A politicians’ and grifters’ Brexit

A circle consisting of the EU and Union (British) flags with a strip between them as if they have been torn apart.

So, the Tories finally negotiated a deal to take Britain out of the EU single market and customs union a little over a week before the transition period ended (the end of the year) and left Parliament just days to vote on the matter. Keir Starmer whipped Labour MPs to vote in favour while other opposition parties were against. This means that the absolute worst-case scenario of a “no-deal” Brexit on WTO terms, in which all goods crossing the border are subject to a 10% tariff, is averted (meaning that the cost of imported food, including the huge quantities of fruit and vegetables brought in from Europe, will not rise substantially), but very little else. Brexit fanatics had spent the past three years claiming that a WTO Brexit was nothing to fear, erecting banners saying things like “no deal, no problem” next to motorways, but most people were unconvinced, especially as they had been promised that leaving without a deal was impossible because the Tories would get a great deal. They have since taken to claiming that it was always about sovereignty and about “taking back control” and “us making our laws” and never about jobs or prosperity, as if any sensible politician can treat the economy, trade and business as if they were of such little importance.

The European Commission published a chart showing the advantages Britain loses from this deal compared to being a member state: borders without checks, pet passports, visa-free travel longer than 90 days, the right to live and work throughout Europe, the guarantee of no roaming charges for mobile phone users (at present, no mobile carrier intends to bring them back, but they could do in the future), recognition of professional qualifications, the single aviation area, the Erasmus programme. This last, in particular, Boris Johnson had promised to ensure we retained access to; now, his apologists are saying it was only the middle classes that benefited and has taken us out of it. Although tariffs have been removed, customs checks are to be reinstated, which could still delay freight in both directions considerably and made delivery to the UK a more haphazard and frustrating process than it has been since the early 1970s. Anything delivered over a certain value will incur customs charges even though there are no tariffs. Everything will have to be accounted for; a consignment of miscellaneous car parts, for example, will all have to be documented, item by item. This is precisely the bureaucracy that the Tory press railed against for decades.

This is a deal that benefits nobody except politicians and grifters. The politicians will get out of it what they have been seeking all along: power. Politicians have emphasised questions of ‘sovereignty’ and ‘identity’ as a disguise for British politicians shedding limits on their power, and the media support them in this as it allows media campaigns to be more easily responded to. The grifters will be the various brokers and middle-men who will spring up to handle the paperwork and bureaucracy that has hitherto been unnecessary. Young people who for two generations have had the opportunity to study and work in Europe to broaden their horizons, be exposed to other cultures and learn other languages will no longer enjoy this, but this is dismissed as a mere elite concern by the vulgar, envious Brexiteers. People who had built relationships and families across borders will no longer be able to live in both their home countries (something which is already onerous for couples where one spouse is from outside the EU, thanks to British income thresholds which are nothing to do with the EU). Restaurants and food businesses who are not conglomerates will be less able to source food of greater variety because perishables will take longer to cross the border and some of it will spoil. This, too, is dismissed as a concern of the metropolitan elite. Even ordinary travellers face having their cars ransacked at the border; truck drivers have been told they may no longer bring a meat sandwich with them. Life is going to get poorer for everyone, with no guarantee of rebuilt industry and the jobs that would bring.

I don’t blame Labour MPs who voted for the deal, nor those who voted against. Enough voted for it to prevent the absolute worst thing, the UK leaving with no deal, happening that a few could vote against it because it is still a wretched deal. It was the Tories who left it until the last minute to strike a deal so that it could not be adequately debated in Parliament and the government could not be sent back to strike a better deal, not that this parliament (as opposed to the one that called last year’s election) would have done, being as it is dominated by Tory Brexit fanatics. I find Keir Starmer’s declaration that he would not challenge the deal in the forthcoming election to be dismaying; it’s extremely premature, as it’s an obviously unfavourable deal from any practical point of view that could not have been predicted and was not on the agenda when the vote went in favour of leaving the EU in 2016 and its disadvantages will become obvious over the next four years. He must keep his options open rather than capitulating to a reality that might not be reality by the next election.

I do not accept that the 2016 referendum result was a mandate for this deal. Any deal should have been negotiated in timely fashion so that it could have been voted on by the people, with remaining in the EU an option; it is not democratic that even Parliament can only vote on the deal at the last minute with a gun to its head. The minority that voted to remain was a greater share than any winning party has received in a general election since the war (the landslide election results of 1983, 1997 and 2019 involved vote shares of 42.4%, 43.2% and 43.6% respectively). It was a mandate for a compromise. A vote of slightly over 51% for leaving at a time when the discussion was of a Norwegian-style arrangement is not a mandate for depriving both individuals and businesses of the ability to live, work, study and trade throughout the EU. The ‘sovereignty’ argument was a post-facto justification made by the people who found themselves empowered by the result; the chief objection was to the influx of Eastern Europeans after the 2004 accession, a British policy not forced on us at the time by the EU. The UK remained a sovereign state after joining the EEC and after it became the EU; pseudo-sovereignty is distinctive by the use of force when a country attempts to go its own way, as seen in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, something noticeably absent after the 2016 referendum. In many parts of the world, an elected government in a foreign sphere of influence which tries to deviate from a particular economic or political orthodoxy would be removed by a military coup, as seen throughout South America in the 1960s and 1970s; this has not happened here. We retained a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, our own armed forces, and we engage in other international institutions in our own right. The constraints that some people found irritating about the EU (those which are true and not fabrications of the right-wing media) are mostly things Britain had a say in designing; in many of them, Britain had a veto. Europe is a union of democracies and all its policy-makers are elected politicians.

We were not oppressed by being in the EU. To a certain extent, our politicians engaged in a way that benefited business and eschewed things which would have been a tangible benefit to individuals (which is consistent with the recent announcement that British nationals cannot expect Foreign Office assistance when in trouble abroad, even if blameless, which has been obvious for some time), but there is also an element of me-tooism, of privileged people who have never known other than freedom wanting the righteousness that comes with being oppressed; but most of all, there is the frustration of politicians used to untrammelled power not getting their own way all the time; this issue lies at the heart of hostility to the European Convention on Human Rights as well and this is likely to be their next target. Britain had a great deal out of the EU which bent over backwards to accommodate our nationalism. If the grass proves not to be so green as the only country in Western Europe that is outside the European Economic Area, rejoining is likely to involve giving up these concessions, joining the Schengen accord and accepting the Euro as other countries that joined more recently have had to — and that’s if they will have us back at all.

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