I have finished a rough first draft of my second book. It is 80,000w. Parts of it might be good. Message me if you are interested in a pint-for-critique or critique-for-critique exchange or similar.
As some of you know, I was scheduled to be on LBC radio this morning talking about this week’s developments in the Brexit saga. I was axed in short order, but not before I had had to work out what I would say. Here is a summary of my thoughts now regarding the most likely path of the exit negotiations.
In short: we will be a lot like Switzerland or Norway, by a different route.
The transitional implications of the EU’s draft negotiating position, and the implications of David Davis’ statements on European migration, add up to very substantial migration between the EU and UK for the foreseeable future. This will not legally be “free movement” or part of the single market, but it will be substantial movement rights. For individual migrants this is not all that reassuring, since their rights to housing, healthcare, schooling et cetera may change, but the big picture is that very liberal migration will continue, including for low skilled industries.
We can also expect continued budget contributions way beyond 2020. These will not be as high as the budget contributions we pay now as a full member, but they will be in the billions.
I’m very happy that there’s been such goodwill on both sides over the question of the Irish border. The determination with which the Theresa May government says the common travel area will continue implies that there are no plans to impose a hard border in the island of Ireland. What this means is, probably, Northern Ireland will have a very strict regime for checking work eligibility, and landlords will be required to check people’s nationality, forcing the state and private individuals to act as a border force. This is an inelegant solution, but much preferable to putting guard posts, soldiers and sniffer dogs on the historically sensitive border.
The EU’s positions on a trade deal with Britain heavily suggest we will not be free to use state aid to support ailing industries that are uncompetitive, nor will we be able to jettison environmental standards, social standards or progressive taxation measures. There are also hints that consumer and safety standards will need to be upheld for us to have a free trade agreement with the EU. This is what many of us predicted: if we want a comprehensive free trade agreement with our closest trading partner, they will not allow us to undercut their high standards.
I am not sure yet what happens to fisheries, agriculture, banking. The last of these is probably a big question but I would be wary of too much doom mongering: recent news reports that banks and insurance brokers and moving their operations out of London are quite exaggerated.
To moderate Remainers and to mainstream levers, this should be very good news. It means the government will have to do keep a lot of the stuff about the EU that we liked, and will find hard to do anything too radical or right-wing if it doesn’t want to be seen to tank the economy. The position set out by Donald Tusk effectively takes the “WTO cliff” of the table. We can continue to be within the single market for an indefinite negotiating period, so long as we keep paying budget contributions and keep abiding by the four freedoms. The only way we would get the full horror of tariffs and customs breakdown, the WTO option, as if our government very deliberately walks away from the negotiating table. This is not impossible but I think it is no longer likely.
There is now debate over whether Britain can negotiate free trade agreements with other countries before the exit deal is agreed. This is a big red herring. Free trade agreements with countries that are far away, that do not have particularly large economies, or that already trade fairly freely with us on the EU’s terms, will not deliver great boosts in exports, imports, or favourable pricing. Not only do trade agreements take many years to negotiate, but once signed, are phased in very gradually which means that their impact on industries is usually minimal and difficult to detect. It would be nice to have comprehensive trade deals with other countries, but these should not be the focus of any discussions in the next few months.
The approaches of the two main parties to Brexit are limp. Here are ideas how each could go about their jobs better. I’m not sure any of them is truly desirable, but as we know, I did not want the country to vote for Brexit. However, these approaches at least seem to be consistent and constructive.
- The Blair resistance
There is nothing wrong with calling for a movement to stop Brexit if you think it is a bad idea, or if you think the end result will be bad for the country. This is not “antidemocratic”. Governments and parties change their minds on issues all the time, and this is one of the most important issues, and the most complicated process, since the last world war.
It is shockingly ignorant and displays terrible leadership if you promise to barrel on with a policy which, in the face of new information, looks decidedly bad for the country. Most voters and most leave supporters obviously will not be of that opinion now, but by 2019 they may well be. It is a cowardly rhetorical trick to limit their options and those of the government to deny that there is any merit in keeping the door open for a delay or a reversal. Just as leavers correctly criticised some extreme EU federalists for prescribing “more Europe” as the answer to any conceivable future malady, so Brexiteers should be lambasted for maintaining a belief that any version of Brexit is the only acceptable endpoint.
If it will not fight for its own distinct version of what Brexit should look like (below) then I would much rather Labour unite behind a simple anti-Brexit message. The average voter has no idea what the party’s position on the EU is, because it is far too itty-bitty, point-by-point, and riven with internal contradictions and disagreements. Of course presenting the party as anti-Brexit will look bad in the short term as Labour-voting Brexit supporters feel betrayed, but the party’s electoral prospects can hardly be worse. Positioning the party in this way would allow them to take advantage of the chaos and ill feeling we may well see by 2019. In any case, many voters already think Labour opposes Brexit due to its referendum stance and recent silence.
On the question of Blair himself: I would much rather the man was nowhere near this policy or our television screens. It seems that he himself knows his presence is toxic, which is why he waited so long to make any intervention, but in the absence of another prominent left-winger acting as a figurehead for the position, I don’t mind him. It would be nice if Gordon Brown led it instead, if the Labour leadership refuses to.
This tactic probably will not stop Brexit happening, but would build a foundation for later efforts to soften whatever form Brexit takes.
Side note: Leavers who say that if we’d voted Remain, it would be completely impossible to call for another Ref in a few years’ time, are talking crap. Look at Scotland. Look at what Farage and Vote Leave said on the night of the Referendum when they thought they’d lost.
