It’s some time since I’ve posted here and for those of you who’ve joined this blog recently, apologies. Life and events, dear readers. Anyway, here is an update on the exit of the British from the European Union. And before that a short note on my stance.
I let out a huge groan when I heard the result early on 23 June 2016. I felt this result physically. I was devastated. But. I realised I knew very little about the EU. It was an idea and a philosophy, a point of view and a perspective, a feeling of being European that I believed in. Yet, what did I believe? After some thought, I decided not to turn away and pull the duvet over my head, and from then on vowed to learn more. If you look back at earlier pieces in the blog you’ll see that I not only wrote about the EU’s structure and purpose I also endeavoured to understand why people voted the way they did. Was it protest, a dislike of the communal, a genuine idea that we, the Brits, could make our way around the world alone? Or was it all about immigration? Always ask, always question, always seek to understand, that’s my position. I am far more inquisitorial than at the time of the vote. And if there’s one thing I’ve decided is you don’t give such serious, I mean truly, deeply serious, complex decisions to us, the general public, without better information. What an appalling run-up to the referendum it was – on both sides. And my deepest regret is that no-one sang a song for Europe, no-one praised it or led us to look at the good in the EU.
Well, there you are, that’s where I stand. And things are beginning to stir once more. Last week negotiations began again after a short summer break. And a big debate is a happening (September 7th) in Parliament on the great repeal bill, otherwise known as the second reading of the European Union (withdrawal) bill.
Here’s the thing. I have accepted that this exit is going to happen. But I would be happier if the calibre of people taking us out was higher. It is not. High, that is. We have three people in post. In this piece I’ll look at them and the stance they are taking. I will then note Labour’s new position on our exit. And then say a couple of things about two areas that it is clear no-one thought through. Because, of course, you all realise, there was no plan, no idea of how we would leave the EU.
Well, at the time I said that Theresa May was a clever one, because she put the three most of the most mouthy Brexiteers into the top Brexit jobs. We have Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary, Liam Fox as International Trade Secretary and David Davis as Secretary for exiting the EU. And, if it all went, you know, t…s up, she could blame those three.
Even so, sigh. And face palm. Look before I go on, can I say that these three politicians would be typical of many men who reach the top in British politics. (And I do say men) Because i) these types don’t display their intelligence – that’s not done in the UK, and ii) they are so confident in the scheme of things, they have a particular blustery way of talking, which is isn’t going down a storm in Europe. They would also freely admit that they are not the ‘experts’ on EU law. Expert knowledge would be found amongst the civil servants behind them, although the civil service has had its numbers cut over the years and remember David Davis’ department is a new one and had to recruit from scratch. Actually, none of those three politicians are stupid. Boris is highly intelligent. Liam Fox? Look, I’m not libelling myself, just google him. And as for David Davis, who is chief negotiator, he doesn’t come from Boris’ upper crust of society. On the contrary, but he is like so many who reach the top. He is energetic and cunning and able to bluff with the best of them. And that’s the thing – as one commentator put it they’re like overgrown schoolboys who shirk their homework and then talk their way out of detention. Or, as the journo put it, in David Davis, Britain has a schoolboy in charge of the moon landings. Papers come out of his department that are not up to scratch. Junkers, the European commission president, deems them ‘unsatisfactory’. The chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, is concerned. And critics here call them out as unrealistic fuzzy ‘wish lists’.
The crux of the matter, which remains unsolved, is that the EU will not negotiate on any issue whatsoever, and especially trade, until three areas are agreed: the rights of EU citizens living in Britain and the rights of Brits living in the EU; arrangements for the Irish border, and critically, the financial bill Britain will owe the EU on its exit. That won’t change. Those three areas for the EU are the block on any negotiations starting on anything else.
