Tuesday, 10 October 2017

May Vacillates Again

Anyone watching Theresa May's performances over the Dispatch Box in the last year cannot help but have noticed that her face is continually distorted into a gargoylesque configuration, as though she were taking part in some kind of macabre gurning competition. Part of the explanation is that it is the physical manifestation of a vitriolic, gut hatred of Jeremy Corbyn, and the class he represents, that is unbecoming of a vicar's daughter; part of the explanation is that it is the consequence of a parliamentary performance style that owes more to amateur dramatics than statesmanship, as she tries to channel the shade of Thatcher; part of the explanation is that it is the necessary result of the fact that she continually talks out of both sides of her mouth at the same time. May's performance in her Commons Statement on Brexit, yesterday, was no different; it was an exercise once more in vacillation, and an attempt to be facing both ways at the same time.

According to the line that May has been putting out over the last few days, “The ball is in the EU court.” May's justification for this clearly absurd statement is that in order to break the logjam that had resulted in essentially no progress being made in the Brexit negotiations, over the last six months, she had issued forth in her “Florence Speech”, so as to set out for everyone what they should now take as the basis for a settlement. Once again it completely misunderstood the nature of Britain's position, as supplicant, in these negotiations, and continued along the delusional line of the past that Britain was in some way holding trump cards that could somehow be played to obtain a better deal outside the EU than it already had inside the organisation. 

Why UK taxpayers money had to be spent to fly out May and the other Tory Ministers to Florence to make this speech, rather than simply make it in London, is something of a mystery. The answer is undoubtedly to try to give the speech more gravitas than it, in fact, contained. In fact, it was perhaps appropriate it being given in the home of Old Nick Macchiavelli himself, given its attempt at political manoeuvre, but it was hardly up to the kind of standard he would have expected from a Prince.

The truth is that, just like with May's conference speech, her Florence Speech was essentially vacuous. Had her conference speech not had the entertaining elements of her being given the P45, her repeated coughing, and the set falling apart, it would have been seen to have contained no policies worth mentioning, and indeed, in the week since, no one has bothered to do so. Her announcements on student fees and to build 5,000 units of social housing per year, are anaemic to say the least. The same is true about what May had to say in her Florence speech. The main element of it was the much trailed adoption of Labour's position of accepting the need for a two year transitional period, during which Britain would remain inside the single market and customs union, whilst further negotiations about the final trading arrangements, and so on were undertaken.

That was clearly too much for the ultra nationalist wing of the Tory Party, and as May's job is to arbitrage between the two wings, so as to prevent them ripping the body of the party in two, as they fly off in opposing directions, she now had to row back on what she had said only the week before, whilst attempting to still claim that “Nothing has changed, nothing has changed”, as she ridiculously tried to do over social care, during the election campaign.

The whole point about the two year transition period is that, during this time, Britain would continue to have the same relation to the EU as it does now. It would remain inside the single market and customs union, which means that all of the conditions that apply to membership of those institutions would necessarily continue to apply. You cannot be a member of the custom union, and negotiate your own trade deals with third parties, for example, and you cannot be in the single market, whilst refusing to accept free movement of labour, capital, goods and services. Nor can you avoid, during that period, being subject to the writ of the European Court of Justice, whose job is to adjudicate over compliance with the rules of those bodies. The only thing that would have changed would have been that Britain would have no MEP's, and no participation in the formation of the rules and regulations of the single market, and customs union. It would be a taster of what life would be like were Britain to negotiate such an arrangement as a long term solution, a solution which would make actually leaving the EU itself manifestly a pointless exercise.

That is why the hard Brexiteers have never wanted any such arrangement, and have been pushing from the start for Britain to just walk away from the EU, overnight with essentially no deal, and no negotiations over future arrangements other than a reversion to WTO rules. Like the MP for the Middle Ages himself, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Brexiteers still live in a fantasy world, in which Britain is still some global colonial superpower, to whom the EU will have to come running to do a deal after Britain has left. They have proceeded on that basis from day one, but the EU, not surprisingly failed to comply with the part the Brexiteers had assigned to them in their delusion, so now the Brexiteeers are forced to play out the delusion further, by threatening to walk away, so as to bring the EU to its senses. But, the Brexiteers can't seem to recognise that it is the EU that is wide awake, and acting rationally, whilst it is Britain's Brexiteers that are hallucinating, and sleepwalking to disaster. Its not the EU that needs to be shocked into waking up, but Britain, as it seems to have been afflicted by a nightmarish sleep paralysis.