- Worker’s Brexit
If the Labour Party is not going to fight against Brexit happening, then it should create a simple vision for a post Brexit Britain which is distinct from that of the Conservative party but desirable to large sections of the country. This will allow them to attack the way Theresa May pursues her higgledy-piggledy vaguely pro corporation blueprint, while showing that they are listening to the result of the referendum. Key planks of such a campaign would include:
> a close trading arrangement with the EU which preserves jobs that currently depend on the single market;
> agreement with the EU on mutual healthcare, police cooperation, respect for workers rights, consumer protection;
> using free trade agreements to spread UK standards on labour protection, high quality products, human rights*, environmental progress;
> explicitly reject trade deals which compromise food, chemical and pharmaceutical standards;
using whatever savings eventually result from ending EU budget contributions to pivot from ailing industries suffering from globalisation towards new growth areas** (while fighting unfair aspects of globalisation, such as Chinese steel dumping, which the Conservatives positively encouraged);
> promising a savage fight against cutthroat exploitation practices which permit the worst aspects of immigration (real or imagined) with muscular resources devoted to fighting those paying below minimum wage, gang leaders tracking in nonunionised Eastern Europeans unaware of their rights and working them illegal hours and housing them illegal sweatshop conditions
Such a vision would help craft Brexit and help bring Labour around to a recognisable attitude to the most pressing issue of the decade. Have every MP repeat ‘Workers’ Brexit’ on TV at every opportunity, so much that ‘Long term economic plan’ fades from memory.
One of the biggest disappointments with the government’s approach to Brexit thus far is its tone. While it is in many ways refreshing that Theresa May refrains from constant media appearances and briefings, it also means that her ministers and MPs are left to run wild and blast out radically different mood music from one another. Some talk about “constructive relations” with Europe, while others tiptoe the line between patriotic pride and offensive jingoism with the subtlety and deliberation of an inebriated hippopotamus.
- Dr Strange Love Bomb
Respected centre-right commentators, notably Andrew Lilico and Tim Montgomery, are vocal advocates for the “love bomb” approach. (Lilico also has a whole CANZAKUK Brexit idea with many good points.) In many ways I feel that that ship has already sailed, given the comments of various Tory MPs, the tone of the referendum debates, and the gnawing presence of Ukip.
However there is still great value in trying to revive a spirit of diplomatic friendship. We should be praising all of the aspects of Europe that we do like, and that we do want to keep, and in general sending the 27 EU leaders the message “it’s not you, it’s us”. (As a negotiation tactic even Brexiteers who actually do believe “it’s not me, it’s you” should see the value in this.) Say we are leaving because we want to keep our traditions of democracy et cetera, but that we still want to work with them on a whole host of issues – not just NATO, but university swaps, arts and humanities promotion, friendly sporting events, a general sense of continental fellowship.
We do not need to make any policy promises on this, and certainly do not need to follow through on them. It would simply be nice to at least begin the article 50 process on a collegiate note, given the distinct danger of it all breaking down later. One of the major issues delaying and upsetting negotiations between the Greek government and the Eurozone was tone, and when the Greek government altered its tone and some key personnel, the crisis was diverted relatively quickly.***
- Balls Out Brexit
If Theresa May does not have the authority or control mechanisms to carry off the kind of message discipline above, which may well be the case, then the writer and journalist Ben Judah raises an interesting but opposite approach. Rather than going for a mutually beneficial Brexit and essentially becoming hostages to 27 countries and one institution each looking out for their own interests (and beholden to their own electorates), we could try to get a good Brexit deal by being absolute bastards.
I cannot remember whether Ben coined a moniker for his version of Brexit so I will call it “balls out Brexit”. He suggested we negotiate along the lines so well tested by Charles de Gaulle in decades gone by: refuse to trigger article 50, refuse to abide by most of the EU’s laws and mechanisms, make the whole edifice grind to a halt until market and political pressure forces the larger EU countries to get together and offer us a perfect deal. We would have to be obstinate as hell. Stop paying into any EU projects or budgets, start impeding or taxing EU imports on the border, really make it clear that we are willing to follow through on the most catastrophic reading of “Brexit means Brexit” if we are not offered a tastier option.
I’m not sure exactly what the perfect deal would look like in Theresa May’s mind, probably something that included the single market in goods, services, and capital, but not in the free movement of people and without European Court supervision, and with continuing UK input into writing product regulation. But being subject to less product regulation. It would take nerves of steel and again, would require Theresa May to have galvanised her party behind her, probably with the support of Labour’s few Brexit champions too.
It would not be nice, it would not be pretty, and it would almost certainly mean a short-term hit to the UK economy – but if we are not even going to try to get a deal along the lines of Norway or Switzerland, then this seems a valid way to push for a free trade agreement with bells on.
- Lock, stock and awe (Works with 1 and 2)
It has been commented on a fair amount since the referendum result, that Britain does not have the negotiating capacity to simultaneously handle: exit negotiations with the EU, renegotiations of trade agreements with over 50 countries, putting British representatives on all of the standards and diplomatic bodies where the EU used to represent us, extra diplomats for Ireland, Gibraltar and other obvious flashpoints. Indeed I made this point in my 2015 book on the lessons leave supporters should learn from the Swiss experience of free trade negotiation – we do not have anything like enough capacity. Leaked stories that the Department for exiting the EU is struggling to gain enough skilled staff prove this point.
But we should not be aiming for “enough”. In July and August Theresa May should have very openly and deliberately sought to hire the most experienced diplomats and ex-diplomats of similar countries with experience of representing themselves on the international trade stage: we should hoover up experts from Canada, Australia, Korea, New Zealand, Japan, South Africa, anywhere else that offers them. And we should make a big thing of these hires. We should be showing the world that we will be going into talks fully tooled up and ready, rather than our current display which resembles the diplomatic equivalent of a late-night essay crisis, or a village cricket team deploying children from the next hamlet and the postman. We would not need to boast that we had a crack team, merely show that we appreciated the magnitude of the task before us and had equipped and supported the existing diplomatic corps with the requisite heft.
