Brexit, deal, no deal, and the politics of easy answers

6th December 2020

Today is a Sunday, one of the last Sundays of the year, and we still do not know if there will be a deal in place from 1st January 2021 for the relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union.

One hand, there are three big pointers to a deal being possible: both parties want a deal, it is in the best interests that there is a deal, and both sides are still talking.

And it is still only the first week of December and, even taking the impending public holidays into account, there is still time for a deal to be finalised and even ratified if minds are focused and there is goodwill among all those involved.

But.

On the other hand, no amount of goodwill and focus will lead to a deal if the parties cannot agree on substantial issues.

There appears to be three issues of unresolved contention: fisheries, the ‘level playing field’ (that is, common and enforceable commercial and trade standards), and governance (that is, the ongoing enforceability) of the agreement.

Of these, it is difficult to believe that fisheries is really that significant – it is a relatively small commercial sector, and the parties have mutual interests in one side catching the fish and and selling the fish to the other.

A cynical person may think that the fisheries issue is only still prominent so as to provide domestic cover to the United Kingdom government against domestic political concern about the other two issues, which do go to  post-Brexit sovereignty and control.

Fisheries policy as a red herring.

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The trade agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union was supposed to be so easy.

The then-international trade secretary said in 2017:

“The free trade agreement that we will have to do with the European Union should be one of the easiest in human history.”

His reasoning?

“We are already beginning with zero tariffs, and we are already beginning at the point of maximal regulatory equivalence, as it is called. In other words, our rules and our laws are exactly the same.”

What he missed, of course, is that one main purpose of an agreement would be about what happens after day one: how is equivalence maintained and any divergence managed?

Points so obvious it is painful to realise that an international trade secretary did not realise this.

A Brexit secretary once boasted it would be easy to put in place a free trade area ten times bigger than the European Union.

Leaving aside the fact that such an area would be larger than the world’s economy, and so presumably would include the Clangers and other extraterrestrials, the United Kingdom has actually ended up with a free trade area smaller than the United Kingdom – with a trade barrier down the Irish sea.

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It all seemed so easy, and it has it not turned out to be easy at all.

And this comes to the most basic problem with the United Kingdom’s approach to Brexit.

A complex problem has been treated as if it was a simple problem.

Any difficulty was to be met with chants of ‘Taking Back Control’ and ‘Get Brexit Done’.

The huge political and economic challenges of extracting the United Kingdom from forty-seven years of entangled and entwined law and policy was for the likes of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove no more difficult than writing a punchy 1100-word column against a slightly flexible deadline.

This is what often happens with populism – which (as this blog has said before) can be described as the promotion of easy answers in exchange for electoral support.

And so we have ended up with a month to go, with no idea what will be the agreed substantial and enforceable terms of trade between the European Union and the United Kingdom, and a real possibility that there will be no agreed terms of trade.

Brace, brace.

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28 thoughts on “Brexit, deal, no deal, and the politics of easy answers”

  1. There are two further interesting factors at play here.

    One is the asymmetry of consequences, where the consequences of their decisions are less likely to be felt by the executive, because of their personal wealth and resources. The general population will experience the consequences more severely.

    The other is the time lag effect, where the consequences of the decisions will not be experienced for some time. We have already been ‘out of the EU’ for about a year but with no experience of the consequences. The question for the executive will presumably be whether they can explain away the next lot of consequences past the next election date.

  2. Thanks for presenting such a clear logical argument, as usual. You could argue that the Remainers’ failure was to make this clear before the referendum. Sadly this overlooks the fact that populism doesn’t rely on logic, it feeds off fear and arrogance, so these arguments will always be ignored, even after they are proved right.

    1. Some of the arguments against Brexit were difficult for Remain supporters to grasp, let alone articulate effectively in the face of scepticism.

      The demographic time bomb was arguably one of the most important and least understood of the issues to try to put across to people.

  3. Any deal that happens is going to be the first of many. It’s likely to be a continuous EU/UK process dealing with things as they happen. This is the experience of Switzerland which is outside the EU but has multiple agreements with the EU.

    1. I gather Norway negotiates fishing rights with the EU annually?

      Mind you, given, odds on, the UK fishing industry will be smaller this time next year than it is now, such an arrangement may not prove to be much of a chore for the UK Government.

