Brit living in Belgium and earning an income from building interfaces. Interestes include science, science fiction, technology, and European news and politics
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OGL 1.0a & Creative Commons

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Over the past few weeks you, the community, have made your voices heard. And we’ve listened. OGL 1.0a will remain untouched AND the entire SRD 5.1 is now available under a Creative Commons license.

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3 days ago
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Untying Brexit's toxic knots

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This week David Lammy, the Labour Shadow Foreign Secretary, gave a major and important speech at Chatham House. It wasn’t by any means all about Brexit, but, even where it was not, it could be read as the outlines of a serious post-Brexit foreign policy. That is something which, along with many others, I’ve been arguing has been needed for quite some time.

Some of the direct references to Brexit included the need for pragmatism rather than “the ideological purity of the ERG” and the need to find “a new, settled place in Europe”, with practical, though still rather vague, steps being in the improvement of trading relationship and a new security pact with the EU. It also recognized the damage the Brexit process has done to Britain’s reputation especially for respecting the rule of law, making implicit and sometimes explicit reference to what has happened over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Like any such speech, there was a lot of aspirational rhetoric and, for sure, the proposals for closer ties with the EU will be far too limited for many erstwhile remainers. But, without claiming more for it than was there, it would be quite absurd to suggest that there is no difference between Tories and Labour on post-Brexit policy.

In particular, the speech contained, if nothing else, a clear commitment to re-normalise UK-EU relations, and also a recognition that these relations are about more than being trading partners. That matters, both as a counter to the quite unwarranted antagonism that Brexit Britain has shown the EU and to the too often transactional terms in which, even when a member, the UK approached the EU.

The significance of Lammy’s speech

However, I think its larger significance was in articulating, under the general theme of ‘Reconnecting Britain’, two core principles. One is the necessity and desirability of the interdependence of nations, and the other the inextricable linkage of, and therefore need for coherence between, foreign and domestic policy and politics.

Whilst these are both quite abstract, high-level notions, they do go the heart of the collateral or contingent damage that Brexit has done. What I mean by that is that whilst the central damage of Brexit is Brexit itself, in the literal sense of leaving the EU, and can’t be significantly fixed without reversing Brexit, or at least hard Brexit, there are additional damages which came from the way Brexit was sold and enacted. Not only can these potentially be undone even without reversing (hard) Brexit but doing so is likely to be a necessary step if (hard) Brexit is ever to be reversed.

Those additional damages relate most obviously to the Brexiter incomprehension and, worse, outright denial of the complex realities of international interdependence. But they are also, albeit in quite convoluted ways, to do with the incoherent relationship between domestic and foreign politics that Brexit initiated. And, in the final and most toxic twist, the worst damage has been to treat domestic attempts to recognize the reality of international interdependence as anti-democratic and treacherous.

In this post I’ll try to tease out the different strands of this, and show how they relate to the whole Brexit process including some of the most recent developments, in order to show why I think Lammy’s speech is an important and positive step.

The parochialism of Brexit

Many Brexiters react with outrage if it is suggested that their project is one of inward-looking ‘little Englandism’. On the contrary, they will insist, it is about recognizing horizons way beyond Europe, no longer being ‘shackled to the corpse’ of the EU, re-establishing Britain as a ‘sovereign equal’ amongst nations, ‘re-gaining our seat’ at the WTO, and reviving ‘Global Britain’. Their preferred self-description as ‘Brexiteers’, with its echoes of buccaneering exploration, is a testament to this supposedly outward-looking stance. Yet one of the most remarkable features of Brexit is how myopic, parochial, and domestically focussed it has been, and continues to be. That’s partly characterised by ignoring the outside world but even more by assuming, and even insisting, that the outside world conforms to the falsities and fantasies of Brexit.   

Thus throughout the Article 50 process far more time and energy were expended on internal negotiations than on those with the EU, and these internal negotiations weren’t even amongst the huge variety of interested parties within the UK, but only the factions of the Tory Party. In particular, they were primarily about what the ERG wing of the party would accept. At the same time, whenever the EU made clear that, as was always obvious to anyone who knew anything about it, the Brexiters’ demands were unrealistic, this was denounced as ‘punishment’ for Brexit, as if ideas fermented within the Brexiter bubble about what the EU ‘ought’ to do (for example in the supposed interests of ‘German car makers’) had some kind of validity outside that bubble.