Leaders of all parties should be striving to agree with European leaders that the rights of EU nationals living in other EU countries will be respected along the same lines as they are now. I can see why neither side wants to agree this first, but it would be a display of goodwill and positive intent if all sides agree that this issue should not form part of the main Brexit negotiations and that the millions of Europeans living in Britain, and the millions of Britons living abroad, will be protected. It is a weeping shame that this has not already occurred, especially given that both leave campaigns agreed this should be the case during the referendum fight.
* For example, we could be the first Western country to offer a comprehensive free trade deal to Iran, but as well as offering access to our markets, we would say the deal had to include basic provisions of labour fairness, gender equality and so on to be written in by their government.
** A more exciting expansion of this would be for Labour’s general economic position to revive the spirit of Harold Wilson and promised the regions outside London investment and support for cutting-edge high-end manufacturing. This would form the main plank of a campaign to create high skilled meaningful jobs in the UK, using generous government research and development grants and special enterprise zones to encourage businesses to take advantage of our educated workforce, top class universities, and already well-strained, experienced manual workers.
*** This is not to say that I think the original Greek aims or demands were wrong: I think they were entirely appropriate and it is a shame both the Greece, for the Eurozone, and for the global economy, that SYRIZA/ Varoufakis did not get some kind of a deal. But that is an entirely different blog.
I have not blogged for a long time and I doubt anyone is to upset by this, but here I will try to put down thoughts about recent developments.
There is no great mystery as to why I have not written much recently. During the coalition government and even the early months of the Conservative government, I felt like writing could make some sort of a difference. Perhaps it would only cause 10 or 15 friends to think differently about a topic, or bring more evidence to attention of a couple of people on twitter, or encourage someone to research more themselves I see both sides of an issue. I was interested in writing for writing’s sake, I had strong feelings about the mistakes and missed opportunities I felt the coalition was making, so I was energised to write about these things.
Since the referendum, the elevation of Theresa May and finally the election of Donald Trump, I’ve become numb but not comfortable. The direction and momentum of politics and the dominant culture so clearly moving away from the incremental progress I would like to see that it feels like there is no point making small interventions in causes like feminism, social justice, censorship, or Internet freedom.
At the same time, I feel like I have much less useful to say about anything. I won’t bang on about how we have “had enough of experts” except to note with a muted but ever mounting dismay that a great many victorious levers still fail to appreciate the very real difficulties of Brexit, and still fail to prepare any kind of innovative tactics or even baseline sensible approach. There are honourable exceptions such as Roland Smith and Andrew Lillico on the Leave side, Ben Judah on the Remain side, who are at least thinking tactically about how we might enter Brexit negotiations and what we might want from them. Public discussion over these questions is not so much pathetic as non-existent. We have been blinded by debate over triggering article 50 which is, if not meaningless, then one of the most flagrant examples of seeing one tree rather than the forest that I have ever heard of.
Just as I don’t think there’s much point discussing the fall of experts, I’m dismayed by how much now is attributed to fake news or post truth politics. These are both meaningless terms. People have always lied on the Internet, politicians have always lied, and in any case there is a large amount of what is now called fake news which is in fact highly biased news: this has always existed, even in whichever democratic golden age you choose to dream of.
Comparisons to the rise of the Nazi party or of Mussolini or Franco are of little use here. Trump has not come to power through overt violence or an outright fascist message. It seems to me utterly pointless for academics to debate whether and to what extent Trump or his cabinet are fascist: we can all agree that he is awful and needs to be resisted, and we do not need a new label to enable this.
I used to worry about the little Eichmann theory. This is the idea that evil can triumph if ordinary people just slot into a bad machine and do as they are told, or excel at what tasks they have been set. I thought of the machine as late capitalism, the way it locks in exploitation of the developing world and enables wealthy societies to justify inequality, poverty, state-sponsored cruelty. I don’t really worry about this anymore. There are enough people who are beyond little Eihmanns, who are openly consciously pushing for changes I detest, that navelgazing and wondering whether buying a particular T-shirt or coffee is a bad choice is hopelessly self-indulgent. (One of the many contradictions within this post.)
I have been on three protests in the last month. I have absolutely no idea whether this is any use. If I try to consider historical periods I know best, I would say most protests are futile unless they have very clear goals and a distinct enemy who might heed them. I was encouraged to hear that Donald Trump was visibly upset by the size and multiplicity of protests the day after his inauguration, which highlighted women’s rights around the world. Is upsetting him a useful victory? I imagine the man is upset several times an hour.
Protesting for centrist, centre-left or progressive causes with an element of racial justice and harmony actually helps the man in his media manipulation efforts: the more we do it, the more he will be able to point the damning finger at us social justice warrior snowflakes, the elitist enemy within, and rally his own troops. Does that mean we should not protest? I have no idea. At the moment I will keep going because I cannot see what else useful to do, other than donate to charities that seek to fix the problems he is causing and to proper journalism to hold him to account.
Proper journalism. That brings me on to the echo chamber. Through having worked for a centre-right organisation and on a topic mainly supported by the centre-right, I am fortunate enough to follow a lot of people with whom I disagree on social media. I no longer read right-wing publications often, but I think I challenge myself a reasonable amount. I will happily recommend thoughtful right-wing writers if anyone is looking to expand their media consumption outside of their bubble, although I’m sure readers but very able to do this themselves.
For good anti-Trump writing, see:
Nick Cohen, Guardian
For Brexit read: Dominic Cummings, his blog
My final observation is simply this: my friends and I will be fine.
This was the tragedy of the 2015 election, of the referendum, of trump. For the educated middle-class white intelligentsia, everything bad that is happening is abstract. Right-wing media can and does use this point to make it look like our opposition is insincere or hypocritical. I reject this: if you’re willing to spend time and effort pushing for something that does not help your immediate interests or those of your social group, surely it is logical that you have actually thought about the issue and are demonstrating compassion and empathy?
