4 years ago we voted

Four years, eh?  It seems like another world, and who knew where we would be four years thence?

Four years ago, on 23 June 2016, after the slog of campaigning door to door wound up, the polls opened and closed on a knife-edge and it was decided.  Four years ago I dropped my ballot in the box and wondered what I had just done, and four years ago in the evening I stood in the town hall at the count, with a red ‘Vote Leave” badge in place of my accustomed rosette, chatting amiably to my MP, whom I always liked, as a television in the next room announced the results coming in from Sunderland and the great northern towns, watching the colour drain from his cheeks and stifling the exultation in my own. He is gone now too, occasionally popping up on ConHome, but the dustbin of history is cruel.

With my eyes of four years ago it is hard to believe that the United Kingdom is still bound by apron strings to the European Monster and still funding the Commissioners’ wine cabinet.  We knew that there would be a transition of course – even I railed again the ‘cliff-edge’, and I wrote on the very day after the referendum result was announced about issues that still need to be co-ordinated with them over there (and which are still being argued over, amazingly).

The letter withdrawing should have been served at once, as David Cameron said he would (or since Gina Miller’s first legal action prevented it as such the letter should have been sent the moment royal assent was achieved on the Act to authorise it).  The transition period should have been the two years between the letter reaching Brussels and departure, but it was a two-year procrastination.

There were mistakes made before the referendum too, and the first of them was that the Act of Parliament calling it did not say “and if the result is leave, then the Government must do all that is needed actually to leave”. The field was left open for Gina Miller’s legal action, and on that one the Court was probably right, annoyingly, just because a few words were missed from the Act.  Nevertheless, the referendum was on a simple question and all sides were pledged to respect it, so they said.

What we were not to know as we punched the air in 23 June (or punched the ceiling, I understand) was the tenacity of that entrenched establishment that we railed against to obtain the vote. They were not going to give up, and would put every obstacle in the way. 

It seemed so easy:  vote out, get out and sign a trade deal both sides would be desperate to sign (on all the points I outlined at the time). The vote was meant to be a final resolution to a long question, letting us settle into the new normality.

We did not know, we could not guess, that it would dominate every aspect of politics, to the exclusion of all the important things Parliament was meant to be doing, for three and a half long years, destroying two Prime Ministers, two parliaments and many, many political careers.

We did not guess that those sent to negotiate with the European Union would lack the imagination to do things differently, or that some of those entrusted with ensuring an orderly exit would betray that trust and their country’s interests deliberately to obstruct the process in case the referendum result might be reversed.  We did not know that a general election would intervene before time, we could not know that Members newly returned on a pledge to get Brexit done would renege at once, and come within a whisker of revoking the Brexit letter, forcing in any event repeated delays to Exit Day.

We could not imagine that British Members of Parliament, even some Conservatives,  would openly conspire with a foreign power against the interests of Queen and Country.  We hanged Casement for that (and damned right too).

We got there eventually, three and a half years after the vote and a couple of Prime Ministers later. I deafened the neighbours with fireworks on Brexit Night. By that time though the rockets had been waiting in the shed for a long time.

So hear we are, where we should have been years ago. Brexit is off the front pages, the doomsters have been proven utterly wrong, so I need not have hesitated over the ballot box that day: the wrecked economy has another cause. It is a new Boris age, and, when the plague has passed, it will be a very good one. By the fifth anniversary, I hope we will be wondering what all the fuss was about.

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Books

The Casement Award: no entries yet?

Last year’s crowd of entrants led to a tight race for the Casement Award. This year is a disappointment so far, but we are hoping for a last-minute surge.

The organisers can thank Michel Barnier for trying to drum up support a week ago, but so far no one has bitten, at least openly.

The Casement Award was created as a prize for the British statesman, civil servant, journalist or other person of influence who, in the model of Roger Casement, best betrays his own country by conspiring with a hostile foreign power. There have been some very impressive entries in previous years amongst those working tirelessly to promote the interests of Russia, China and Iran, but last year’s bumper crop of traitors was dominated by MPs and influencers working with the European Union to harm the British government’s negotiating position. Many were so keen to get ahead in the Casement Award stakes, they even publicised their own visits to Brussels openly to conspire against Britain. The TIGgers and ChUKas blew their chances by blowing their own credibility. Towards the end it was neck and neck between Keir Starmer and a clutch of rebel Tories, but was clinched by the chutzpah of the Chairman of the Parliamentary Security and Intelligence Committee revealed as an enemy spy: a worthy winner.