I mentioned in my last post the new book about the Brexit negotiations, written by Stefaan de Rynck, one of Michel Barnier’s senior aides. I haven’t read the book yet, but its pre-released preface, by Peter Foster – now Public Policy Editor of the Financial Times but the Telegraph’s Europe Editor during the negotiations, and one of the finest journalists covering Brexit  – is revealing in itself. It notes the British government’s failure “to level with the electorate on the realities of life” outside the EU, and indicates how, associated with that, there was a pervasive lack of realism on the part of the government itself shown, for example, by the presentation of absurd and unworkable proposals to the EU negotiating team. It was very much a break with the previous, pragmatic and often effective way that the UK foreign policy machine had operated. But “in the grip of Brexit fever, all that savvy and know-how [of British statecraft] somehow went out of the window”, Foster writes.

The ’somehow’ is fairly easily explained. Politicians who believed in Brexit, or believed they had to act as if they did, had persuaded themselves of a series of fantasies, and dragooned civil servants into acting as if they could be made realities. Those civil servants who would not embrace the fantasies were side-lined or, effectively, forced out. The resignation, early on in the Brexit process, of Sir Ivan Rogers was both a key example and, as I suggested at the time, a harbinger of what was to come.

Those fantasies were multiple, but the principal ones were that it was possible to replicate or closely replicate the trading benefits of single market and customs union membership without being members of either, and that hard Brexit could be enacted without creating a border on one side or the other of Northern Ireland. From those were spawned multiple sub-fantasies about ‘technological solutions’ for the Irish border, the possibilities of GATT Article XXIV and numerous others.

Most damaging of all, having been sold to the leave-voting electorate, these fantasies became enshrined as the ‘will of the people’, as if, even if impossible in reality, anything ‘the people’ voted for must be turned into reality and, if it were not, democracy would have been betrayed. We are still living with the consequences of this. For our entire politics is still hamstrung by the implacable theology of a relatively small number of Brexit fanatics in politics and the media, and the diminishing but still very large section of the population that believes their fantasies and lies.

Thus, even now, entirely unsurprisingly, the ERG are sharpening their knives to attack the mooted “compromise” (£) which Sunak may do over the Northern Ireland Protocol as a ‘betrayal of Brexit’, with Boris Johnson lurking opportunistically in the background, ready to condemn it in pursuit of his own insatiable self-interest. At the same time, David Frost chunters malevolently (£) from the side-lines about ‘no deal being better than a bad deal’ in the Protocol negotiations. Apparently he is unaware that if no deal is done there will still be a deal in place – which is surprising, since it is the one he negotiated.

An indifferent world

Meanwhile, the outside world, far from being impressed, oscillates between being indifferent, bewildered and bemused, not just by Brexit itself but the political chaos and instability it has unleashed in Britain. Far from blazing a trail for ‘freedom’, support for leaving the EU amongst other member states has dropped significantly since, and surely as a result of, the UK’s decision to do so.

But the UK is not just alone in wanting to leave the EU, it is isolated as a result of doing so. As a British business leader at Davos last week is reported as saying (£) “there was a real sense of a new reality dawning. We are not invited to the top table”. More generally, as former Foreign Secretary David Miliband put it in his own Chatham House speech last December, “our global influence and capability, not just reputation, has been seriously undermined by political chaos and economic weakness since 2016”.

Many leave voters will simply be unaware of this, and are gulled by endless paeans to the ‘world-leading’ status of Brexit Britain. But leading Brexiters, who are not so unaware, dismiss it as the chatter of the ‘global Establishment’ and, in so doing, reveal the myopia beneath their ‘Global Britain’ sloganizing since, if it means anything, and actually even if it doesn’t, Global Britain can’t avoid engaging with the ‘global Establishment’ in some way.

Saying this isn’t to imply uncritical support for economic globalization and its institutions, which are in any case under multiple strains. It’s to point to the strategic inadequacy of ignoring economic regionalization and the complex geo-politics that go with it, something recognized in Lammy’s speech, and the danger of viewing those developments through the parochial lens of Brexit populism, as if they were invented by ‘global elites’ abroad and ‘the metropolitan elite’ at home to thwart the simple yeoman honesty of ‘the people’. It’s an inadequacy illustrated just this week by David Frost’s latest foray into political philosophy (£) where he propounds an idea of “nationhood” that, never mind being outdated, has never existed.

A cause and consequence of this parochialism is the way that the endless proliferation of pro-Brexit think tanks and lobby groups invariably involve the same couple of dozen politicians, academics and commentators, a cult-like hall of echo chambers that is either oblivious to, or dismissive of, external realities. They have certainly wielded great influence, domestically, but, again, it is dangerous and ultimately doomed, because the world beyond is not just indifferent to Brexiter fantasies but, when at risk of being affected by them, bites back.

The realities of sovereignty

That was most starkly illustrated by the fiasco of the Brexit ‘mini-budget’, with Brexiters like Patrick Minford simply unable to understand why traders in international financial markets didn’t endorse the ‘new reality’ of Brexit economics, a reality defined by the crackpot theories Minford and his small group of maverick economists have cooked up. A very small but hugely telling illustration of the thinking, at once naïve and grandiose, underpinning this Brexit hubris came from Telegraph columnist and Brexiter Tim Stanley. Bemoaning the power of ‘the markets’ to make or break government policy he plaintively tweeted that this ran counter to what Brexit was all about, namely “Sovereignty. Democracy. Whatever the people want they get”.

