John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas

Category: Theresa May

THERESA MAY’S ELECTION

Theresa May has decided to call an early election, before the practical outworking of her Brexit strategy becomes obvious to voters. She wants to be free to modify her strategy, and ,for that, she needs a bigger parliamentary majority.

She claims otherwise. Instead she says she is calling the election because Opposition parties oppose her Brexit strategy. They don’t oppose it, actually. They have cooperated with it, to a point that makes little of parliamentary sovereignty.

The only opposition party that opposes her strategy outright are the Scottish Nationalists, who take that position because that is the way Scotland voted in the Referendum. In any event, the Scottish Nationalist Party could not bring Mrs May’s government down on Brexit, unless Labour, the Liberal Democrats and, most importantly, a significant number of Mrs May’s own Conservative MPs, voted with them, which is not at all likely to happen.

Rather more bizarrely, Mrs May justifies her call for an immediate General Election on the ground that the Labour Party has threatened to vote against the final agreement she may come back with, in two years time. What does she expect? That the main opposition party would give her a blank cheque on the terms of Brexit?!

Usually negotiators actually find it useful to be able to say, when looking for a concession, that if they do not get it, the overall deal might be opposed in Parliament .  If she is to be believed, Mrs May apparently wants to give up that negotiating chip.

Mrs May ostensibly defend the sovereignty of the UK Parliament. But now she is calling an election because the opposition will not promise not to exercise their sovereign parliamentary rights.

My own sense is that none of the reasons she has advanced are the real ones for which she has sought an early election.

She is seeking an election to increase her overall majority, so she will no longer be dependent on a hard core group of around 60 Euro hostile Conservative MPs, who hold disproportionate power at the moment because the Conservative overall majority is so small.

For these MPs hostility to the European Union has become a religion, a religion which brooks no argument, and a religion for which any economic sacrifice can be justified, even the sacrifice of the livelihoods of their own constituents. Mrs May does not want to find her day to day negotiations with the rest of the EU subject to the whim of these people, by whom the slightest compromise  with the EU 27will be portrayed as a betrayal.

It is important to remember that Mrs May, like the rest of her Party, have never taken much interest in how the EU works, in its procedures and rules, and in the compromises that underlie its very existence. She has this in common with many politicians in bigger European countries, who treat the EU as a sideshow to national politics.

So, even though her Party sponsored the idea of holding a Referendum on leaving the EU, she did not give much thought to what leaving the EU might actually mean, until the last few months, when it suddenly became something real, something that was going to happen. In a sense, she and her party, are now finding out a lot about the EU for the first time, just as they are leaving it!

Her first reaction to the Referendum was to get her Party behind her as their new Leader. So she told the Conservative Party Conference last year that she would go beyond the mere terms of the Referendum.

She would not just leave the EU.  She would refuse to join the European Economic Area (unlike non EU member Norway), and also refuse to join the EU Customs Union ( unlike non EU member Turkey).  This hard line bought the temporary quiescence of the Euro hostile MPs, up to and including on the  terms for triggering of Article 50.

But now come the actual negotiations.

This is where Mrs May’s rhetoric at the Conservative Party Conference, meets the reality of a rules based international trading system. In a rules based international trading system, unpleasant compromises are essential if  you are to persuade others are to open up their markets to your exporters,  to your bankers,  to your planes,  and to your people.

In a rules based international  trading system, you cannot, unilaterally, make, interpret and enforce the agreed rules, in a way that suits only you. There has to be a common system, which involves some concession of sovereignty.

You often have to accept an external enforcer, like the European Commission or an International Court.

And you often have to accept an external body interpreting the meaning of the rules, someone like the European Court of Justice, or a Disputes Panel of the WTO.

But this is unacceptable to those who have made national sovereignty into a religion. It is unacceptable to some of Mrs May’s Euro hostile MPs, and also, incidentally, unacceptable to some of the supporters of Donald Trump.

I have been reading publications of Conservative supporting think tanks, like the Bruges Group and “Leave means Leave”, and they are discovering now, how costly it will be for the UK to leave the EU Customs Union.

The UK will have to introduce Customs controls on the goods bought and sold between the UK and the EU. This will involve checking where the goods came from, if they are properly labelled, if they are safe, and if the tariffs due have been paid. The delays will be horrendous.

Customs clearance alone will add 8% to the cost of goods arriving by sea from Ireland or the rest of the EU.

