The Brexit clusterf**k

Malcolm-Tucker-thi_2396757bUPDATED: read a second installation here, after all your comments.


Summer is over: winter is coming in the world of Brexit. As politicians return from their sojourns in the sun, they open up their emails and briefings to find that things are going about as badly as they could.

I’m writing this at the end of the UACES annual conference in London, where colleagues from across Europe have been debating and discussing the referendum and the next steps. The mood has been sombre, not only because most people were strongly pro-Remain, but because the mess that has been created looks even worse once some more systematic thought has been given. Suffice to say that – when offered the choice over breakfast this morning – colleagues all plumped for this above title over ‘omnishambles’. In essence, however, problematic you think Brexit is, it’s actually going to be worse than that.

Refreshingly – for me at least – discussion here has not been about how to overturn the vote, but about how to make it happen. The anger and frustration that many Remain voters have felt in the past couple of months is still there, but there is a broad feeling that -however contentious – the decision is the decision and has to be worked to. If nothing else, no one I spoke to thinks that a second referendum would have anything other than the same result, and probably with a much bigger majority.

For my own part, a self-enforced break over the past couple of weeks has been useful in stepping back and thinking about what comes next. I’d like to say that it’s my problem if that has left me much more pessimistic about things, but sadly, it’s also your problem too. Certainly, nothing I’ve heard in the past three days has given me any reassurance.

So in that spirit, let’s just run through how much of a mess Brexit is in right now.

The underlying legitimacy of the referendum remains contested. While it’s nice that many more people are coming round to the view that an uncodified constitution is not really any way to underpin a modern state, it doesn’t change the fact that when people have to talk about procedural aspects, they undermine the integrity of the decision.

To be clear, this isn’t so much about the ire of the 48%, but about the lack of clear relationship between the vote and the rest of the political system: parliamentary approval(s), the hierarchy of dominance between the people and parliament and general sense that we’re making it up as we go along (which we are, largely). The various legal challenges now in train are thus inevitable and there’s a non-negligible chance that one or more of them with succeed, causing further uncertainty.

Linked to this, there is no clear process on the UK side. That means we don’t really know how we get to Article 50 notification, how it will manage and oversee Art.50 negotiations or those for the subsequent new relationship or those for new third-state agreements.

The root problem here is the intentional lack of pre-planning by the government, which was terrified over any such plans coming to light through Freedom of Information requests and of looking anything less than confident about the outcome of the vote. Just about the only body that did seem to have a plan was the SNP and that focused almost solely on reviving the independence campaign.

This lack of UK planning is matched by a lack of EU planning too. For all the constant refrain about getting into the Art.50 process, there is no clear process at the moment. The hurried formation of units in the Commission and Council has yet to deliver a process document or template to which to work. Even if someone did get sent down into the archives to dust off the Greenland documents from the mid-1980s, they’d have found almost nothing of use, just as they’d find nothing from the pre-referendum discussion, again because the EU27 largely worked on the basis that they’d not have to deal with this.

The lack of process on both sides is compounded by the lack of positions.

The UK government evidently doesn’t know what it wants to achieve, beyond leaving the EU. Theresa May does speak of making sure that free movement of people is curtailed (rather than stopped), but also of ensuring as much market access as possible. While we have to suppose that the former will be privileged over the latter, this does still not amount to a plan of action.

This in turn drives delay in notification. May knows enough to see that once inside Art.50, the UK gets very little say on things, so it makes complete sense to pursue as much as possible pre-notification. However, it’s exactly for that reason that the EU27 want to get to notification as soon as possible.

While the UK indecision is much discussed, it’s also important to recognise that the EU27 themselves don’t agree on what to do. The Ventotene meeting of Merkel, Hollande and Renzi produced nothing more than some warm words about Altiero Spinelli, while the coming Bratislava summit is unlikely to advance matters. While Germany wants a close relationship, Italy wants to mark a clean break, France is caught up in limiting concessions that can be used by Marine Le Pen in the presidential elections, Ireland fears for its economy and security, Hungary sees opportunities to pursue more ‘eurorealism’ and Poland toys with its increasing isolation. And that’s before we even get to a European Parliament that looks set to be a complete pain in the neck about any Art.50 deal that undermines the EU’s core ideas.

The paucity of positions reflects a paucity of developed options. The summer was going to be when bright young things in foreign ministries or think tanks were going to produce the cunning plans that would set a direction of travel. But nothing has come through yet, anywhere: there is no Schaeuble-Lamers paper, no Cockfield report, no Adonnino report.

Here, I’m less clear why this should be. Perhaps it’s because it’s so big and complex that nothing can be produced in short order, perhaps because everyone thinks it’s someone else’ problem. Part of it might be that – on the British side at least – the government doesn’t want to have its lack of idea made all the more obvious.

Contributing to all this is the lack of institutional capacity. The new Department for Exiting the EU remains in a process of creation, with under half its intended complement of staff and an uncertain relationship with the Foreign Office and the International Trade Department. Moreover, it is clear that many civil servants with EU experience have either chosen to steer well clear of the whole affair, or have been discouraged from signing up because they might have become tainted by contact.

And all of this is before we even get to the specific issues that present no good solutions.

First and foremost, in my mind, is the Northern Irish border. There is a basic and fundamental incompatibility between the UK’s territorial integrity, EU freedom of movement and the Good Friday peace arrangements. Whether you fancy a hard border, soft border, no border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, Northern Ireland and Britain, the British Isles and the EU: all present obvious and (seemingly) intractable problems.

Second, there’s a broader problem of territorial reorganisation, with the resurgence of the Scottish independence debate. While the lack of clear shift in polling in favour of independence will hold back the SNP for now, the party is well-placed to press its advantage, especially if Art.50 goes badly. Again, issues of EU membership, borders and the rest are daunting.

Third, there’s the huge problem of transitional arrangements. Any deal within Art.50 will only provide for immediate terms of exit, but the new relationship will take much longer to negotiate and then implement. Assuming all third-party agreements that the UK is part of within the EU fall, then it not only needs to renegotiate these, but also add in any new deals it might want. Quite aside from capacity issues, none of this is fast, so businesses will be operating in any uncertain legal and economic environment for a long time to come.

Better now you got that off your chest?

So are there any grounds for optimism? Perhaps, but not many.

Most obviously, we haven’t hit the depths that many feared. Economically, this is partly because nothing has actually changed yet in the UK’s status, but there has been more contingency planning among businesses than in the political sphere, so there is some course of adjustment that could be followed. Politically, the ability of the Conservatives to regroup post-referendum (helped by Labour’s floundering) means that early elections look to be off the cards for now.

I’d also point to the (diminishing) stock of goodwill on all sides around Brexit. Possibly because of a general awareness of how bad things are (and can be), people are trying to find solutions and make allowances for each other. That’s clearly not unlimited, especially if notification drifts beyond early 2017, but the old EU habit of muddling through to some compromise dies hard. The huge range of elements involved mean complexity, but also opportunities for package deals, log-rolling and trade-offs; the very stuff of European integration.

Let’s leave it like this: we’re not screwed, yet.


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