This inability to understand that ‘sovereignty’ doesn’t bestow untrammelled freedom is creating multiple problems for Brexit Britain. It is one thing to talk about sovereignty in this naïve way for domestic political purposes, but quite another to operationalise it internationally. For example, as Gerhard Schnyder astutely observes in his latest Brexit Impact Tracker blog, “while the US and EU may not care how much damage the Brits decide to inflict on themselves, the situation is different regarding NI [Northern Ireland]. NI is thus at least partially protected from the full blow of Westminster madness”.

That is a reminder that, as happened so often during the original Brexit negotiations, the delusions of the ERG and their allies, whilst shaping so much of domestic politics, were never able to trump the realities of Brexit. Hence their enduring fantasy that there is no need for any form of Irish border couldn’t, and will never, prevail over the fact that it was the inevitable consequence of hard Brexit. Hence, too, that for all their bombast of ‘holding all the cards’ and for all their fantasies about a trade deal that would effectively replicate single market membership, the reality in the end was the thin ‘zero tariffs’ trade deal.

That arose partly because removing non-tariff barriers would entail the kinds of regulatory interdependence that was incompatible with Brexiters’ notion of national sovereignty, partly because many of them, such as David Frost, simply denied the significance of non-tariff barriers, especially for services trade where they are the only barriers, and partly because they also don’t understand international supply chains. Taken together, this created the delusion that trade occurs in the form of finished goods moving once between countries, inhibited only by tariffs, or at least acting as if that were the case.

Beneath all that lay the negotiating reality that the EU was utterly indifferent to Brexiters’ beliefs about what it should or would do. The world didn’t work the way they believed it to do, and no amount of belief or bluster could change that. So, far from the great deal which Brexiters promised was there for the taking, and which Johnson pretended to have delivered, what was created was the bare bones deal we actually have.

In a somewhat similar way, Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch is currently playing to the domestic Brexiter gallery by insisting that there can be no significant liberalisation of immigration visas as part of a UK-India trade deal, falsely linking this with delivering Brexit by equating any liberalisation that might happen with freedom of movement. But the reality is that either she will backtrack on this or there will most likely be no trade deal, or a much more limited one. Either way, it is a further illustration of Brexiter myopia that trade policy, supposedly emblematic of Global Britain’s new Brexit freedoms, should be subordinated to the domestic politics of anti-immigration sentiment (it also, of course, illustrates the pervasive tensions of globalism and localism in the entire Brexit prospectus). Those same tensions are in evidence in the UK’s plan to join CPTPP.

It may seem as if, and as she claims it to be, Badenoch’s approach to trade deals marks a departure from that of doing quick deals on any terms, as happened with the Australia and New Zealand Free Trade Agreements that Liz Truss negotiated when Trade Secretary. But it is actually a variant of the same thing. Both are ways of using international trade policy not for international trade but for the domestic purpose of showing that Brexit is delivering ‘what the people voted for’ and, in the process, ignoring what has to be conceded, whether in terms of market access, product standards or immigration liberalisation, to obtain them.

In other words, they both maintain the Brexiter fantasy of sovereign independence by ignoring the realities of the limits and constraints to it. But the world doesn’t bend to Brexit, and can’t be monstered, as British politics has been, by the battering ram of ‘will of the people’ rhetoric. Hence, in trade policy as more generally, Brexit Britain exhibits the disconnect between domestic and international policy that Lammy identifies as needing rectification.

When truth becomes treachery

The last six years have been littered with examples of the same basic issue, but its ongoing salience can be illustrated by two news stories this week, both from Bloomberg. One discusses the recent collapse of Britishvolt, pointing to the way it illustrates the lack of realism of the Brexit “dream of independence in an interdependent world”. The other concerns the way that the UK is trapped between the two economic blocs of the EU and the US in their growing trade dispute over environmental subsidies. An outsider to both, all the British government can do is make representations that are unlikely to be heeded. Alone, and as in its Brexit negotiations with the EU, Britain is just too small to have much voice in what happens, for all that it may be deeply affected.

Again what is so dangerous for Britain is the internally-focused, cult-like quality that Brexiters have brought from their campaign to leave the EU and have now installed in government and political discourse. It’s not just that this has enfeebled Britain. It’s also that, reading the previous paragraph, they would undoubtedly sneer that these are just stories from Bloomberg, which ‘has always been part of the remain establishment’ (just as they would say of almost every media outlet save the Telegraph and GB News). No doubt, too, they would depict mentioning such stories as ‘talking the country down’. In other words, not only does Brexit do harm to Britain, it also renders discussion of that harm impossible. So whatever problems Brexit creates can’t be treated as problems to be solved, because even to identify them as problems is illegitimate.