At the moment  90million customs declarations have to be checked in the UK for goods arriving from outside the EU. Once the UK itself leaves the EU Customs Union, UK customs officials will have to check 390 million documents!

By leaving the EU Customs Union,  the UK will not only exclude itself from duty free access to the EU market, which represent over 50% of UK trade, but it will also lose the benefit of Trade agreement the EU has negotiated with 60 other countries, which account for a further  17% of UK exports.

For example, since the EU negotiated a trade deal with Korea ten years ago, UK exports to that country increased by 110%. Leaving the EU means giving that up, temporarily, and, perhaps, permanently.

Mrs May is also beginning to discover that her hard line on immigration will have costs. 20% of employees on UK farms, and 29% of employees in UK food processing plants are EU nationals, who will lose their right to live and work in the UK.   When the UK tries to negotiate trade deals with countries outside the EU, like India, it will find that it will face demands for more Indian migration to the UK.

UK Airports will find themselves losing business when the UK has to leave the EU Open Skies Agreement with the United States. More US transit traffic will be routed through Dublin. The UK will also have to try to join the European Common Aviation Agreement as a separate member, if UK owned airlines are to have the right to fly passengers between EU airports. Rivals will not make it easy for them.

UK farmers and food producers will find themselves facing tariffs of 35% on dairy exports, 25% on confectionary, and 15% on cereals. UK lamb production will be hard hit.

If Mrs May wants to be able to make deals to avoid some of these bad outcomes, she will need the sort of flexibility, that her Euro hostile backbenchers would not allow her.

That is why I think she is calling a General Election now.

The strategy may backfire.

If during the election, she is forced into explicitly ruling out various possible compromises with the EU, she will end up with LESS flexibility that she has now. .

A lot will depend now on what the Conservative Party manifesto says about how the practical problems of Brexit will be tackled. Will it deal with these issues specifically at all?  Will Theresa May be able to get through to 8 June relying on reassuring generalities about problems like customs delays, bureaucracy, higher air fares, the end of farmer income supports, migration policy after Brexit, and the loss of access to markets for British exporters?

Given that Mrs May is avoiding taking part in debates she may be able to avoid these questions, but six weeks is a long time in politics!

WHAT IS THE ALTERNATIVE TO A HARD BREXIT?

I believe  conditions can be created in which the UK voters could decide not to leave the EU at all.  Ireland should work to create those conditions. The terms for Brexit set out by Mrs May will  do incalculable damage to this island, politically, emotionally and economically.  We cannot simply wait for this to happen. While seeking to mitigate the effects of Mrs May chosen hard Brexit, we must  also do everything we can to ensure that there is no Brexit.

Apart from a few open questions, Theresa May has said what she wants. She wants out of the single market, out of the customs union, and “control” over immigration

The open questions she has avoided so far are about the financial terms of the divorce, the status of EU citizens living in the UK and vice versa, and two aspects of a future trade agreement (if there ever is one), namely arbitrating disputes, and  third country imports getting into the EU via the UK.

It is unlikely that the Article 50 letter, she will send to Donald Tusk next month,will us  tell much more about the UK negotiating position than the Lancaster House speech did. So it is time now to start thinking about how the EU will respond to Mrs May’s letter.

On the present schedule, the European Council would meet in April to agree the orientation it would give to the EU negotiators for the discussions with the UK that would start in June. These orientations would be agreed by consensus, so every EU head of government would have to be satisfied.  For Ireland, this April European Council meeting is potentially the most important European meeting a Taoiseach will ever attend.

In working out the orientation to be given to the negotiators, the crucial thing is for the European Council  to work out what would be it’s ” best alternative to a negotiated agreement” (BATNA). It is important to have an alternative ready because there is every possibility that no agreement will be reached within the two year time frame for negotiation, and ratification, of a withdrawal agreement.

Mrs May has  said that , for her , no deal at all  preferable  to a bad deal . Her BATNA, so to speak, is no deal at all.

“No deal” would mean the UK simply crashing out of the EU overnight, sometime before the end of March 2019.  This “no deal” scenario would be an overnight halt to flights, to trade and to commerce. There would be immediate, massive currency instability.

From the point of view of pure negotiating tactics, maybe it not surprising that Mrs May would threaten “no deal”.   But to do so, in the absence of a well crafted fall back position, is something  the UK cannot really afford.  It vindicates Tony Blair’s description of the UK government as “not driving the (Brexit) bus”, but rather “being driven” by partisan and ideological forces it has not tried to control .   In the absence of a real alternative to a hard Brexit, it  is on auto pilot heading towards a cliff.

