Friday, 2 March 2018

Theresa May's Waffle and Fudge

Just as she reached the podium earlier today to give her long-awaited Brexit speech, Theresa May paused to look at her watch and spent the next hour declaring fudge o'clock. While a convoluted word salad arranged to look appealing to the increasingly demented and unrepresentative Brexit hard right and editorial leader writers, the content proved to be just as light weight and, in some instances, contradictory.

Ireland, for example. Before Christmas, May signed the UK up to remaining in some kind of customs union with the EU to avoid a hard border between the north and the republic. Regulatory alignment was one of the phrases bandied about. Since then she and her cabinet of misfits have done everything they can to suggest they didn't mean it, all the while acting as if Brussels can't read English and doesn't keep tabs on the British press. Things got so bad that earlier this week, Boris Johnson (who else?) had written May a private letter intimating that dumping a frictionless border was a price worth paying for Brexit. Small wonder her speech made the claim "I have put upholding the Belfast Agreement at the heart of my approach." Why use a small lie when a whopper will do? She then went on to reiterate the dilemma the December meeting was supposed to put to rest, that having a separate agreement for Northern Ireland violates the UK's integrity. Which is true, and which is why, again, she agreed to regulatory alignment in the first place. There were some hints this would continue, albeit with the UK exercising its sovereignty by reserving the right to diverge. In other words, nothing has changed, nothing has changed, to coin a phrase. And she spent a chunk of her time waffling about it.

The second egregious aspect of her ramble through her negotiating position was the welcome but belated recognition that, yes, there is going to have to be some compromise. It may have taken 18 months and we're just over a year away from handing in EU membership, but reality has at last impinged on the Tory high command and their "have cake and eat it" strategy has fallen apart. While signalling that she wishes Britain to remain party to some EU agencies (with the requisite subs conferred), May is still holding out for some sort of deal with the EU that doesn't disrupt "40 years of economic integration", but simultaneously allows for Britain to strike advantageous arrangements with emerging economies - the blasted unholy grail of the Brexit ultras. She then went on to muddy the waters by talking about how the present single market is only a partial entity that reflects the interests of its members, implying the UK isn't as plugged in as we are led to believe and that in some way it disadvantages the UK. With a government this willfully deluded, you can understand why business is warming to Corbynism and that even Michael Heseltine is contemplating voting Labour.

Stated with enough bombast to crater North London during the referendum campaign was the claim the EU needs us more than we need them, thanks to the trade deficit between the UK and the continent and, well, because Britain. May stated it again with a little more humility by suggesting if we have to make "tough choices", so do the EU. Specifically, what she is getting at here is the character of the deal between the two following Brexit. In principle, she is right. Yes, I know, broken clocks, etc. The best Brexit deal for both parties is a bespoke one. If single market subscription is off the table, then something like Labour's customs union plus is the best starting point. However, May's problem is the EU27 prefer an off-the-shelf solution based on existing arrangements with countries outside the EU, and the weight sits with them - especially as Donald Trump has shown his (small) hand by whacking up tariffs on steel and made blood curdling comments on trading deficits with other countries and his embrace of the concept of trade war. The US hasn't got the UK's back. True, Labour might have been in a similar position were they negotiating Brexit, but then again Labour wouldn't have gone out of its way to antagonise Brussels and made light of agreements already entered into.

In short then, there was very little of substance here. Billed as a grand gesture it restated existing fudges, highlighted some small compromises on peripheral issues, and arranged a set of aspirations that would have been difficult to achieve had the government not pissed the UK's soft power up the wall. This was a long, windy speech that, for all intents and purposes, didn't move things on at all.


Phil said...

As Tara on the Facebook page puts it ...

"Thank you! I watched it and I kept thinking ‘but what is it she wants?’ She keeps saying it’s clear - and then says nothing. Like a spice girl - “I’ll tell you what I want, what I really really want. I wanna, I wanna, I wanna, I wanna, I really really really wanna ziggazig-ah”. And then she leaves the stage with a satisfied smile as though she’d actually told us something."

Blissex said...

Dear blogger, unfortunately your sociological approach here seems way off the mark to me, because the big deal in this story is political, even if the background and context is sociological... As to the politics two important "details":

* On the "frictionless movement" in Ireland, the MOU last year with the EU27 representative only covered the six area explicitly mentioned in the GFA: education, environment, health, tourism, transport. That's quite a limited set of areas of cooperation and not much about trade. But the public bullshittery admittedly made it seem a bigger agreement, as if it were a general CU agreement, not a very limited one.

* Regardless, it is bollocks to denounce customs barriers inside states as something inconceivable: plenty of states have them, and they were extremely common 100 years ago. Customs barriers inside states happen regularly for example for Special Enterprise Zones, Free Ports, etc. The UK government could well declare the whole of northern Ireland a Special Enterprise Zone (Poland has 14 of them). To some extent Eire with their clever tax haven status are already a Special Enterprise Zone in their entirety. Weirder special status things can happen for small areas that have negligible economic weight (from the Kingdom of Man to Andorra, that are only technically independent Ruritanias).

* Finally T May's Mansion House speech contained, like her other speeches, a nugget of substance amidst several layers of thick concealing bullshittery: that the government have given up on a "special" and "creative" deal, and specifically have given up on "passporting", which is a very, very big deal. Once "passporting" is out of the picture, there is no substantive issue to divide the cabinet or the Conservative party, or to hold up negotiations with the EU27, because without "passporting" the only possible exit outcome is hard-exit and the post-exit arrangement can only be a "Canada-minus" trade treaty, because trade in (most) manufactured goods is politically trivial and trade in (most) agricultural goods is politically not feasible.