In a similar way, the CBI, which this week pleaded with the government not to proceed with the “legislative chaos” of the widely criticised Retained EU Law Bill, is routinely dismissed by Brexiters as the remainer voice of the ‘big business elite’ (one peculiar byway of the Brexiter mindset is the ingrained fantasy that Brexit favours small businesses – in fact, they have been hardest hit by it). Iain Duncan Smith even linked the CBI to appeasement of the Nazis in the 1930s. The same kind of treatment is meted out to businesses, thinks tanks, academics, civil servants or anyone else who raises concerns about the impact of Brexit, let alone about the wisdom of the entire project.

So this is the nasty little knot that Brexiters have created. It consists of the linkage of a denial of the reality of international interdependencies in foreign policy with a narrative of treachery and betrayal about domestic voices who insist on this reality. The consequence of that linkage is not just to make domestic politics toxic, and international relations both fractious and ineffective, but to make any viable domestic economic or industrial strategy impossible. For no such strategy can be built on lies and fantasies about national independence, or about how trade, regulation, science, agriculture, fishing, climate change mitigation, migration, education etc. actually work in reality.

A first step in the right direction

It’s because Lammy’s speech can be read as an attempt – perhaps the first high-profile attempt from an active politician there has been since Brexit – to untie that knot that I think it is an important speech, and is a cause for a degree of optimism. It is also consistent with the gradually emerging public view that Brexit has been a mistake and consequent growing support for closer relationships with the EU. Of course it still operates within the political constraints, both genuine and self-imposed, on Labour’s capacity to critique, let alone undo, Brexit. But, at the very least, it shows that within the Labour Party there is some serious thinking going on about post-Brexit Britain.

It's a Gordian knot that has been tied so tightly and comprehensively around the throat of the body politic that it can’t be slashed at a stroke. As I’m probably becoming quite boring in repeatedly saying, undoing the damage of Brexit is going to be a very long haul, a marathon not a sprint. But, by the same token, I don’t suppose many would accuse me of being prone to undue optimism. And I do think that the Lammy speech is a hopeful development. If it is still relatively timid in its critique of Brexit, that only shows how comprehensively Brexit has poisoned political discourse, making even timidity difficult, at least for those who aspire to govern. It’s certainly not the last step in the right direction but it may well be the first and, as the saying goes, the longest journey starts with a single step.

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4 days ago
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Why Labour thinks it has solved the Brexit conundrum

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News from January: leaders ended up in the wrong place. In national leadership, there is outward facing and inward facing: speaking for your people outside your borders and speaking to them. Political leaders need to be speaking frequently to their electorate, on whom they depend. But they also need to talk in their electorate’s interests to the world’s big forces.

Both are essential. The more trouble a country is in, the more important being outward facing becomes. Think of Volodymyr Zelensky: yes, he must rally the Ukrainian people, sustaining morale; but even more, he needs to rally the West to supply weapons, money and solidarity. That was why he addressed Davos, the Swiss resort that hosts the World Economic Forum, via video link on 18 January.

[See also: Rishi Sunak’s biggest threat from the right isn’t Boris Johnson – it’s Reform UK]

I wasn’t there this year, but I’ve been before, rubbing claws with the other scaly lizard people, swapping recipes with the globalist conspirators for cooking and eating the children of the workers. Or something. My memories are a tad hazy. They were revived, however, by Emily Maitlis and Jon Sopel on their podcast The News Agents, describing a late-night drinks event in a swanky Davos chalet. Princess Beatrice was in one corner, while in another Tony Blair was sitting with Keir Starmer, as Blair’s former staff scurried busily about to find CEOs for an audience with the Labour leader. And I thought, “Yes, that’s exactly what it’s like.”

The point is that Starmer was there, when you might have expected the opposition leader to be out on the stump, somewhere in the north; and Rishi Sunak wasn’t there because he was doling out money in Morecambe. The Downing Street narrative might briefly have seemed perfect: snooty metropolitan Labour leader having après-ski cocktails with the global elite, while their man was down and basic with the Lancashire folks.

And yet, somehow that’s not how it all came out. Sunak had to pay a fine for not wearing his seatbelt while filming a video for social media in the back of a car; heard protests by Tory MPs whose backyards hadn’t got levelling-up handouts; and is now struggling with yet more Westminster sleaze and backscratching allegations, around the party chairman Nadhim Zahawi’s tax affairs and the chair of the BBC, Richard Sharp.

