Thursday, 1 August 2019

Blaming Varadkar is just a diversion

In the desperate attempts by Brexiteers to personalize the failure to come to an agreement over the UK’s departure from the EU, the Taoiseach is increasingly being demonised by politicians and pro-Brexit media alike.  It is, of course, easier to attack an individual than to get to grips with the underlying problem, but attempting to bully someone into bowing down before the might of the UK is no way to solve the issue.
People seem to have lost sight of the fact that the so-called ‘backstop’ isn’t really a ‘thing’ at all; it’s merely an agreement that, unless and until a way can be found to maintain frictionless trade across a border between two different regulatory regimes, the UK will ensure that its regulations will remain aligned to those of the EU.  The PM argues that the issue should be resolved during the trade negotiations – but that is, effectively, where it was always going to be resolved.  The ‘backstop’ is merely a statement of intent that whatever trade agreement is reached will honour the commitment to maintaining an open border.
So far, so amicable.  The problem, though, is that the Brexiteers have never had the slightest intention of negotiating any agreement which meets that precondition, not because they don’t want to but because there simply is no form of possible agreement which meets both their demands for regulatory divergence and the requirement for a completely open border.  They have no real objection to continued regulatory alignment during all – or at least part – of the period during which trade negotiations take place (although they’ll huff and puff about that) but maintaining it after the end of those negotiations is an absolute no-no for them.  In that sense, their fear that the agreed precondition will bind the UK in perpetuity is entirely justified and their desire to remove the precondition completely reasonable from their perspective.  It’s important to note, though, that the problem doesn’t stem from the mutual (EU and UK) desire for an open border (let alone from Irish intransigence) but from the determination on one side (the UK) to end regulatory alignment between the UK and the EU.  They talk about wanting an open border, but they know (they’re not stupid enough not to) that it is their desire to abolish and revise current regulations which makes some form of border control inevitable. 
For all their talk about wanting ‘free trade’, they know very well that free trade with regulatory divergence will always be less ‘free’ than free trade in a single market, and that their starting point is that, for the first time in human history, they are seeking to negotiate a free trade agreement which is more restrictive than the one which currently operates.  That is not a wholly unreasonable position to take; it’s certainly not unreasonable to believe that having total freedom to make all our own rules and regulations is worth the cost of imposing restrictions on trade and introducing border controls.  (I'd disagree, but I accept that the balance between the two is ultimately a matter of opinion.)  Their problem is that people might not have voted for that, so in order to persuade people to vote for Brexit, they claimed that there was no such trade-off and that the UK could indeed both have its cake and eat it.  And they were believed.  As PM, Johnson is now trying to say that the mess we are in is all the fault of the evil Europeans.  But it really is not – it’s the fault of those who told a lie in an attempt to sway votes never expecting that they would have to deliver, and who now prefer to double down on the lie rather than admit the truth.  The problem for the rest of us is that they might just be believed again.


Anonymous said...

I think most people watching recent news about the tremendous subsidies offered to farmers for Welsh lamb are rapidly changing their views.

We need to get out of this EU nonsense fastest. If lamb needs subsidising in order to sell it we need to produce less lamb!

It really is all so simple, you just need the facts!

John Dixon said...

"It really is all so simple, you just need the facts". Would that the first part was actually in accord with the second part, but in truth it really isn't simple (and oversimplifying it doesn't help), and whilst we need the facts we need the ones which accord with reality rather than the 'facts' which only accord with our own prejudices.

Subsidies for Welsh farming aren't really relevant to the original post, but your underlying point "If lamb needs subsidising in order to sell it" is just plain wrong - although it does neatly underline some of the ideological differences surrounding Brexit. Lamb (like all other farm produce) can be produced and sold without subsidy, no problem. There would, though, be an impact on the price. For the Brexiteers / free marketeers, the 'solution' is simply to buy at the lowest price in global markets, and there's no doubt that such a policy is viable, in the short to medium term at least. However, for those of us who want to reduce food miles and ensure food security through home production, as well as sustaining the communities producing such food, the choice is between higher prices and subsidies. I think there's a valid argument for saying that food prices are kept artificially low through agricultural subsidies, but I doubt that any politician arguing that food prices must be increased to a 'market' level would find him or herself very popular. Both the UK and the EU have chosen the path of subsidy / import controls / food security rather than depending on the global market and being entirely price-driven. Being outside the EU might well make it easier to pursue the alternative path, but it doesn't make it any more desirable.