A pessimistic reading would be that the right media attempts to shame the progressive middle class out of political action: we must not be ashamed. Of course people like me should follow the direction and example of issue-specific protesters like Black Lives Matter or March for Women so we do not undermine or model the message. But that does not mean we cannot support it.
TLDR: Beef; cars; shampoo; lawyers; builders; trains; regulators.
In May this year I was still looking forward to a Conservative Civil War. The referendum campaign was going to be brutal for the Tory party as it pitted an exit minority against Cameron’s more loyal MPs. The fallout after a comfortable remain vote was going to be brutal. There would be recriminations, defections, maybe the odd coup attempt. Cameron would hang on, but he would be so weak that his party couldn’t pass much of its manifesto and even the hapless Corbyn might start looking good.
None of that happened. However, the unity the Tories are showing now with their new leader and jenga tower opposition masks a second conflict in the making, one which will emerge from the party’s ideological divide during the Brexit process.
This blog will not discuss article 50, the various exit models or WTO membership. Later than I would have hoped, mainstream conversation is now covering these well. Instead I will zoom through the issues which pit different Tory factions against each other. These factions are:
- free-market liberals, libertarians, globalists
- small-c conservatives, migration sceptics, protectionists
- Parliamentary sovereignty champions, ‘Runnymede conservatives’
Daniel Hannan is a good example of the first, John Redwood of the third, and perhaps Peter Bone of the second.
All we seem to hear about at the moment is a proposed free-trade agreement with Australia. Leave aside how long this will take to achieve. A free trade deal with Australia will split the Conservatives over its core goals. Australia will prioritise getting good access for its beef and dairy, as it has done in its other trade agreements. Group A will be perfectly on board with this and jubilant that it will provide British consumers with cheaper food. However it will really threaten many British farmers, especially if group A have already won the argument over reducing agricultural subsidies. Group B could kick-off. (It just Australia that poses this problem, it’s the most immediate example.)
USA trade deal – TTIP
You get a similar issue with an America trade deal, or with joining the EU USA trade deal (TTIP). America will outcompete Britain in all kinds of areas including car manufacture and heavy industry. American workers have fewer rights and protections than British ones. To compete we may either see longer hours, eroded labour law, or simply many British jobs being lost. The country may benefit overall but many communities will lose out. Groups B and C may also have grievances over consumer protection being, we don’t know for sure yet, but it looks like TTIP will corrode pharmaceutical and chemical standards, may introduce GM foods and unusual agricultural practices, even dirtier car engines.
The other controversial element of TTIP, which has provoked pretty wide opposition in France, Germany, and Belgium, is the investment protection clause. I’ve written about it elsewhere and it is a nuanced subject, but essentially it may allow big companies to sue states, thereby influencing their lawmaking process.
This was a rallying cry of the anti-EU left in the referendum campaign, and something about which both Ukip and group C were vocally critical. However at the moment it looks like Washington will not budge on the investor protection clause being part of TTIP, and indeed it is part of most other trade deals Britain is already in. Backing out such deals would dismay group A and hammer the economy, since they are included in deals we have through the EU, such as with Korea, South Africa, Mexico. Backing out of these would send pretty negative signals to the markets, which are already pessimistic.
Developing world trade agreements
Ministers in the new government, including those from all three groups, are proudly promising trade deals with populace developing countries such as China, India, and Brazil. Such deals could of course bring many benefits. However, in return for opening up their markets, we know that these countries typically ask for their companies to be able to send workers to the partner country to complete contracts. What that means is, Indian company X wins a contract to build a swimming pool in Brighton, possibly by undercutting British firms’ bids, then sends 30 Indian builders to Brighton for a year to do the building. You can see why group B may not be delighted by this. Even worse, Indian builders may operate under Indian employment law and wage law, much lower protections than British workers enjoy. If you accept that a court reason the country voted for Brexit was to limit immigration then this looks like a poor outcome.
Government procurement and trade in services
This points to a problem with the current direction of global trade deals in general, which is to liberalise services and government contracts by stopping states favouring their own companies, thus allowing free markets to operate. Historically, the British civil service has observed such rules quite honestly, which is why a lot of our energy infrastructure is owned by foreign companies, a lot of our trains and police cars are manufactured by in foreign factories, even the running of our prisons and migration detention horrors contracted out to firms with headquarters elsewhere. This is something that group B and sometimes group C detest.
Major WTO deals in the near future include the Trade in Services Agreement and the Revised Government Procurement Agreement (TiSA and GPA). These will both advance the globalised situation. Both will also make it harder for the British government to support British industries like steel, manufacturing, or coal, either by offering them cheap loans, tax breaks, or lucrative contracts. Those would be seen as perverting competition.
[The GPA is actually already passed but as I understand, not fully in force.]
Worldwide regulation convergence
as is kind of implicit from all of the above, it looks like product and service rules and even the rules affecting how governments buy things are being gradually brought into line, at least among Western countries. This will be accelerated and cemented by TTIP and by TPP (a similar deal between America, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Mexico and others). Because UK companies want to sell to one of these places, and to the remaining EU. They will have two follow a lot of the rules agreed in these deals, whether Britain has signed up to them as a country or not. This might cause a lot of frustration in the Tory party and among voters, especially when we could have influenced TTIP much more as an EU member state. There’s no real way to avoid the situation other than Trump winning the presidency, Britain retreating from global trade. Both cheerful alternatives.
Hopefully that was interesting and covered topics a little beyond what the news cycle is focusing on. I am sure they will be the battlegrounds of the future. I have no idea who will win.