Asked a “trick” question by Emily Maitlis about whether he preferred Davos or Westminster, Starmer, meanwhile, didn’t miss a beat before replying: “Davos. Because Westminster is too constrained. And, you know, it’s closed… Once you get out of Westminster, whether it’s Davos or anywhere else, you actually engage with people that you can see working with in the future. Westminster is just a… tribal shouting place.”

I found that fascinating, not only because Starmer – who is swelling in confidence like a comedian whose jokes are working at last – genuinely seems to loathe Westminster, but because of his unabashed glee in talking to decision-makers from outside British politics. It’s the difference between liking politics and wanting to govern.

Davos 2023 was an important moment for Starmer and for Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor. They met CEOs and European ministers and found themselves taken seriously as long-term partners. For them, the scariest thing about the (overstated) anti-British mood at Davos was the expected impact of President Biden’s $369bn Inflation Reduction Act and the EU’s rejoinder – the Net-Zero Industry Act, announced by Ursula von der Leyen on 17 January. Here were two gargantuan heaves towards a green energy revolution on both sides of the Atlantic, sucking up capital and excluding Britain.

Labour has its own green prosperity plan on a similar timetable to the EU’s. But the biggest hole in its economic thinking has been how to get growth while being firmly locked out of European markets because of Brexit. Starmer has dead-batted the issue by confirming Britain would not return to either the customs union or the single market. Now, at last, the “however” is emerging from the Swiss mists.

[See also: Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer still need to sell their visions to the public]

Though unrepentant Rejoiners, many of them Blairites, denounce Starmer for betrayal, his political argument against reopening even quasi-membership of the EU is strong. It would be a gift to the Tories. Senior Labour people in “Red Wall” constituencies assure me that returning to the customs union would certainly lose them their seats; “respect” from MPs for voters trumps economics. But on the economics, imagine just how long, divisive and chaotic negotiations about returning to the EU would be – and how off-putting for potential investors.

Ending the perception of chaos is Labour’s strongest card. At Davos, Starmer and Reeves listened to endless criticism of the government from investors who consider the Tories flaky – they hear muttering about an attempted coup against Sunak by Boris Johnson and roll their eyes. Business craves stability and a British government that isn’t fighting with itself and which investors can expect to be there for a decade. If Labour wins with, say, a 40-seat majority, some of the missing investment will come whistling back.

But that, of itself, isn’t nearly enough for a credible growth strategy, particularly if the big money is going to the US and the EU. A range of shadow ministers, including Jonathan Reynolds (business) and Nick Thomas-Symonds (trade), as well as Reeves and Starmer, have been discussing how to unlock frictionless trade from outside the EU. The Germans have been particularly helpful and engaged.

Starmer and Reeves’ answer is to negotiate sector by sector and accept the need for a dynamic alignment with EU standards. Most of these EU rules or standards remain very similar to British ones, are in effect global standards, and were set originally with British involvement. This wouldn’t work for the City, financial services in the UK being simply too big to import EU regulations. But in agriculture, the pharmaceutical and chemical industries, veterinary standards, professional qualifications, cultural traffic and some areas of engineering, Labour is convinced there are many individual deals to be struck.

“Both sides understand the parameters,” one frontbencher told me. “If they say fine, but you have to have freedom of movement, they know we can’t accept that. But they are talking seriously. We have no problem with dynamic alignment.”

If Labour wins I would expect a slew of specific London-Brussels treaties to be negotiated, quite quickly, from outside the customs union and single market.

On growth, Starmer also believes a more active government working, for instance, to clear the bureaucratic blockages and planning delays for onshore wind farms and other green infrastructure will help. He will probably inherit a radically lower inflationary outlook, though not the benign economic situation Tony Blair enjoyed when he arrived in office. Labour, like the Tory Party, emphasises a stronger and tighter defence and security relationship to open a deeper friendship with the EU – but then wants to go significantly further.

But sorting the Northern Ireland protocol is seen as an essential second step before dynamic alignment can occur in suitable parts of the exporting economy. It all depends on goodwill inside the EU – but again, here, Labour may be lucky: after the last few years, European politicians want to regularise relations.

Most of what happens in Davos is very boring. But it’s a weird moneyed huddle where you can wet a finger and sense the wind changing. This year European politicians and bankers are focusing on the likelihood of a Labour government. It’s not a solid bet. If there is one thing Labour’s really good at, it’s finding new ways to lose a winning position. Still, Davos ’23 was a moment. I wonder whether Rishi Sunak now rather wishes he had gone there, not to Morecambe, after all.

[See also: Boris Johnson is writing a memoir. Will we be able to trust it?]

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6 days ago
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Sunak, the passive PM, had the chance to tackle the scourge of long Boris Johnson – and shirked it | Rafael Behr

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The prime minister won’t act decisively to finish the career of the great bloviator, and that says much about his lack of grip

It is a year since Boris Johnson was nearly brought down by the Partygate scandal, and Rishi Sunak was almost brave enough to finish the job. But he didn’t, not the first time. Not the second time either. He still hasn’t finished the job.

