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Get Brexit undone

Nicholas Boyle - The Tablet - Thu, Dec 12th 2019

“GET BREXIT done” is a snappy slogan, but it is easier to say it than to say what it means. Into three words it packs three messages, all of them deceptive. And the first is that what is on offer is not Brexit. What is on offer is ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by Mrs May, as amended by Mr Johnson’s alternative to the Irish “backstop”. 

But Brexit – in so far as it is not the fantasy of the United Kingdom’s independence of any relations at all with everyone else – is the reconstruction of the UK’s relations with everyone else on the basis of non-membership of the European Union. 

For that historic reconstruction the Withdrawal Agreement merely clears the ground and in Mrs May’s form was almost entirely retrospective. It settled the UK’s past debts and attempted to regularise the position of continuing EU citizens already living in the UK and of UK citizens already living in other EU countries. Mr Johnson was able to persuade the EU to insert one provision relating to the future that strictly speaking did not belong in a mere Withdrawal Agreement – an alteration to the constitutional position of Northern Ireland that cost him the support of the Democratic Unionist Party. 

After the UK has ceased to participate in the political institutions of the EU, there is to be a transition period until the end of 2020, which may be extended to the end of 2022.  During the transition the existing economic, security and cultural arrangements between the UK and the 27 remaining members of the EU will continue – in these areas nothing will have happened that could be called Brexit.  The arrangements will change only as a result of negotiations during the transition period.

THESE NEGOTIATIONS will be much more far-reaching and difficult than those that led to the as yet unratified Withdrawal Agreement, and they are not optional.

Without a treaty covering tariffs, quotas and regulatory standards for trade in goods and services, competition between businesses and state aid to them, transfer and privacy of data, visa requirements for individuals coming and going between the UK and the EU, and cooperation in police matters, education and research, the UK will be in a more disadvantageous position than the nearly 40 countries and organisations that currently have, or are ratifying, Association or Free Trade Agreements with the Union. That really will be Brexit, and if the necessary treaty is not in place by the end of the transition period we shall crash out over a cliff-edge into No Deal. 

Does that sound familiar? Yes, beyond the coming general election, and – assuming that the Parliament that results is biddable – beyond the passage of a Withdrawal Agreement Bill, stretches a repetition, at least as painful, and probably longer, of the miseries and bloodletting of the last four years.

THE SECOND misleading message in “Get Brexit done” is its appeal to the war-weary: “You do not have to go through any more of this, vote for us or don’t bother to vote at all, we’re so nearly there it hardly matters, just let us finish the job.” The truth is that round two will be just like round one, and Mr Johnson has already made it clear that he intends to follow the same strategy as before: impose a deadline, swear not to ask for an extension, and use the threat of No Deal to pressurise the EU, and if necessary Parliament, into submission. Along the way we can expect words to be eaten, allies betrayed, and skeletal agreements that further postpone the real difficulties hailed as “Brexit after all”. 

And the third message in Mr Johnson’s slogan is the false premise of the other two: that Brexit, whatever and whenever, is something worth doing. The EU is the second largest economy in the world, with a GDP of $18.7 trillion (of which the UK contributes $2.7tn) and, with 27 per cent of global GDP by value, it is by far the largest producer of manufactured goods, well ahead of the USA on 18 per cent and China on 20 per cent. Of the four global superpowers (the others being the United States, China and Russia) the EU is the only one to have been formed not by the open or covert violence of the state but by the voluntary decision of its members. No other organisation, and certainly no state, has shown it possesses the negotiating strength of the EU to impose controls relating to competition, tax and privacy on globally operating companies based in the US. Indeed it is the only supranational organisation to have shown any ability to safeguard, within a global market, such national and local interests as data privacy, environmental and food standards, carbon emissions, denominations of origin, and (limited) freedom of movement.

THAT IS WHY the World Trade Organization chose to base its dispute resolution procedures, which the current US administration is trying to subvert, on those of the EU. Far from being simply an instrument of globalisation, the EU is the only plausible model for political control of a global economy. By promoting the economic integration of Europe it has eliminated, or greatly reduced, the probability of the appallingly violent conflicts of national interests in the past century, which we remembered last month, and which have continued to be possible outside its borders – witness the post-Yugoslav wars and, on a smaller scale, the prospect of renewed “troubles” in Ireland.

Contrary to received wisdom, the globalisation of economic activity, and so the growth of economic interdependence, is a sign of hope, whereas a return of aggressive protectionism and nationalism threatens to take us back down the last century’s path to war. The EU has enough economic weight to harness that interdependence to the cause of peace and of the “rules-based international order” that enabled it to rise from the ashes of nationalist Europe. It is one of the largest international free-trade areas in the world, but it is far from being a superstate. Its entire budget of €166 billion is almost exactly equivalent to the cost of the UK’s NHS – but is spent on a population eight times larger: it would have to be nearly 50 times its current level for the EU to have the significance of a state for its 512 million citizens.

However, precisely because it is not a state but a voluntary association for the common good that lacks the defining state power of violence (it has neither police nor defence forces of its own), the EU is vulnerable to the exercise of state power by others. Brexit, obviously, will be bad for Britain, but it will also be bad for the EU: it will lose weight and reach, and though it may gain in cohesion, that may prove a questionable benefit. The US and Russia have made no secret of their pleasure at the vote for Brexit, nor of their desire to dismantle the EU, along with other less potent supranational bodies. It is in the interests of the other superpowers that, rather than hanging together, the 28 EU nations should hang separately, but it is in the interests of world order and world peace that the EU should survive. 

WE LIVE IN dangerous times. The tensions between the US and China, yesterday’s hegemon and, perhaps, tomorrow’s, are already being exacerbated by the worldwide consequences of changing climate: desiccation, inundation and the movement of peoples. With America’s presidential election and Britain’s Brexit referendum, the year 2016 dealt a double blow to hopes that the readjustment of the world system necessitated by the rise of China could be achieved through the benign processes of the previous 25 years of globalisation, years that had seen unprecedented progress in the eradication of poverty, illiteracy, famine and disease. We have entered a period in which the institutions that were established after 1945 and that proved their worth after 1989 are being tested, possibly to destruction.

The election this week is one of those tests. It is not an election about renationalising the railways or the size of the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement, let alone about the personalities of politicians. It is an election about the future of the UK, Europe and the world, about whether this country is set upon an internationalist future of peace and progress or a nationalist future of slump and war. Weariness is a deceitful trap. It is vital, a matter of life and death, to vote to get Brexit undone.

Nicholas Boyle is Emeritus Schröder
Professor of German in the University of Cambridge
and the author of 2014: How to 
Survive the Next World Crisis

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