      1. AFAIK, Norway and the EU negotiate yearly.

        In part, this is underpinned by the Codex Alimentarius an international body for the regulation and safety of all food. It is supported by the FAO and the WHO. It was barely mentioned in the months before the referendum or since. The individual states in the EU are members, as is the EU itself. “Decrees” about food and fish from Brussels are often no more than the EU passing on updated details from the Codex.

    2. My understanding is that the EU regrets the complicated series of bilateral arrangements it has with Switzerland and has no desire to craft anything like that ever again. And anyone recommending Norway as a model should acknowledge the complaints about their “fax democracy”.

      Meanwhile, the UK seems to want to pretend it is on the other side of the Atlantic like Canada, or the other side of the world like Australia, and not adjacent to one EU member state and connected by a 30 mile railway tunnel to another.

      We could have spent the last four and a half years patiently negotiating a new bespoke arrangement with the EU, in relation to trade of goods and services, and holiday homes and workers, and security and aircraft, and a thousand and one other small things, if we had engaged in some sort of consensus building process to decide what new relationship we wanted, and had realistic expectations about the sort of deal the EU might accept. But no, like an undergraduate student with an essay deadline, we spent too long in the bar chatting to our mates, and so now are still working away in the small hours.

      Come January we will see what “taking back control” really means and costs. You don’t get to enjoy the benefits of club membership without paying the fee and obeying the rules. Maintaining the integrity of the EU system is much much more important to its members than their relationship with one ex-member. Does anyone really think they need us more than we need them?

      1. The Swiss electorate, who are the “sovereign” there, have always voted against joining the EU. The Federal executive recognises the advantages of membership, but is constrained by the will of the people. The result is a series of complicated bilateral agreements by which the executive hopes to gain many of the benefits of EU membership, while accepting any drawbacks, but without crossing a “red line”.

  4. It would be a brave person who queried whether you are right to say a deal may be agreed and signed off before 31st December. However, I gather there are influential MEPs who are saying there is already not the time in which to undertake the sort of appraisal of a trade deal they are normally used to carrying out.

    Moreover, we, at any rate, are due to enter our seasonal fortnightly lock down at the end of a very stressful year.

    Either way, the time is long, long past for a deal to be put in place, on the ground, so as to be reasonably glitch free on 1st January 2021.

    We need a deal incorporating an extension of the transition period, let us call it an implementation period to spare anyone blushes, to smooth the end of transition.

    I gather that yesterday on BBC Breakfast, David Davis was speaking of a freeze. Trust the ex member of the Territorial SAS, a Rupert if ever there was one, to use the sort of word liable to provoke a strong, negative reaction in some quarters.

    Imagine if we had approached Y2K in this way? There may be a spot of bother at the end of the month. Fancy a bit of overtime?

    Some aspects of Brexit are impervious to a deal that excludes, for example, the retention of Freedom of Movement. As a consequence, some bracing may become a permanent posture.

  5. David Allen Green has a gift for expressing the problems associated with the Brexit project with clarity and logic. Such a contrast to the level of debate found in the mainstream media these days. Of course, the problem with Brexit is that those who are responsible for the delivery know full well that it won’t live up to the expectations that they gave their supporters. It is now a question of how much will it cost to preserve the glorious isolation of the UK and all that entails versus the prospect of betraying those who believed that we could have everything at no extra cost. This Brexit government may soon find that the will of the people can be very fickle when they are faced with the reality of what they wished for, no matter how passionately they may have wished for it.

  6. One party has been in charge since the referendum decision (despite 2 general elections) on 23/6/16. That party fired the starting gun, prematurely, for the political gain of “having a big conference announcement”. It generated a series of “red lines” which shrank options for the future, again, not in response to public demand but to foster an uneasy truce within the party. Continually, under the “leadership” of May, the can was kicked down the road and difficult decisions (a cynic may say “any” decisions) were deferred. After the coup that replaced May with Johnson, the prevailing delusionary view was that the EU would blink at the last second and so more dithering and time wasting ensued.
    It is just possible that the Conservative Party has twigged to the fact that the EU has its own red lines and it is desperate to have some last minute deal, but just as likely that the charlatan of 10 Downing St has no more wiggle room left and fears an angry mob of his own Brexiteers more than he is concerned for the economic fortune and security of the nation – after all, had Johnson any interest in the prosperity of the UK, he would never have embraced Brexit in the first place.

  7. We have been married for 47 years. We have a joint bank account and run a business together. We have children and grandchildren. We have always got on very well, therefore our divorce should be the easiest ever.