Events were moving fast in January 2022. The stories of lockdown breaches in Downing Street had started appearing the previous November. Each case was followed by a denial; each denial was falsified by new evidence. The prime minister’s position was uncertain. Johnson apologised to parliament for attending an oversized gathering in the garden of No 10. He claimed he had thought it was a work meeting.

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6 days ago
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Belgian railway to launch flexible ticket for remote workers

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Following the pandemic’s disruption of commuting habits, SNCB is introducing new rail fares that reflect the ongoing work-from-home reality for many workers. People who do not need to travel to work every day will soon be able to benefit from new flexible train tickets, announced Belgium’s deputy...
Belgian rail introduces new fares for teleworkers
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6 days ago
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Brexit Impact Tracker – 22 January 2023 – Dishonest honesty: The Brexit Hostage Situation

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Brexit-related events of the past two weeks* seem to suggest that the consensus that Brexit is turning into a complete failure is spreading and barely requires any argument anymore. Most strikingly, the Telegraph’s pro-Brexit Sherelle Jacobs has declared Brexit unsalvageable. More specifically, she writes ‘the Tories have made such a hash of Brexit that the project is probably now unsalvageable’ and openly admits that Brexit is ‘stoking tensions in Northern Ireland and strangling small firms with red tape.’

Less surprisingly, perhaps (given his ‘Remainer credentials’), ex-Tory leader William Hague explicitly blamed Brexit for the collapse of British Volt, once lauded as a symbol of British post-Brexit industrial revival. What is more interesting though, is that despite acknowledging its damaging effects, even Hague still defends Brexit. On the News Agents podcast, he compared Brexit to ‘running uphill’ suggesting that it somehow constitutes a form of exercise that will make Britain stronger in the end. This must be the most absurd Brexit analogy that I have heard to date. Its absurdity shows just how difficult it is becoming to defend Brexit.

Starmer’s dishonest honesty

Keir Starmer’s take on Brexit is quite similar to William Hague’s. On the same podcast he quite openly admitted that Brexit causes all sorts of economic and political problems, and yet he insists that there is no case for rejoining the Single Market (SM), let alone the EU. While he did specify – when pressed – that he meant that there was no political (as opposed to economic) case, a month ago he has made the more problematic claim that there was no economic case either. Starmer’s argument seems to be that the rejoining process would be long and equally uncertain as the process of leaving, which would mean investors’ appetite for investments in Britain would be dampened for an additional five or so years.

It is questionable whether that is true. One could imagine that some investors would find a UK that is negotiating a closer relationship with the EU including the prospect of rejoining the SM a more attractive destination for investments than a UK permanently cut off from the SM through the current Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA).

In the same interview, Sir Keir also rejected the Swiss and Norwegian models for managing the relationship with the EU as a non-member. He rejects the Swiss model – in place since 1991 – because it had to be renegotiated over 200 times since coming into force. This was either a throw away comment made in an interview situation or revealing of the fact that even the leader of the opposition does not fully understand what Brexit actually means.

Indeed, any model of association with the EU that guarantees frictionless or near frictionless access to the SM will necessarily have to be constantly renegotiated. That is the case, because EU law and associated countries’ laws are of course constantly evolving. In such a situation, the only way to avoid constant renegotiation would be a complete, unilateral, dynamic alignment with EU rules by the associated country. If a country is willing to simply accept as the price to pay for access to the Single Market the automatic transfer into domestic law of any new rules the EU creates (as well as the European Court of Justice’s interpretation of those rules), then an association model may be possible that does not need constant updating. In any other case, being outside the EU means being in a state of more or less permanent negotiation.

That brings us to Starmer’s continuing dishonesty about Brexit. If he dislikes an agreement that requires regular renegotiation, the logical consequence is dynamic unilateral alignment. In some areas this may be politically feasible and desirable (e.g. in the area of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Standards for trade in food, plants, and livestock). Beyond such specific areas, however, the agreement that allows maximal access to the SM without being EU member would necessarily imply accepting EU rules unilaterally, which is hardly acceptable to much of the British public. For Brexiters, such alignment will be seen as an unacceptable attack on ‘sovereignty’ and the contrary of ‘taking back control.’ Remainers/Rejoiners, on the other hand, will ask why it is preferable to stay outside the EU and follow all their rules, rather than rejoining and having a say over the rules we are following anyways. In that sense, what Starmer is promising seems to be some mythical ‘eat cake and have it’ agreement that cannot exist. If membership is rejected, there is necessarily a trade-off between frictionless access to the SM and following rules we do not have a say on.

