Richard North, 13/10/2018  

Yesterday, I took a first look at the Cambridge speech from Sir Ivan Rogers, with a promise that I would take another look at it in today's post.

By coincidence, we also have the latest batch of "technical notices" on the impact of a "no-deal" Brexit. Not least, we see formal acknowledgement from the government that the tripartite agreement on the movement of racehorses will cease to have effect. The effects are not spelt out in detail but my blogpost in February 2017 sets out the implications.

Interestingly, the Telegraph gets the point, although the Express seems to be in denial. Most of the papers, however, focus on the relatively trivial issue of loss of the "portability of online content service", meaning that UK subscribers may not be able to access online services such as Netflix, Spotify and Amazon Prime when travelling to EU Member States. Yet, this was actually the subject of a notice on 24 September but missed by the media then.

The inability of the media sensibly to address the consequences of a "no deal" Brexit make it all the more important that commentary from the likes of Sir Ivan is properly heard and explored. And since we'll not see this in the legacy media, this blog intends to take some of the load.

As we left it yesterday, Sir Ivan in his speech was saying that, as we head towards 2019, "sobriety is gradually setting in". Here, we see Sir Ivan arguing that the failure of the "Brexit revolutionaries" to think through the nation's new relationship with the EU, and their determination in 2016 to rule out all other options as early as possible in order to secure the revolution, led them into the trap.

In fact, these "revolutionaries" did consider what was needed prior to the referendum being declared. They thought about whether to have a plan - and then rejected the idea. This much was evident from the non-dialogue with Cummings as early as June 2015, a full year before the referendum vote.

The factor that mainly influenced this decision what that there was no unity amongst Eurosceptics as to what line to take. In fact, there was heated disagreement between factions so, in order to avoid a divisive public debate, it was felt that it should be left to government to negotiate a new deal, which should then be put to a vote.

Furthermore, backers were conscious that the campaign had the potential to damage the Conservative Party, so they were determined to avoid "blue on blue" incidents. Hence the focus was on the spurious £350 million claim and, latterly, on personalities, with Johnson co-opted to front the campaign.

To my recollection, it was a combination of pressure from Ukip and the Labour opposition, as much as anything, which forced Mrs May's hand in making the Article 50. But Sir Ivan was not wrong in asserting that this led the "revolutionaries" further into the trap.

Having rejected the Efta/EEA option, the only one that could have smoothed the way out of the EU, it was inevitable that the UK would need a transition period before it could break fully with the EU. And, says Sir Ivan, the EU duly closed the trap door before they realised what transition they were in for. To mix metaphors, he says, the EU has been boiling the UK frog ever since. On process, sequencing, substance, there has been movement only one way.

That so many Brexit advocates think that the EU is only deploying such a strategy because it is desperate to keep the UK in the EU just tells you how far detached from EU reality much of our political class is, Sir Ivan adds. But he argues that the stance is undertaken "perfectly legitimately", where the clock and the cliff edge can again be used to maximise concessions from London.

Now, two years too late, some politicians are at last recognising that the revolution has misfired. They have been sobered by an exit process far more ghastly than they once imagined.

Latterly, of course, we have seen born-again converts arguing that we should spend several years in an EEA type transition chamber before graduating to a Canadian style FTA relationship at the end of the process. This, says Sir Ivan, is the "Norway then Canada" model one now hears so much about – and about which he is excoriating.

The ancien regime has no good reason to provide the finest transitional feather bed for the revolutionaries who want to leave it. Its own best interests are served by offering the bread and water of the 21 month voiceless rule-taking transition which is now on offer.

Nor does the EEA, which functions essentially fine as a permanent home for its members, whose economies are radically different from our own, want or need the arrival of a massive transiting cuckoo in the nest, which only wants in, in order to have a nice perch before it is ready to fly off out to something it thinks better.

What we are left with is a transition period where we will be bound by laws and decisions over which our representatives and voters had no say. And, says Sir Ivan, this is so obviously a bad outcome that the only thing one can do if one has failed to think seriously in advance about this crucial transitional phase, is to blame counter revolutionary forces for having landed one there.

For its part, the EU is secure in the knowledge that the alternative of jumping out with “no deal” is, for all the tedious and pointless bravado, the last thing the UK wants to do, because of the asymmetrical economic self-harm it would inflict.

Alarmingly, Sir Ivan observes that 21 months will anyway not be long enough to negotiate even the kind of Canada ++ deal that will be on offer. This is a version of "Canada" which, incidentally, differs radically from the version espoused by its UK advocates. Because the EU's pluses are not Boris Johnson's. Thus, they will have the UK against the wall again in 2020.