The EU country that would be worst affected by the UK crashing out of the EU, with no deal  is, of course, be Ireland . So Ireland must use all its imagination and ingenuity to see if a creative way out for the UK and the EU can be found.

SHOULD THE EU OFFER UK VOTERS ANOTHER OPTION?

If the UK government is unable or unwilling, because of domestic politics, to work out a responsible “best available alternative to a negotiated agreement”(BATNA), then the EU side should do so for it.  It should adopt it alongside its line by line response the UK’s negotiating demands

Having a BATNA, would also strengthen the EU’s negotiating position. It would provide something with which an emerging deal could be compared. It would also provide a basis on which the UK could reconsider its decision of 23 June 2016, if it wants to do that.

As Tony Blair said, UK voters have a” right to change their minds”. After all politicians are allowed to change their minds, so why not voters?   If  UK voters, in a referendum,  sent their government on a mission towards Brexit, it would be reasonable that the same voters, rather than Parliament, tshould adjudicate on what will have been achieved (or not) by their delegates.

If UK voters ever do change their minds about Brexit, it will happen slowly and incrementally. Parts of the Brexit scenario, obscured during the Referendum, will become clearer during the negotiation. The unavoidable interconnections between EU freedoms, and EU rules, will emerge.   For this to happen, it will be in the EU side’s interest to ensure that there is maximum public understanding of the unfolding negotiation. Transparency will work in the EU’s interest.  A running commentary is exactly what is needed in the interest of public education!  

If the alternative to EU rules, is no rules at all, citizens, in both the EU countries and the UK, may come see EU membership in a different light. They may, for the first time in many cases, see the EU as something that simplifies their lives, rather than the reverse.

In my view, the “best available alternative to a negotiated agreement”, BATNA, that the EU side should adopt is an offer of continuing UK membership of the EU  broadly on the basis that the UK  was a member in 2015,  before David Cameron’s ill fated “renegotiation”.  

The 2015 terms were generous to the UK. They allowed it to opt out of the euro, of Schengen, of Justice and Policing cooperation, of the Stability and Growth Pact, and of  the justiciability in the UK of the European Convention. Furthermore, the UK itself had also decided, without Brexit, that it would have a referendum of any new EU powers. In that sense the UK was already having its cake, while eating it, before it ever decided on Brexit. These 2015 terms should be left on the table by the EU side, but without the unjustifiable UK budget rebate.

Of course, at this stage, the UK would reject such an offer out of hand.  But, as the inevitable consequences of  Brexit become clearer, UK public opinion might begin to see merit in it, particularly when it is compared with the costs of  simply crashing out of the EU, overnight,  with no deal at all, which is Mrs May’s fall back  negotiating scenario.

The resistance to keeping such an offer on the table is more likely to come from some existing EU member states. Some members will point to the UK’s insatiable demands, when it was a member , for opt outs, rebates, and exceptions.  Arlene Foster’s analogy about feeding crocodiles may come to their minds. They will recall General de Gaulle’s original veto of UK membership, and his foresight that the UK would never settle in as a member. They might also argue that offering the UK a way back, after it has triggered Article 50, might encourage others to try it on too.  

 But if they sit back and think about it, they will, I believe, conclude that a UK that inside the EU, is better for the EU, than a UK that outside. This will be so even if a trade deal is eventually concluded with the UK. Keeping the offer of resumed UK membership on the table would be good politics, and good economics for the EU.

The terms of the Lisbon Treaty do create some difficulty for this approach.

Article 50 (3) says a country that has sought to leave the EU under that article will be automatically excluded from the EU two years after it has triggered Article 50 unless the EU side “unanimously decides to extend the period”.

Article  50 (5) says that, if a state, that has withdrawn for the EU, asks to rejoin, it has to do under article 49, where the application would have to be ratified by all existing members.

Others may argue that the UK cannot withdraw its Article 50 letter once it has sent it.  This is a matter for the European Court of Justice to decide, but article 6.8 of the Vienna Convention on treaties explicitly allows revocation of a notice of intention to withdraw from a treaty.

These problems are real, but not insurmountable. A political declaration by the EU heads of Government in April  in favour of facilitating an eventual  UK resumption of EU membership, on its 2015 terms minus the budget rebate , would create a realistic basis for comparison in the debate  about Brexit that, in a sense  is only  now starting in the UK.  

 

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