A similar dishonesty comes to light when Starmer speaks about immigration. Here, the Labour leader admits that the UK labour market is suffering from labour shortages partly caused by Brexit and he acknowledges that the UK needs more immigration. At the same time, he is clear that he is not willing to commit to such an increase in immigration and has categorically rule out a return to freedom of movement. As a result, he has to resort to similarly vague (and largely unrealistic) alternative solutions such as activating people who have dropped out of the workforce or forcing companies to invest in skills that Brexiters are usually resorting to. Yet, very little is currently known about the precise policies that a possible Starmer labour government will adopt to achieve either goal. It stands to reason that addressing these two issues – people dropping out of the workforce and companies not investing in skills – would have to start with a thorough investigation of the root causes of these two phenomena, which in turn would require a deep and honest look into everything that’s wrong with the British economic model. Starmer does not seem to be willing to do that.

Hostages in our own country

I do not want to be too harsh on Starmer though. The point is precisely that Brexit has put the UK into a position where the right-wing press and right-wing political formations like the European Research Group (ERG) and Change UK can hold us all hostages with their extremism.

Indeed, while few people are left in the country who doubt that Brexit is damaging the UK every day, those who dare openly talk about what our ways out of the mess are seem even fewer. According to pollsters and political scientists there are good reasons for that. For Starmer, the main reason for that caution is that discussing any realistic improvements on the current situation is expected to put off the so-called ‘red wall’ voters. The deeper reason for such fears, however, is that anyone attempting to openly discuss a realistic alternative to the current situation has to fear the right-wing press labelling them ‘Rejoiner,’ ‘diehard Remainer,’ ‘enemy of the people,’ or similar, which to many still seems like potentially career-ending.

As a result of this situation, acknowledging that Brexit is not working is not a taboo anymore. Saying what is really needed to ‘make it work,’ however, still is. This leads to a situation where our politicians are busy fighting the symptoms rather than the root cause of the problems. That applies also to Sunak and his government.

Symbolic policies with real (negative) impacts

Honesty being impossible, policies that would actually help with the current situation being precluded for ideological reasons, all the government has left is symbolic policies and fighting symptoms.

In terms of symbolic policies, Sunak has decided to speed up the Retained EU Law (REUL) bill which implies any EU-period law not explicitly retained will expire at the end of 2023. The law is hugely problematic from a democratic point of view, will potentially do considerable damage to the environment, workers, and the British economy, and serves no purpose other than signalling an unwavering opposition to the EU and a commitment to radical deregulation. As Jill Rutter’s explains (among many other legal experts), the unintended consequence of simply removing 4000 pieces of law concerning things like – food safety, worker protections, and the environment – are enormous.

Worse still, in another sign of how (somewhat paradoxically) Brexit is undermining British parliamentary sovereignty and instead strengthening the executive’s power, MPs’ request to get more time to scrutinise the laws by extending the deadline of the ‘sunset clause’ from December 2023 to 2026 and to give MPs a bigger say in the process were rejected. That means that the Bill, which passed the Commons on Wednesday, gives the government the power to remove up to 4000 laws through secondary legislation without Parliamentary scrutiny.

One minister defended the bill stating that the government did not plan to weaken protections, and the bill was a chance to ensure the UK economy was competitive. The latter statement is another example of the naïve view that ‘unregulated’ means competitive. Incidentally, the Telegraph’s Jacobs succumbs to the same fallacy when suggesting that replacing the ‘innovation-crushing GDPR’ would make British industries more competitive. That idea should by now be dead and buried since Brexit has illustrated better than any other real-world experiment ever could that we do not live in a world of isolated national economies anymore. Therefore, Brexit does not just affect companies that trade with Europe (although of course it does affect them), but also companies that are producing primarily for the UK market or for non-EU export markets, but depend on inputs and intermediary goods from a range of countries, including EU member states. Therefore, however much you deregulate the UK economy, companies who depend on cross border flows of goods and services will not necessarily benefit from that.

That is not to say that there are no possibilities to create a regulatory environment in some sectors that could benefit British-based companies e.g. in the creative industries, life sciences as Jill Rutter pointed out; but creating such a regulatory framework will certainly require more than an ill-advised ‘bonfire’ of any existing regulations without any serious consideration for the likely impact of each law that will expire. There can be little doubt that the REUL bill will have a very significant impact on post-Brexit Britain, but it seems hard to disagree with Best for Britain that the impact can be nothing else than catastrophic.