And the Tory response? More papers, more talk, more fudging. But no grasp of the reality of the negotiations, which the EU sees as about process and law. The Europeans want detail. But we are apparently prepared to bluff and say we’ll leave at the end of the two years with no deal, and a hard, hard Brexit of abruptly leaving the single market and access to the customs union with no trade deals in place with the 27 EU countries other than World Trade Organisation rules. Bear in mind that we wouldn’t have any trade deals with any country outside the EU either, as we can’t negotiate with, say the US, until we leave.
An unpicking of a definition here: a hard Brexit means, yes, having control over our borders, (which is apparently what the British population wants, although whether they want fewer EU nurses, doctors and scientists is another matter) but leaving the single market and customs union of the EU. Think about that. At the moment, our lorries can drive anywhere through all the 27 EU borders and vice versa. If we crash out at the end of the two years, what happens? Do borders and controls return to these 27 borders? Well, yes. We have had the occasional very long tail back of lorries trying to get to France via the Channel Tunnel. Expect that to be the norm. What an awfully fine mess. And don’t blame the EU – we have done this to ourselves.
In the meantime, Labour has come out as being in favour of a soft Brexit. Which is actually a good thing, because up to now they’ve fudged and prevaricated with the best of them, with Corbyn up there as exceedingly woolly on where exactly Labour stands as he is no friend of the EU at all. Ok, good. Kier Starmer, Labour’s Shadow Brexit secretary (and btw, why do I feel easier about Kier? Maybe, because he’s not a bluffer type.) So, Kier says Labour wants a time-limited transitional period between our exit and the new relationship we’ll have with the EU, with the same basic terms, as in, we would stay in the customs union and the single market. But for as short a time as possible. This is not perfect and not ideal. But that’s what Labour wants.
Oh well, we can only hope. But Labour is a different beast since the election, and it shows. Because there does seem to be a united front on this – I haven’t read about any sniping from the backbenchers. The new stance, though, will be quite a challenge for those Labour MPs in the midlands and north whose constituents voted to Leave and pronto.
Just a couple of things. This repeal bill, which is to ostensibly repeal all EU law and incorporate it into the UK statute books is a dangerous thing. Why? Because the UK has an intertwined and harmonised legal system with the EU. The media will have it that all EU law is foreign nonsense that binds us up in regulations. But there are standards here that we won’t get when we negotiate our trade deals with China and the US. And think beyond that. You have a debtor in Poland – you can get a British court to secure a judgement and it will be upheld in Poland. Likewise, a parent in England whose other half has fled to Europe can have a maintenance order enforced in Europe. There is so much that we have benefitted from through EU law – that we have contributed to. It’s not done by foreigners, we were there.
And more dangerously, this bill gives ministers the power to adapt and remove laws that are no longer relevant. Be careful, be wary, for what you wish. Good law is there to protect us. Politicians should not have a free hand to do away with what they don’t want.
Finally, food. Who do you think picks our potatoes, strawberries, other fruit, and cuts up the chicken, and packages our vegetables? It’s EU labour. Now while, ideally, we want all our jobs to be done by British people in actuality that doesn’t happen. Were people thinking when they voted to leave the EU that we would go back to the days of yore when people from East London came down to Kent and picked the seasonal hops? Did people think about this at all?
There is a scenario that I have heard (yes, really, and only just recently) where all benefits are cut, or made dependent on work, which would force British workers to take up the work in our food industry. Interesting. But harsh. And, at the moment, when benefits are not directly connected to work, British workers just don’t do that type of work. So. A huge number of workers in our seasonal food industry come from the EU and if that traffic stops – seriously, our shelves will be empty.
Did we think this through? That membership of the EU was not just about vague ideals, it is closely connected to feeding our nation. The negotiations, therefore, need to get real. And as far as I am concerned they are not, they are about unrealistic, un-thought through, high decibel clashes of two different cultures: Tory bluster and EU precision. Get your act together people. It’s not just that you’re looking like amateurs, you’re a dangerous bunch of duffers.
Penny Kocher, 4 September 2017
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