  8. You have summarised the essential problem brilliantly – the most alluring argument of populists is always that complex issues are easy and that the ‘elite’ is trying to complicate matters to dupe the ‘ordinary voter’ in some unspecified way. What frightened me when, briefly, I worked on the issue of Brexit as a civil servant was that it was clear that many ministers had swallowed their own false arguments wholesale and they were either unwilling or unable to accept the complexity of negotiating a trade deal.

  9. Nice piece.

    The fundemental issue though is that it is still not at all clear why we are leaving the EU. We need to ask ourselves:

    Why are we doing it?
    What are we trying to achieve? Where are we going?
    How do we intend to achieve, whatever it is we are intending to achieve?
    When do we arrive at wherever we are going to?
    Who is going to get us to whetever we are going?

    In other words, there is absolutely no strategic direction, or goal, or any strategic thinking.

    This is a recipe for disaster.

    Deal or no deal, without addressing these questions, and getting some kind of consensus, the next 4 /5 years are going to be very turbulent politically, never mind the economics.

    1. Why are we doing Brexit? In a (probably futile) attempt to keep the Conservative Party together. The fate of the economy or the nation are at best secondary order concerns.

      P.S. Note to David the moderator: there are too many ‘it’s in this sentence of the piece:
      “It all seemed so easy, and it has it not turned out to be easy at all.”

  10. The ‘Brits’: “we’re perfectly ready to do a deal but the EU must understand we cannot compromise on sovereignty.”

    Obviously no one has explained – in three word slogans – that the whole purpose of a deal – any deal – is to compromise a bit of our sovereignty in exchange for the other side compromising some of theirs. It’s like a contract to buy a house: I compromise some of my sovereignty (on what I do with my money) in exchange for your compromise on where you choose to live.

    The point of sovereignty is that you can use it to achieve things, not just huddle it around you like a miser trying to keep warm in his coat of money.

  11. So, no tariff-free Blue String Pudding then.

    Thank you for your informed, balanced and sane commentary in a time of madness.

  12. I wouldn’t underestimate the fisheries issue; this particular tail has wagged the dog before now. It is not only a salient issue in France (note the engagement of the French PM), but also in all the other North Sea and Irish Sea riparian states, out of all proportion to its real economic value. And it plays interestingly to Unionist politics, given the relative importance to Scotland (and NI, less so Wales).

  13. “it is in the best interests that there is a deal” – is this correct given that this is a multi-round negotiation?

    Both parties will be at the negotiating table in the new year. The starting point for horse-trading will differ depending on how much the UK secures in a December deal. In the case of a no-deal, won’t the UK have fewer bargaining chips?

    It’s a reverse of the Xmas isolation issue. Isolate now and keep grandparents alive to see them in 2021, 2020 etc. On the deal, shouldn’t the UK lock in as much as possible now to avoid desperate bargaining over the coming decade?

  14. In his youth, Boris Johnson asserted to his siblings that one day he wanted to be “world king”. What is he now king of, apart from chaos and destruction and the potential ruination of Britain? But Brexiters still believe. Many of them are still fighting the Second World War when they call in to TV and radio programmes. The degree of ignorance is astounding. They will *never* admit they were wrong. Their xenophobia trumps everything.

    1. Research in other areas of what can be broadly considered as “social questions” indicates that there are three general groups of people who would see themselves as Leave proponents.

      There are true believers and a smaller section who are professional entrepreneurs, people who make a (good) living from promoting the cause. People in both groups are totally impervious to reason, to the extent that it isn’t even worthwhile attempting to discuss things with them.

      A third group are those who are hesitant or perhaps uncommitted. These people are open to discussion, but this has to be between them and others in whom they have confidence and whom they can trust. It’s clear that, for many people, politicians rate very low on the confidence and trust scales. In the Downing Street briefings, Professor Jonathon Van-Tam is far more trusted than the other “presenters”.

      Rather, such people are best addressed by “community leaders”, people in their own networks. Such trusted leaders include ministers of religion, imams, rabbis etc.

      It’s also very apparent that people who are hesitant have underlying concerns that may be only somewhat related to Brexit. Thus, many who voted Leave were expressing major discontent with British governments over the years, particularly how their areas had been “left behind” and ignored by central government. Therefore, it’s important to discover what the real anxieties are and address them.

      (These concepts are very clearly shown in areas such as conspiracy theories and vaccine hesitancy.)

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