This year began slowly with many of Brussels’s friends cast out of the Commons. We were hopeful when Keir Starmer took up the Labour leadership but he has fallen silent. A stealthy approach to the prize maybe, after he was pipped at the post last year?

There was a worthy attempt when many susceptible journalists run with an op from the DGSE trying to get the Brexiteer-in-chief sacked as Boris Johnson’s adviser. However the rules of the Casement Award are strict: it is for deliberate betrayers of their own country, not useful idiots. (And for some “useful” is the wrong word.)

Where are Casement’s successors now? Where is Layla? She’ll say anything. Aye, but even Barnier and Van Leyden wouldn’t bother with the LibDems.

As the season wears on we’ll see who puts their heads above the parapet as the post-Brexit gap widens. This year though may be China’s year. They spend money buying ports, infrastructure and politicians across the globe, so who will sup their noodles to get this year’s prize?

There is still time for some left-field entries to come in, and there is always room for a new name to be putin.

UK-EU talks: the British proposal

We have a text. The British negotiators have published the draft free trade agreement submitted to the European Union. Having read it, I must conclude that the European Commission should be biting our hands to sign the thing while the offer is there.

The draft agreement is wholly different in its approach from the version the European Union proposed (and which was immediately rejected). It starts not from the idea of the European Union system continuing in essence, but from the norms of international trade agreed in the framework of the World Trade Organisation (the creation of which was one of John Major’s successes). It would be an arrangement worthy of Brexit, and it still gives the European Union what it most needs, namely tariff-free trade, fair, open procurement rules and protection of intellectual property.

There are things missing. The British text does not have a reliable provision against state aid; just a brief set of provisions in Article 21. Solid obligations are needed though for the occasions when the French government (in particular) subsidises its home industries. The EU text does have detailed provisions on state aid, though allowing the Commission to wink at it anyway, which is no good from the British perspective. In addition, the text does not have a provision for co-ordinating VAT, and specifically allow cross-border tax reclaims. (See ‘Where the Remainers were right‘). There may be a good reason for this though, which awaits a second stage, and the reasons are why the Commission should hurry to sign.

This is not to say that it is bare document – on the contrary, it is 292 pages long, and it contains detail on areas not covered by the European Commission’s proposal.

One could run through the Political Declaration and tick off points which are covered and those not yet here: it does not have the declaration about human rights commitments or data protection. They are not forgotten. Most of the points in the Political Declaration that go beyond actual trade could be handled in text no longer than that which appears in the Declaration already. (The European Commission’s draft takes such paragraphs, gold-plates them and wraps them in ermine until they betray the tight text agreed with Boris Johnson.) The omitted will be needed, in the original form, but at the next stage.

There could be a good reason for omitting provisions on VAT and state aid, as examples. That reason is found in the way the European Union is constituted. Its institutions have a broad remit of exclusive jurisdiction, which includes trade matters and standards, and in these areas of ‘exclusive competence’, the European Union can sign a treaty alone. However where a matter falls within the joint competence of the Union and of the member states, then any treaty requires the concurrence of each and every member state (and Belgium cannot sign without each of its three regions agreeing). The member states of the European Union are not currently feeling co-operative, not even with each other let alone with Britain. The chances of getting 26 + 3 signatures to a complex document in the time allowed are so low that they can be discounted. Therefore the first stage needs a treaty which is fully within the exclusive competence of the European Union. Therefore the Commission should be keen to get that under their belts.

This is only the first stage then: free trade is the main prize but both sides still want agreement on state aid and VAT, and fishing, amongst other areas. Those trespass into joint competence: to bind the hands of the French government from its tendency to ‘corporate welfare’, the signature of that government is needed, and to direct the tax authorities of the member states likewise. Therefore if a treaty such as that proposed is signed, it is only the first, necessary stage and does not conclude the trade talks.

