its front door against the free entry of EU citizens, the back door is left open. And it will also mean that…
The UK will stay in the EU customs union for the foreseeable future
The British government has evidently accepted that there is no viable alternative to being in a customs union with the rest of the EU - at least during a transition period. This is not only because of the Ireland issue, but also due to the scale of goods traffic between the UK and the rest of the EU, the complexity of the supply chains involved, and their importance to future investment in the UK.
Of course, the new papers do their best to disguise this reality. It will not, they assert, be the EU customs union we stay in, but a new UK/EU one. This is technically true, but substantively irrelevant: the tariffs and trade policy of this customs union will be set in Brussels.
As to what this ‘interim’ union would give way to, the papers offer only the vision of wonderful new technologies that will one day render the whole business of customs, and borders, and indeed geography, immaterial – or, alternatively, an unprecedented ‘new customs partnership arrangement’. The idea here seems to be that goods entering the UK from outside the EU should be handled and taxed through separate tracking and payment mechanisms depending on whether their ‘end user’ is in the UK or the EU. And vice-versa. The papers acknowledge that “this is an innovative and untested approach that will take time to develop and implement”. This is something of an understatement; such an arrangement would take years if not decades to establish.
‘Take back control’ was an illusion
The success of the Leave campaign owed much to the power of its ‘take back control’ message. Of course, this targeted immigration under the EU’s freedom of movement. But it also played to a widespread sense that EU membership involved subjection to a flood of diktats emanating from Brussels – a loss of British sovereignty. In response, the government designated escaping the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) as a top negotiating aim.
No wonder, then, that Brexiteers have accused the government of backsliding. For anyone looking in these new papers for indications of just how legal and judicial separation will make life better for British individuals, companies, or communities will look in vain. Distancing ourselves from the ECJ is presented not as reason to leave the EU, but merely as a consequence (and a rather bothersome consequence) of doing so. Our aim, it transpires, is not to put right any specific impositions or inequities by those ‘unelected judges’ (or even their henchmen, the ‘faceless bureaucrats’), but rather to adhere as closely as possible to the EU’s approach to issues from data protection to product standards. As with so many aspects of Brexit, the process of separation will, it seems, be less a matter of liberation than of damage limitation.
So what these papers implicitly confirm is that the only real ‘sovereignty’ problem with our EU membership - freedom of movement aside - is ideological: a view that the direct application of EU law in Britain is incompatible with the dignity of a sovereign Parliament, and that the supremacy of the ECJ on matters of EU law is incompatible with the independence of our own judiciary. This, as I have argued in the past, is a point of view – but a daft one.
The government, of course, know this. As they acknowledge in their February White Paper, “Parliament has remained sovereign throughout our membership of the EU, (but) it has not always felt like that.”
Flouncing out of the EU on the basis of a vague ‘feeling’ seems an odd way for a mature democracy to behave.
We are now embarked on an exercise in surrendering control.
The UK government still talks a tough game, but it is clear that its red lines on leaving the customs union and ending ECJ jurisdiction are melting away. This is the only economically feasible course, but it implies the exact opposite of what Leave voters were promised – a real loss of national sovereignty. Not the bogus sovereignty of ideologues obsessing about the role of Parliament, but sovereignty in the sense of control over aspects of our lives that truly matter to us.
If the UK leaves the EU and yet remains within the customs union, and still more the single market (Labour’s new position, and one which is only a logical extension of where we have now got to), it will cede all ability to veto or otherwise influence that mass of EU regulations, laws and standards that Leavers characterised as an intolerable burden, while still remaining subject to them. As a result, the long-popular caricature of the EU as a web of controls imposed on the UK from Brussels will finally become a reality.
As lovers of irony, this outcome should appeal to us Brits. And it is certainly better than trashing our economy and our own British Union. But now that we have come to decide against national suicide, maybe we should ask ourselves whether national self-harm is something we should reconsider as well.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.