In the absence of anyone serious stepping up with a plan for UK exit, I have had an idea. It is an idea that satisfies the public’s stated referendum wish to leave the EU, but also acknowledges the political reality that the House of Commons is supreme, and the House of Commons wants continued close cooperation with Brussels. Since Vote Leave made a great show of the importance of Parliament deciding Britain’s future, it is hard to see how they would reject this. After all, Vote Leave repeatedly held up its hands and said that they were not the government, and would not be in charge of crafting a post Brexit future. They said they did not need and still have not offered one. Continue reading
We’ve heard a lot in the EU debate about how European immigration pushes British people out of good jobs in Britain, and how competition with European workers on the ground pushes down British wages. I disagree with this analysis here, but inasmuch as it is true in specific circumstances, it is a general symptom of the globalisation triangle.
Vote Leave, Leave.EU and Ukip are very critical of migration for the reasons above, but tend to be confused when it comes to the other points of the triangle. They promise bigger, faster free trade deals with the world’s developing economies, while keeping free trade with the rest of the EU and retaining London’s position of dominance as a global financial centre. This goes against the idea of protecting British jobs.
In simple terms, as far as free-trade logic goes, British jobs are equally at risk from :
1) competition from immigrants,
2) competition from workers abroad freely trading with Britain, and
3) the free movement of capital allowing British firms to offshore their operations. Continue reading
This is not a popular argument, even among Remainers. It rests on my belief that migration, especially European migration, is good for both the donor and the host countries. Cynics will read this blog as an argument that we should stay in the EU so poor Europeans can come to Britain. That is not what I’m arguing. I am arguing that the ability to move abroad and work or study is important for Britons, particularly those with low skills or education.
Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain have been having a terrible time since 2007, and few in the EU debate would deny the euro currency had a major role. Youth unemployment soared in these ‘PIGS’ nations, peaking at 55.5% in Spain and 58.3% in Greece. In Ireland it was 33%, while Britain weathered the recession relatively well at 21%.
Tens of thousands of young PIGS citizens sought work abroad: in America, Australia, Germany, Holland and Britain. The first two of these have tight restrictions on unskilled migration. But under free movement that rules, the EU member states were open to young workers from the afflicted countries, whether they were lucky enough to have master’s degrees in engineering, experience in construction, or just gumption and a willingness to serve coffee.
At least 400,000 Western Europeans left their recession-torn home states to work abroad in the last decade, some for just a few months, others longer. It is much cheaper and easier to move to a country an hour or two away than to Canada stop Imagine how much worse Spain or Greece’s unemployment figures would have looked, had only skilled & wealthy emigrants been accepted in neighbouring states. If the least educated, least experienced young people had been forced to stay home, youth unemployment figures could easily have exceeded 70%, with the attendant extra strain on those countries’ buckling welfare systems, national psyche, even civil stability. Movements like Golden Dawn thrive in such conditions.
For those fleeing Mediterranean depression, free movement was a lifeline. Rather than spend long years living with parents, dependant on welfare, competing with all their old classmates for each rock-bottom job, they could go to Denmark or Sweden, get jobs, build up their language skills, make contacts, and return home more experienced people when the worst was over. Long-term unemployment affects workers’ earnings decades in the future. The ability to find a job, even a job you’d rather not do, in a stable neighbouring country, is key.
Vote Leave say they would introduce an Australian-style migration system for EU migrants that let in only those with high skills. The Spanish and Dutch prime ministers, Mariano Rajoy and Mark Rutte, have already said that if the UK adopts a points-based regime against EU citizens, Holland and Spain will have to do the same for Brits. This is implicitly all of Western Europe’s stance: Chancellor Merkel of Germany noted that countries outside the EU ‘will never get a really good result in negotiations’ with the bloc.
After Brexit this would not hurt elites like Boris Johnson, or those close to him. If Britain suffers a downturn, the best-educated and wealthiest Britons will always be able to travel. They will pass the hurdles to get visa for Australia, Canada, America – and they will be able to compete best for jobs at home. This is equally true of myself and many leading Remainers: thanks to globalisation, the world’s elite is already privileged with de facto free movement.
However, ending free movement cuts out the safety valve for mid-low skilled young Britons who cannot pass such skills demands.
That is fine while the economy is stable, but in a recession, it could be appalling. The elite would be least affected, while those not in employment, education or training (‘NEETs’) would suffer most. They cannot all go to Ireland. A recent Economist article suggests that British NEETS have the grimmest prospects and worst educational achievement among developed nations, with the lowest numeracy and literacy rates. Uniquely, British youths ‘have worse literacy and numeracy rates than those aged between 30 and 54, a pattern not seen in any other country in the European Union.’ Without the free movement option, British NEETS would be effectively trapped in Britain if it suffered a recession. (This piece is not predicting a recession, either as a result of Brexit or from other later factors, but it is an important possibility to consider. )
Low and medium skilled Britons would find their options constrained if Vote Leave and Europe’s leaders keep their word after a Brexit. Auf Wiedersehen, Pet would not be an option. School leavers and graduates could be trapped in a jobless mire. Brexit supporters often note that after exit, visa-free travel could be negotiated and university-swapping schemes like Erasmus continued: that’s all very well for wealthy teens inter-railing or taking a year at the Sorbonne, but leavers the less fortunate no better off.
It is callous of Leave leaders, who claim to fight for the working people of the country, not to consider the most vulnerable young Britons’ life chances in their campaign. It is extraordinary to propose a border policy that arouses hostility in our closest neighbours.
Many supporters of Leave have challenged me to explain in what situations I would advocate exit. This is a good question: someone who was truly an EU fanatic would presumably see no situations in which leaving was best for Britain. I see plenty of situations in which leaving would be best for Britain, the differences that I firmly predict they will not arise any time soon. If they do arise I will be comfortable campaigning for a new referendum and vote to Leave.
(If I did so I would also push for the out campaign to have a much more comprehensive explanation of how they would safeguard the economy from Brexit fallout, but that is another story.)