The second stage intimately affects the interest of the member states, and it is in their interests to conclude additional agreements. If negotiators aim to have a single, vast document on all matters, then any single member state or Belgian region could hold the whole thing up like Horatius on the bridge, in order to force some unprincipled concession, with the pages of the calendar passing inexorably. However, if the main deal were done, then there is less blackmail value, and it will be easier to reach settlement on all other points.

This being the case, all sides should hasten to sign an agreement which is essentially the British text, and then move on to stage 2.

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Books

Reviewing the EU’s proposals

Almost two months ago, the European Union’s negotiators published their proposals as a draft treaty. It was at once rejected by the British negotiators – as well it might, as it was in flagrant breach of the terms agreed in the Political Declaration.

The standard European negotiating strategy is as it always was: if you want a cow, you demand the herd and negotiate down from there. They have for many years been puzzled that the British approach hitherto has been to hand the herd over without demur. Now that is not happening, which must be an even greater puzzlement to them.

The Europeans’ proposals extend over 440 pages: 316 plus appendices. Some of it is standard and as expected, and may be mirrored in the British proposals: these include free trade with no tariffs, protection of intellectual property and so forth, all of which are within the Political Declaration. Others cover areas within the Political Declaration such as state aid, public procurement and control of monopolies but take the wrong approach and are frequently one-sided, giving the European Union a remedy in case the United Kingdom breaches its side but no remedy against the European Union when it contravenes its obligations.

The main problem issue is the field of “Level Playing Field and Sustainability”: sections which render the whole proposal impossible.

The proposal is no more than a proposal, though described as a “draft agreement”. Had it been close to acceptable, it could have been reviewed as close-to-agreement work in progress, but it is not, as Number 10’s team have made clear. However, it is a document of interest in the current negotiations, and it has not been withdrawn, and so it is worth a read and an analysis.

The British proposals when fully published would be worth analysis also.

The proposals are long and involved and so a separate commentary is needed, which we are compiling on this site, and will expand over the following days:

See also:

Books

Beyond Brexit:

On the Brexit campaign and the referendum:

Others:

Trade talks: Summer in the City

We have run out of money, which is to say that businesses big and small, have run out of money, and the government, pledging support, has no money of its own, and is running out of that. However, Europe has run out faster because of the greater panic and harsher measures there (apart from Sweden, which seems to be getting on well).

German businesses will need cash the moment they come out of lockdown, and for many years afterwards. They are not so naïve as to think that the wave of pent-up consumer spending that will be released will fill the ledgers again. There must be another source of cash or there is cataclysm.

In the meantime, the trade talks are continuing with the European Union. The coronavirus may have brought a pause but as I wrote earlier, the calendar has not stopped running out, and the EU’s negotiators know that Boris and his team are not going to extend it that way Theresa May would have done. A great deal of action has taken place by remote conferencing and electronic communications. There will indeed be a British text, delayed from the date is was to have been put down, but there on the table shortly.

Before the plague, Brussels had pledged to cut the City off, to force Britain’s hand in other aspects of negotiation. Behind the bluster there are real lives and livelihoods in danger, and Europe’s commerce has run out of money.

The lockdown recession empties the lungs of business and stops the breath and even the strongest are left scarred. For those which survive, filling the limp body with life again will need hard cash, and it is not in Frankfurt nor anywhere else in Germany; that money can only be supplied through the wide net and innovation which the finance houses of the City of London can provide. (Only New York comes close, which is equally outside the European Union, and six hours behind.)

The City brokers and banks trade in the long term. They are backed by the world’s most trusted courts and laws and speak the world’s primary commercial language. This is why London is the largest financial centre in the world. In a time of unprecedented crisis, the City institutions are more flexible in its ways than regimented German systems permit. All this though has been recited countless times in endless publications, and bears tedious repetition only to emphasise that there is no substitute for London: Paris and Frankfurt cannot ride to the rescue alone.

Wisely, the government included stockbrokers (those involved in “financial market infrastructure”) as “key workers” expected still to be working during the lockdown.

Germany and Europe can be rescued by London. The European negotiators might have sounded tough, but they are now faced with the starvation of families and the wholesale buying up the wrecks of businesses by outsiders. They should be begging for European businesses to have continued and freer access to the City of London.

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Books