In terms of what we have ended up with, Sir Ivan could hardly be more caustic. "This then", he avers, "is a very British establishment sort of revolution. No plan and little planning, oodles of PPE tutorial level plausible bullshit, supreme self confidence that we understand others' real interests better than they do, a complete inability to fathom the nature and incentives of the ancien regime.

It is this, above all else, that is so worrisome. Malign, ill-intent on the part of the "revolutionaries" might even be more tolerable than the fantasy world they actually inhabit.

Personally, I think we might skirt around Sir Ivan's views about the "revolutionaries" and his characterisation of their belief that the EU "is a behemoth with preposterous, undesirable and unrealisable, sometimes, maybe often, malign, superpower and statehood pretensions".

It is undeniable that the founding fathers, from Monnet to Spaak and Spinelli, sought to create a "United States of Europe", with ambitions for a European Army, a fully-fledged foreign policy and a single currency with all that that entailed in terms of economic policy.

Whether this "hard power" version of the EU is unrealisable is, in my view, debatable, but I would concede that it has not (yet) been realised. "The federal superstate of Brexiteers' nightmares", Sir Ivan notes, "has neither army nor intelligence services, nor many of the non-economic regulatory capabilities which go with statehood".

But there is a further valid point here. Core Brexit advocates are often caught between contempt for the EU's complete inability to function as a "hard power" player, yet they also believe, bizarrely, that in the one area the EU HAS genuine superpower capabilities - the regulatory and trade domain - it will not exercise its superpower muscles when dealing with us as a former member.

Sir Ivan has a description for this: "culpable naïveté". That is a nice turn of phrase. And we've seen it "almost daily" for two years. Faced by a UK which essentially wants all the benefits of unchanged free trade from its EU membership days, with none or few of the obligations, the EU repeatedly says: "that is just never going to be on offer".

Again and again, we are told that we must choose between a Canadian-style relationship, which offers us greater autonomy but much lower access to the Member State markets, and a Norwegian type deal which offers far better market access but much less autonomy.

For anyone not afflicted with "culpable naïveté", it was never going to be any different. The EU was always going to put first the integrity of its current legal order and the need to demonstrate a very clear distinction between the benefits available to members, and the best that could ever be on offer to any third country.

Furthermore, it was never going to change its legal order for the benefit of a state that had chosen to leave it. And, therefore, no matter how many times "Snake Oil" Singham repeated his canard to his adoring fans, the EU was never going to agree to some generalised equivalence system which opened up regulation/legislation effectively to joint decision-making between itself and the UK.

Yet, says Sir Ivan, that is what appears in the Canada ++ propositions we now see floated as superior to Chequers. As with the core economic elements of Chequers, the chance of the EU agreeing them is precisely zero.

Just as an accession process for those joining the EU is not some symmetrical negotiation process with give and take, but a process of progressive crossing of thresholds by the applicant to meet the standards of the body it is joining, so the "de-accession process" which is the UK's departure, is simply not a process in which the rules of the club we are departing are up for grabs and for revision.

And here's the rub. Sir Ivan was saying this in Whitehall and indeed to British journalists in Brussels well before the referendum. Because we needed seriously to work through precisely how a Brexit process could be made to work before launching it.

This, he adds, "is really not too difficult to grasp unless one is determined not to". But Brexit advocates gave very little serious thought to how the EU would inevitably conduct an exit process.

They also always believed that the mercantile interests of individual key Member States would, in the end, trump the collective interests of the bloc. And that the dread theologian lawyers of Brussels would therefore be overruled and undermined by leaders, who were closer to their publics and their business interests.

This, Sir Ivan reminds us, is an age-old British misunderstanding of how the EU functions, or could ever function.

For my part, I've come across that view in the early '90s amongst certain Conservative parliamentarians. And nearly thirty years later, their ideas haven't changed one iota. It's as if they've been asleep since Maastricht and have just awoken to resume their fight on exactly the same grounds they were tackling all those years ago.

With this, it is hardly surprising that we're seeing so little progress in the Brexit debate. Various protagonists, from the different sides, are fighting over versions of an EU that do not exist, to achieve outcomes which are undeliverable.

Still, though, we're only dipping into the body of Sir Ivan's speech. You can see why the legacy media can't handle it. All being well, I will return to it tomorrow, in what I hope will be the final episode.

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