The first threat, beloved of Eurosceptics, is Britain being forced into the euro currency. Even before David Cameron’s renegotiation this spring, this was impossible. There is no way the EU could force a new currency on Britain, either in terms of diplomatic pressure or EU law. We already had an opt out. From the British perspective, euro currency has been such a disaster that is impossible to see even a very pro-EU Labour government supporting joining in the next 15 years.
The second threat is an EU army being built with mandatory inclusion of British forces, without the express consent of the British government. A combined fear is that this force would be used in interventions without the British wielding a veto. Both of these futures are completely preposterous. Were an EU army ever to exist, it would rely almost entirely on French and British military assets, and they would always be able to stop action taking place. As it is, Britain has a veto on the creation of such an army or force, and is unlikely to approve of its creation any time soon. Recent policy has been to pursue bilateral cooperation with France, as seen in Libya.
A new treaty that saw centralising powers for the euro currency area and a reduction in the veto powers of individual member states would be worrying, and I would hope to look over it in a lot of detail. I like to think that the greater attention we have been paying to EU thanks to this referendum means that we would also scrutinise future treaties properly. A new treaty in itself would not be reason to Leave the EU, especially since we would have a referendum on accepting that treaty (see below). However, if the treaty was in some way forced on Britain (something I cannot imagine happening) then that probably would be grounds to Leave.
The EU accepting Turkish membership over a British veto, or ignoring the British veto in other important matters such as taxation, external trade policy, or changes to migration law, would be grounds for divorce. This would be the case even if I approve of the changes themselves. My hypothetical scenario is simply that if the EU overrode what was clearly a veto in the Lisbon Treaty, then the system would be broken beyond acceptable limits. Note: this is not what happened in Greece, Portugal or Ireland. Those states were forced to accept troika rules in return for bailouts, i.e. they were creditor requirements, they were not strictly speaking requirements of the EU treaties. (Of course, this does not mean I remotely approved of the handling of the euro crisis.)
Voters who fear that any of the above could happen with the expressed okay of the British government undermine their own arguments. Because Britain can, and probably would, veto any of those developments, it stands to reason that if it approved them, that approval would be an expression of British sovereignty. It would be just the same as, after Brexit, a British government choosing to grant free movement to the people of Turkey unilaterally, or to join an EU army from the outside, or to join the euro from the outside.
Of course, all these things are unlikely in the near term. Inasmuch as they are likely, I am comforted by the referendum lock in UK law, which means that Britain would have another referendum on any of these issues. We would have a vote on the creation of an EU army. We would have a vote on joining the euro. We would have a vote on any new treaty.
I’m amazed the Remain campaign hasn’t made more of this referendum lock, which means that any transfer of powers to Brussels in the future must be a plebiscite decision. This effectively means that the threat of “ever closer union” is blunted, since Britain cannot be pushed into deeper integration without public approval.
As a woolly sort of lefty, I suppose I would also be concerned that the EU would constrain the ability of the left-wing government to fulfil its program. This has often been overstated: the EU does not stop states nationalising industries, and there are ways to give struggling industries stated or procurement support that Britain simply does not explore. (I’m not sure I would want them to but the point is that the EU does not stop them.) I suppose another situation in which I would advocate Brexit, then, is one in which the EU constrains a radical social democratic or socialist agenda. This is quite hard to imagine really, since Britain is quite far to the right of most Scandinavian and many continental or Eastern European states. In a scenario in which the EU and left this platform clearly did clash, then I suspect another referendum would be very likely and may well pass since the government of the day would be supporting it: and would have a clear agenda (and possibly a manifesto mandate) for doing so. This would avoid many of the pitfalls centre and left wing commentators have identified in the Vote Leave campaign.
I oppose the mantra that this vote is necessarily once in a generation. If you believe in accountable parliamentary sovereignty and the strengths of the Westminster system, as many in Vote Leave do, then you should be confident that if the EU gets really bad, bad enough for me and other active Remain campaigners to consider leaving, the British government will be forced to offer a new referendum. If it does not, it may face a vote of no confidence or be voted out at the next general election.
Contrary to the claims of Leave supporters, the EU is not a prison or empire. Nations do not tend to join empires by their own governments’ initiative. Nations do not tend to choose to remain in empires by the ballot. There are very few prisons which include in the Prison Rules a clear article explaining how a prisoner can vote himself out of the prison. This is precisely what the Lisbon Treaty does in Article 50.
The mere fact that the EU has a mechanism for countries leaving it without recourse to arms shows it is far less evil than its critics would claim. Its critics see it as a prison mainly because of the last 40 years the British people have supported governments which themselves support membership. We are not prisoners because we never saw it as a prison.
Reports from the BBC, Times and Guardian indicate that Parliament may use its power after Brexit to keep Britain in the single market by joining the EEA (European Economic Area). This option is often known as the Norwegian option, and in my opinion is the least traumatic version of Brexit. However, it would still be worse than retaining EU membership, and is not laid out as comprehensively as its proponents claim.
A few years ago I wrote a long paper on the strengths of the Norwegian option for a prominent think tank. Here I will set out why I do not think it is appropriate for Britain, and the flaws in the arguments of those who support it. [However, it would not be cataclysmic, and if we do vote to leave, I very much hope this is the way Britain goes and the problems I indentify below are addressed.)
This article will assume a basic understanding of the EU debate and the Norwegian model (‘Flexit’/Flexcit, EEA) case and go into some detail. Unlike the more spectacular WTO option, many of the drawbacks of the Norwegian model are rather technical…
Roland Smith, who is possibly the most persuasive champion of this exit ideal (and who outlined the deal on Newsnight), frames Britain achieving the EEA option as a near certainty, if it wanted to. It would be easier to win EEA membership from the EU than a Swiss style deal or souped-up EU-UK free trade agreement, for sure. (Gove’s argument that German car manufacturers would force the whole EU to give Britain a good deal is ludicrous.) Indeed, an EEA offer is also the prediction of some pro-remain commentators. Anonymous pro-remain MPs have given stories to the BBC and Guardian that they would keep Britain in the single market by opting for a Norwegian option if the country votes to leave. Whether this would be acceptable or likely, and how this aligns with the importance of parliamentary sovereignty, is outlined by Jonathan Portes here. and Charles Grant here.