Having adopted Labour's position on the two-year transition period, May found herself being attacked by her nationalist right-wing. She had to then row back, but had to do so whilst not alienating her pro-EU wing, by assuring them that “Nothing has changed, nothing has changed.” So, yes, she announced in her Commons Statement, she had committed to a two year “implementation period”, but now it was clear that this had morphed once more into an exercise in having cake and eating it. This two year “implementation period” was now going to be one in which Britain retained all of the benefits of being in the single market and customs union, but had to accept none of the obligations. So, having been asked repeatedly, May argued that during this period Britain would not have to accept free movement from the EU, nor the remit of the ECJ. Its not at all clear that the EU has or ever would accept such terms of a transitional period. There is no reason they would, and all along they have said they would not. This is just another example of May saying this is what we want to be the case, and assuming that that is then what must be the case. Its on those terms that she believes she has put the ball back into the EU's court. Not surprisingly, the EU volleyed it straight back at her.

The fact is that neither at her Lancaster House address, nor in her Florence Speech, nor in her Commons Statement has May taken the negotiations one step further forward. Her speeches have amounted to nothing more than vaguely worded wish lists, with no clearly defined goals, and no concrete proposals for how to achieve them. The situation in Ireland is typical. During the referendum campaign the question of how to deal with the border was repeatedly raised, but the Brexiteers equally repeated that it was not an issue, that the common travel area had existed prior to EU membership and so on. It was light-minded, and missed the point. It no doubt deliberately missed the point, so as to divert attention away from the very real problem that existed, and now is clearly manifest.

May says that she wants a solution whereby there is a frictionless border between the North of Ireland and the Republic. Well, yes, I'd like to win the Euromillions Jackpot, but just wanting something to happen does not mean it will, or could happen. It is Britain that has decided to leave the EU, and it is Britain that must come forward with the solution to the Irish border. That the EU have requested that Britain do that before any other negotiations can take place is not at all unreasonable. But, there are limited solutions for the question of the border, and none of those solutions involve simply wishing the problem away. The problem revolves precisely around the fact that, from the start, May had rejected a Brexit solution based upon Britain remaining in the customs union. But, if Britain is outside the customs union, then there must be a border between Britain and the EU, and in Ireland that means a border between the North and the Republic. That is also the conclusion arrived at in a  report by the Irish Tax authorities.

The same thing is true in relation to Britain settling its bill with the EU. The Tories have presented the matter as though it is one of the UK having to pay to have access to the single market, or to be able to leave the EU. That is not the case at all. It is no different than if Britain had entered a restaurant and bought a meal. Having eaten the meal, it's not unreasonable that the restaurant owner asks for the Bill to be settled before any future meals are served to the customer! Britain, as a member of the EU, took part in decision making on spending community funds. Having done so, it is then liable to pay its contribution to the spending decisions in which it was a participant, and many of those spending decisions are on projects that extend decades into the future. That is on top of all of those spending commitments entered into to cover the pensions of EU civil servants (including British citizens employed as EU civil servants) which again extend for decades into the future. It is quite reasonable to discuss exactly how much Britain's bill for those spending commitments amounts to, but it is not at all reasonable to argue that it is somehow a matter for negotiation as part of a future trade deal.

Britain has a responsibility both to answer the question of the Irish border, and to settle its bill for its past spending commitments, before the EU enters any negotiations over future trade arrangements. It also has a responsibility to deal with the question of the rights of EU citizens in Britain, and British citizens in the EU, which might be thought to be an easy issue to resolve. Yet, even on that, because May has to appease her nationalist wing, she cannot do so, which is why she also had to retract from her commitment for free movement to continue, during the two year transition period. May cannot resolve those issues, because to do so would expose the fraudulent nature on which Brexit itself has been sold to the British people, of the possibility of having cake and eating it. She has to talk out of one side of her mouth to appease one wing of her party that opposes hard Brexit, and so as to try to avoid scaring business that sees time slipping away and the cliff edge getting ever closer, but at the same time she is being pushed by the other wing of her party ever closer to that cliff edge, as they seek an excuse to break off talks and hurl the country into the abyss.

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