Brexit enthusiasts have managed to come up with such creative forms of denialism that the word “insanity” does not being to do it justice. Their main tactic so far has been a political version of Schrodinger’s cat. As long as they can keep the lid shut on the Brexit box, they can pretend it amounts to whatever version of Brexit they’d most like to have, even though the particulars, as we and others have pointed out, are internally contradictory.
However, the problem with the Scrodinger’s cat approach, of refusing to open the box and deal with actual conditions (like feed the feline or bury it), is it is putting the UK in the worst imaginable position on every level. The UK is failing to do any contingency planning. The UK is refusing to advance proposals and policy positions, and does so only under duress, and even then typically as napkin doodles, or as petulant reactions to EU efforts to move the talks forward by putting its own proposals on the table. This is making the odds of worst case scenario outcomes higher with every passing day.
Another Tory denialism strategy is more conventional: scapegoating. One avenue is to criticize Theresa May for her supposed lack of decisiveness and her failure to beat up on those meanie Eurocrats. The reality is that May’s stasis is a reflection of the incoherence of the Tory position and the deep divisions in the party. She can’t forge a consensus in her own party because there are too many MPs on each flank. She could perhaps have attempted the bold gambit of a softer Brexit grouping of the non-Ultra Tories plus the at least 100 or so Labour party members who also want a softer Brexit. But UK politics are over my pay grade, and I have to assume this sort of cross party alignment is not workable (as in both parties have enough party discipline to block it).
And of course, the other regular scapegoat is the EU.
The UK and EU are supposed to resolve what the transition phase looks like in their upcoming round of negotiations. The EU also told the UK in the December talks that it needed to codify its solution for the Irish border. Since that solution is in fact not viable, requiring the UK to reduce it to sufficient written detail as to be a basis for rules and procedures will reveal it to be a fraud.
As an aside, I still cannot fathom why Barnier, Juncker, et al. allowed the UK to not merely think its Irish border fudge was workable but allow them to think it was a brilliant success. May was looking extremely wobbly then and there was a school of thought that she would be taken down by the Tories and either Johnson or Rees-Mogg would become party leader, which was arguably a worse outcome.
But if May will be toppled when the hard Brexit wing lashes out as a result of not being able to get its way, why would having that crisis happen in March, when things now look like they will come to a head, any better than December? Perhaps there is some 11th dimensional chess logic that escapes me, or maybe this is the EU doing its own bit of kicking the can down the road because it is at a loss as to any other thing to do.
Since we mentioned the Irish border mess, pressure is indeed building, as a Financial Times story in links on Tuesday indicated. The Torygraph has more not pretty news today: Ireland digs in over Brexit border question in renewed threat to talks.
And on Tuesday, the UK press was in an uproar over what is arguably the only sensible position the EU could take regarding the enforcement of law and regulations during the transition.
Recall that we said that the only possible arrangement was a standstill, that negotiating anything else would be as time-consuming and draining as sorting out the end-state trade and services pacts, and would thus serve to be a huge distraction.
However, even a standstill isn’t as simple as it seems. The transition is an accommodation by the EU after the UK will have exited in March 2019. It is expected to go on for nearly two years, through the end of 2020. The EU is not about to freeze its regulation and legislation just to make life easier for the UK. The UK, being out of the EU, won’t participate in nay new rulemaking. That means the UK will also have to accept any changes in laws and procedures during the transition period in order to maintain unfettered access to the single market. The Brexit fans have been howling about “vassal state” as a result, but they were the ones who leaped off the Brexit cliff without looking down first. It’s awfully late to be showing buyer’s remorse.
The EU side has recognized an additional problem: what if the UK cheats during the transition period? In theory, it is still subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. However, if a matter were disputed, it’s conceivable it would not have gotten though the legal process by the end of 2020. That means, particularly in the later part of the transition period, the UK would have good odds that it it were to play fast and loose, it would be out of the transition periods and free from the long arm of European law before any punishment could be inflicted.
So the EU has decided it wants to close that escape hatch. From the Financial Times:
The EU wants powers to punish UK non-compliance during the Brexit transition by summarily cutting off the country’s access to parts of the single market, according to a treaty draft…
Highlighting fears in Brussels over Britain wilfully breaking rules during the transition period or refusing to implement new laws, the draft treaty text calls for additional enforcement powers so that the EU can respond promptly to infringements.
It says the final withdrawal agreement “should provide for a mechanism allowing the union to suspend certain benefits deriving for the UK from participation in the internal market where it considers that referring the matter to [court] would not bring in appropriate time the necessary remedies”.
Such a suspension of access rights in the single market could include curbs on cross-border financial services, airline operating rights or the free flow of goods to the other 27 EU states without customs checks.
Mind you, the EU plans to allow the UK input into policy-mkaing in some areas, like fisheries, which is more than it had to do. And let us also not forget that the UK could just as well have recognized that this was a potential issue and come up with a remedy….if it could devise one that the EU would see as having enough teeth to provide for adequate incentives for compliance. As FT reader SJ put it:
Why is this controversial or a surprise? In any normal contractual arrangement there are consequences for breach. A trade agreement is a complex multi-party contract. If the UK breaches it there should be consequences. I’m sure the UK would argue this if the opposite were to happen (EU breaches the agreement first).
Needless to say, that is decidedly a minority view, as least if you believe headlines. Of course, the press isn’t necessarily presenting the facts in what one might argue is an evenhanded manner, since the UK really really does want (and presumably need) access to the single market during the transition period, and that means accepting EU rules. Politico confirms that the UK will not have much negotiating room on transition rules.
If the Independent’s home page is a valid indicator, pressure with the Tory party continues to rise. As of this hour, there were four Brexit stories critical with headlines critical of May or the process. Even at this remove, the even-louder threats to remove May, with no corresponding intensified action, is another sign that the Tories find the situation they’ve created more and more unpalatable, yet see no way out or rather won’t allow themselves the “peace with honor” style retreat of a second referendum. As one NC wag noted, the Brits are a bit too willing to glorify disasters, as the Charge of the Light Brigade demonstrates. But this is sizing up to be disaster on a catastrophic scale.