However, it is far from assured that the option is open: every remaining EU nation and the four EFTA states (Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, Liechtenstein) would each be able to veto it. That’s 31 vetoes.
There’s a serious chance that one or more of these countries will hold up the deal for their own ends. It is dishonest for either side to propose the Norway option as if it were easily attainable. At the very least, the other EU and EFTA countries will try to stop Britain gaining the kind of power that could muck up the EU. This means there will be alterations to what we think of as the EEA option.
The most obvious new conditions forced upon Britain in the event of attempting to join the EEA are:
1) continued budget contributions at current levels, and
2) a removal of the EEA clause that allows an ‘emergency brake’ on the free movement of people, and
3) a moratorium on Britain using the ‘Right of Reservation’ veto power in the EEA treaty for a number of years, or without the other EFTA-EEA states’ support
These requirements would not be fatal to the deal, but would bring the EEA option even closer to Britain’s current situation, so less attractive to Leavers concerned with migration controls or absolute sovereignty.
It should also be noted that every single current piece of single market legislation would stay in place in the UK. Not only would there be no red tape bonfire, there would be not even a candle burning, while the Brussels pipeline would continue to pump out rules that we would be legally obliged to adopt. Again, this would help economic continuity.
The Norway option is supported by group of eurosceptics bound together as the Leave Alliance (LA) whose members are united behind a distinct plan for leaving the EU. The full-length version of this is known as Flexcit (Flexible Exit and Continuous Development), is over 400 pages, while the 48 page short version is entitled ‘The Market Solution’.
Prominent in this group are Dr Richard North of EUReferendum.com and Robert Oulds of the Bruges Group. The group is not closely affiliated with the prominent Eurosceptic campaigns (Vote Leave, Leave.EU and Grassroots Out) and indeed frequently criticises members of each of them for poor performances, tactical failures or factual error.
I don’t summarise the plan itself here, so a look at The Market Solution would be useful for readers new to the topic. This note does not cover the obvious political drawbacks such as continued free movement of people, or the largest negative economic and diplomatic consequences, detailed by John Springford here.
- The most basic concern is simply that Flexcit does not give a convincing account explaining how Britain would gain EEA-EFTA membership. As I set out in The Norwegian Way pp.11-12 there is considerable difficulty in this happening, since any EU member or EFTA member could veto it. It is possible, certainly, but suspect the A8+2 countries would push for UK budget contributions to stay at the level they are now, rather than the per capita level Norway pays them, before accepting the deal.
I also expect the EFTA states would push for a mechanism meaning Britain’s influence on EFTA’s direction was strictly limited, lest her size change the whole bloc’s dynamic.
- Failing EEA membership, Flexcit sets out the ‘Shadow EEA’, which sees Britain unilaterally adopting all EEA single market legislation (including the free movement of peoples). The hope is that this would force the EU to continue offering single market access on current terms. Flexcit treats this disappointingly breezily: it assumes that with regulatory equivalence the WTO would force the EU to keep single market access open. This is mildly convincing in terms of NTBs and TBTs, but not in terms of tariffs or quotas, or the rights of UK citizens in the EEA. If the UK left the EU without a formal agreement, the EU would be obliged to apply the common external tariff (CET) to it regardless of the UK’s regulatory equivalence efforts.
If one or more EEA member had formally blocked UK EEA membership, it is difficult to see the Area’s members all accepting a de facto continuation (especially as, if Britain were not a formal EEA member, it would not be paying EEA-style contributions).
- The Flexcit solution, despite being extremely well researched regarding the working and importance of global/international standards bodies, overstates their importance; and it overstates an independent Britain’s possible influence within them. While Flexcit and the EUReferendum blog et cetera show many examples of Norway or other small states influencing global rules, and thus influencing America and the EU, this is very selective sampling. It usually has to do with one of Norway’s few key sectors such as fisheries or oil: the UK is a much more mixed economy with far more important sectors.
No attempt is made to see in which cases Norway (or whichever state) is powerless or sidelined, and there is little discussion of the fact that the EU itself dominates many international bodies, and would be on guard against Britain directly opposing it.
- In any case, because most of these international bodies rely on consensus or soft law (industry best practice, codes of conduct), or the private sector, or a multi-layered procedure, it is hard to see how even a titanic effort of diplomacy in global bodies will compensate Britain’s lack of a vote in the EU institutions, except just possibly in the long term (beyond 10 years).
As we’ve seen from the failure of the WTO Doha Round and the re-emergence of bilateral and plurilateral deals, multilateralism has a large number of limitations and it is unclear whether the UK’s enthusiasm alone could revitalise such a process.
- It is likewise unclear whether other countries will be willing to take up the British offer of Partial Scope Agreements if multilateralism and FTA attempts fail. They could be excellent in some cases, but in many, states will wish to keep a sector protected as a bargaining chip in return for the liberalisation of a protected British sector, in a more comprehensive FTA. It is particularly hard to see Britain winning a slew of PSAs from America without making large concessions elsewhere.
Flexcit fails to demonstrate why other countries would be willing to look at ‘Unbundling’ issues with Britain alone.
- Flexcit feels especially weak when it moves beyond the EEA stepping stone and tries to show the potential of further ‘stones’. The idea of a free trading Europe orchestrated by UNECE (the United Nations economic commission on Europe), with Britain a principal architect, is very hard to swallow. Why would the EU agree to being superseded (phase three)? What is in it for France and Germany?