Another symbolic policy which has made the headlines this week is the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda. A controversy has taken place over the allocation of more levelling up money to London boroughs than to Yorkshire and the Northeast of England. The government defends the allocation arguing that there are deprived areas in London and the Southeast too and that the per capita allocation is lower in the South East than the North, due to the much higher population density. Both claims are certainly true. However, the bigger problem we should not lose sight of is that the levelling up funds only partially replace money lost by councils due to austerity and obtaining those funds is subject to a administratively burdensome and extremely costly bidding process that creates uncertainty and makes planning difficult for local councils. Levelling up provides an example of another symbolic Brexiter policy that was only ever meant as a slogan and therefore is not fit for purpose in practice.

Combatting symptoms

While I have written about symbolic policies many times before, another type of legislation that the UK’s post-Brexit political system is increasingly spewing out is legislation combatting symptoms rather than causes. Indeed, the government’s reaction to the growing expressions of discontent that are gripping the country – in the form of strikes over pay and living costs, but also protests over climate change – is to crack down on the expression of discontent while showing a sheer incredible unwillingness or inability to address the causes.

Most strikingly, the answer to increasing hardship amongst nurses and other NHS workers – who for the first time in history voted for strike – is to restrict people’s right to strike via the new Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill. The answer to increasing number of protests against the current disastrous economic and environmental policies, is to criminalise forms of protest and conferring more powers to police to stop protests. There are even suggestions that Sunak is trying to quell the Church of England’s criticism of the government’s often inhumane and immoral policies by ‘vetting’ bishops before their appointment.

While such anti-democratic policies are greeted with great enthusiasm by right-wing media outlets, they do of course not help solve any of the problems that make people descend into the streets or walk out from their jobs. Indeed, they are a pure expression of desperation by a government that is losing control of the country and has no plan how to fix it.

The government is hence hell-bent on doubling down on symbolic policies and suppress any expression of discontent and civil society pressures for change, while turning up a notch the ruthlessness with which it attempts to burn as many bridges to Europe as it can in what may be its last months in power. Meanwhile, the opposition finally dares naming a key culprit causing many of our problems but does not yet dare to be honest about the solutions. We are hence stuck with Brexit due to ideological delusion on one side and cowardice-bordering political prudence on the other. The one unlikely source providing a way out from this situation may be the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP).

The NIP to the rescue?

Besides the ‘accident in waiting’ that is the REUL bill, the other area where a Brexit-related storm is brewing is Northern Ireland. To be fair, there have been some optimistic noises coming out from the ongoing negotiations between the UK and the EU about the implementation of the NIP. In particular, The Irish Times and other outlets lauded the agreement on the UK agreeing to provide the EU with real-time data about GB-NI trade as a breakthrough. Indeed, given years of stubborn opposition to such an agreement, the UK government finally agreeing to it is a positive sign of more pragmatism, which may make a technical solution to some of the issues around the NIP possible.

Yet, it remains very doubtful that any such technical fixes will be politically acceptable to the Brexiters in Westminster and Unionists in Northern Ireland. Indeed, the ERG and the DUP continue to threaten to reject any deal that does not meet their maximalist demands. The government seems to be aware of that, reportedly considering calling the permanent border posts that it has now started building ‘huts’ rather than ‘border posts’ in the hope to make them less inacceptable for unionists and Brexit ultras like the ERG.

The stage is hence set for a major test for Sunak’s authority and Brexiters’ and Unionist’s resolve to insist on an extreme stance on Northern Ireland.

Sunak’s leeway seems extremely limited, given the USA’s insistence that an agreement needs to be reached by April 10th, the date of the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. Indeed, the fact that the stakes are so high in NI – namely the thread of a return of a civil war-like state – and the importance foreign powers and the world hegemon attribute to the question, make the NIP much less an internal affair than the rest of Brexit. While the US and EU may not care how much damage the Brits decide to inflict on themselves, the situation is different regarding NI. NI is thus at least partially protected from the full blow of Westminster madness.

The question then becomes whether Sunak will be willing to ‘stand up to the ERG’ – as opposition leader Starmer challenged him to do this week – and find an agreement with the EU. If he does not or if his government does not survive the attempt to do so, then more political chaos will ensue.

If he does, then Northern Ireland may continue to benefit from the ‘best of both worlds’ (EU single market membership and largely friction less access to the GB market). In the latter case, given the ever-growing discontent with Brexit among the UK’s population and businesses, soon the question may then arise: Why can the rest of the country not have what NI has? That question will be hard to answer once people stop listening to the ideologues. As a result, Northern Ireland may very well become the thread by which Brexit will eventually unravel …Until that happens, however, we all remain hostages of a narrow – and shrinking – group of die-hard Brexiters and their right-wing media supporters.


*Regular readers of this blog will have noticed that my posts have become somewhat less frequent over the past few months. This is essentially down to the fact that I started the BIT as a ‘lock down project’ and find it more difficult to make the time in my schedule now that work and life are back to ‘normal.’ I will strive to keep up with important developments, but currently fortnightly posts do seem to work fairly well.

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