Alphen, Netherlands. 2 September. This summer I successfully undertook three major projects. First, under the command of the Supreme Authority here I decorated a bedroom. Second, working closely with a much esteemed friend and colleague I finished a new book. Third, I constructed a pond in my back garden. The pond is about the size of Jean-Claude Juncker’s Luxembourg, although not as wet, and comes complete with my homage to the Dutch mountains (together with mountain spring and utterly naff mountain stream). Complex projects all; but with a bit of thinking, planning and a lot of muscle, success! In other words, if one puts one’s mind to something one can achieve a lot.
Which brings me to Brexit. This week Prime Minister May held an ‘at home away day’ for ministers at her official posh country residence Chequers to discuss how to make Brexit happen. As she talked the former Head of the Civil Service Lord Gus O’Donnell (aka G.O.D) was opining in the media that the collapse of the Roman Empire was as nothing compared with the travails of Brexit, or words to that effect. So, having endured dire warnings about pending economic Armageddon if Britain left the economically-destitute EU, I am now told by G.O.D. that extricating Britain from the EU will be the most difficult political and legal exercise in recorded history. How so and why so?
On the face of it G.O.D’s warnings look like yet another attempt by die-hard Remainers to delay Brexit in the hope that the British people will face up to their ‘folly’ and cancel out 23rd June with a new referendum expressing ever-dying love for Project Europe and those lovely people in Brussels. ‘Fraid not! All the latest opinion polls show that same majority for Brexit as set Britain on this path back in June.
One of the arguments made by G.O.D. is that simply disentangling British law from EU law will be a gargantuan task. Why? What's the rush? After Article 50 is eventually triggered a process will begin that will take many years during which all existing laws will be reviewed. Some of the laws will be good, some indifferent, and some bad but there need be no rush to change laws. What matters is that one starts with the current corpus of statutes and the review process.
Another of the arguments is that Britain now lacks the expertise to conduct trade negotiations. Surely, if necessary, London can buy in such expertise until Britain’s own house-trained trade negotiators are up to speed? Again, there would appear to be no particular need for haste. First, Britain’s future trading relationship with the EU will be a political decision not a technical one. What really matters is that Britain is the world’s fifth biggest and Europe’s second biggest economy. Power is what dictates such arrangements, not technical attribute. Second, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is fast falling apart. Obama wanted Britain in the EU to help save it. Obama is dead political meat.
Which brings me to the real problem with Brexit; the British political class. It is a problem that has dogged Britain for years and which explains why Britain never actually behaves these days as the world’s fifth largest economy or Europe’s leading military power. Rather, much of the British political elite believe Britain to be a small wind-swept island off the West coast of Europe. Worse, it is are fundamentally split about the real issue at the heart of Brexit – EU trade versus EU immigration.
The evidence suggests a majority of those who voted for Brexit did so in the belief that Britain would regain ‘control’ over its borders, i.e. immigration. The problem for them is that whilst the referendum was an exercise in direct democracy it is the denizens of representative democracy who will control much of the process in Government and/or the House of Commons. A majority of them put access to the EU single market above control over immigration. Squaring this British circle could prove impossible.
Which brings me to the political problem of Brexit. First, the Conservative Party is split, the Labour Party is off into the fantasy realm of the red fairies, the Scottish Neverendum Party simply wants to destroy Britain, and the rest of them are led by a bunch of political nonentities. Second, unless the political class really believe in Britain’s ‘independent’ future London’s negotiating position will be weak from day one. Third, unless Britain’s political class show sufficient unity of effort and purpose in agreeing a vision of Brexit Britain’s negotiators will soon find themselves in an impossible position as London’s ‘red lines’ wobble all over the place. Fourth, unless the political class commit to the long-term and do not seek to change aspects of Brexit the civil service, excellent though it is at saving Britain from its politicians, will be simply unable to work its customary magic, G.O.D. or no G.O.D.
Prime Minister May has called for a “unique” deal for Britain which would see only those with a guaranteed job allowed to enter Britain from the EU, in return for full British access to the Single Market, including so-called ‘passporting rights’ for Britain’s financial services. If Brexit is to be made to work then both the British people and their politicians will have to confront the stark reality that is staring them in the face; free trade with the EU or controls on EU immigration. They are unlikely to get both.