How does a role in UNECE, while Britain remains an EEA member, protect Britain from the EU passing EEA-relevant laws that are not inspired by international standards, or have damaging gold plating? It does not.
Bodies like the G20, OECD and WTO are indeed influential on trading rules and product standards, but influence within them often relies on blocs/alliances/groupings (e.g. G10, ACP, Cairns), which Britain would be new to. Britain will probably end up either aligning with the EU in virtually all cases, or aligning with the United States and being dominated space even more.Flexit needs far more detail on how an overall leadership/influential position could be developed, rather than just impressive case studies. P401 attempts this but without much conviction.
- How could Britain lead the whole developed world to adopt a migration & asylum approach that addresses push and pull factors?
The analysis of push factors in Flexit is excellent, but we are seeing how hard it is for the (centralised) Schengen area to coordinate on relatively unambitious migration measures. Post Brexit, the UK would be a lone voice annoyingly telling other states what to do to address their problems – unlikely to go down well. UK is already leading on funding refugee camps near Syria, for example, and no one is following us.
Britain alone adapting its fisheries, foreign, foreign aid, agricultural and trade policies will not have an impact on push factors adequate to solve migration and asylum movement into Europe (and towards Calais).
(On a side note, addressing many of the Pull factors Flexcit identifies would take decades if not generations to bear results, so do little to satisfy voters whose primary concern is current migration levels.)
- There is a serious danger in overstating the Veto and Emergency Brake powers of EEA members. Using the veto (reservation) might, as I argue in TNW, be fine in limited product areas, but using it to stop an important EU law that the EU considers EEA relevant would trigger a political crisis. Likewise using the Emergency Brake on migration soon after exit would cause a crisis and probable suspension of the EEA system, and the EFTA EEA members would not allow Britain to join if it suspected the UK Government of entertaining such plans.
- Flexcit recognises the ‘Brussels effect’ on p.187 but seems to ignore it almost everywhere else: often it’s the EU that leads the global bodies. The Brussels effect essentially notes that even superpowers (America) follow EU product regulations in areas where the EU has legislated first due to the size of its market. This applied to important sectors such as aeronautics and monopoly law.
This would be far more noticeable for the UK than for America (as the Bradford paper discusses), especially following the conclusions of TPP and TTIP, after which the UK will be ‘sandwiched’ between three blocs with converging regulations.
- It should not be overlooked that the EEA option does require tariffs on agriculture and fish products. Overall this may not be too bad, but it implies a serious hit to the trade along the Irish border. Presumably beef and potato imports from the Republic would become more expensive, as would Continental delicacies and alcohol. In my personal opinion this is not compelling argument against Brexit, but ought to be stated clearly.
Norway has preferential tariff access for its fish into the EU but not zero tariffs. This implies the situation for British fishermen would be substantially worse than now: it is also unclear whether they would get better TAC quotas after Brexit. Haggling over fishing grounds and fisheries craters would be no simple business, and the UK may well sacrifice fisheries as it pushes for continued financial services access.
- Broadly speaking, Flexcit commits a lighter version of Dominic Cummings’ sin in saying Britain can be ‘flexible’ or can make a ‘democratic decision’ whenever there’s a tough question; in this way it avoids answering the most difficult challenges. It also displays a sketchy reliance on the future negotiation abilities of Britain in global bodies without proving that Britain would have such superhuman capability to anything like the required degree.
A problem that is not unique to Flexit is that of uncertainty. Because Vote Leave is not behind the model publicly, and neither are any remain MPs, the fact that eventually the country might end up in an EEA single market situation is probably not enough to reassure the markets after a close Leave vote. The possibility that it would cause a constitutional crisis, or at least continuation of bitter political disputes between British politicians before the issue is even raised with the EU and EFTA states, implies that UK stocks could take a hit.
To reiterate, I think the Norwegian option is the least bad Brexit option and would not be too terrible for the country. It has several advantages which are laid out in my earlier paper. However I personally am unconvinced by the case for leave so far. I do not believe the EU is a ‘prison’, and the Norway option is the best route to take if the EU ever got so bad that I thought Britain should leave it.
In the spirit of constructive criticism a version of these points was sent to Flexit proponents earlier this year.
If anyone is interested in me writing this in a shorter and more digestible form, get in touch on Twitter or by email.
My job for the last 3 years has been EU researcher at a London think tank. My work was mainly on the problems of the EU and the different options for leaving the EU – in short, what might be called Eurosceptic. They can all be accessed here for free.
Over the course of my time there I have become convinced that it is best for Britain to remain within the EU, although it certainly has its problems. I have now left Civitas.
Here are some of my reasons for supporting Remain.
- the EU is good for Britain’s economy and working people
- the EU is not a threat to Parliamentary Sovereignty
- the Vote Leave ‘BMW leverage’ argument for a good Brexit deal is flawed
- the Brexit case is wildly optimistic
- the idea that Brexit would usher in a democratic utopia is undermined by leave leaders’ records
- the EU’s migration rules are good for Britain
- Brexit would be bad for security
- TTIP is not a reason for leftwing voters to support Leave
- All Remain arguments necessarily sound like scaremongering, and that’s fine
- Potential budget savings from Brexit are tiny compared to minor economic fluctuations
- It is insincere to fight the referendum on class lines (complete with rebuttal from my ex-boss)
- The free movement of people is an important lifeline for young Britons
- The least damaging model for exit is still damaging
Here is how I think the government could promote Leave-Remain reconciliation, and try to fix the EU’s problems, after a Remain win:
You could also argue this (by a colleague), which is mildly true but barely relevant:
Here is how the EU would have to develop for me to consider pushing for another referendum and wanting to vote to leave.
I have a few more articles planned, but await people to pay me to write them.
I am happy to discuss my views further.