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Brexit: uncharted territory

2019-03-18 06:30:04

Booker is on the case in this week's column, writing of a prediction he made on 20 January 2017. It concerned what would happen when Mrs May arrived in Brussels to present the EU with her proposals for Brexit. Its negotiators, wrote Booker, would be "staring at her in disbelief" that she could come up with anything so flimsily unworkable and "potentially catastrophic".

The reason for this, he suggested, was that "she showed so little sign of understanding the fearsome complexities of what a successful disentanglement from the EU would involve". To underline this, he quoted the verdict of that week's Der Spiegel, that she was "clearly living in the German equivalent of cloud-cuckoo land".

What prompted such shocked responses, Booker argues, was that after months of insisting that she wanted the UK to continue enjoying "frictionless" trade "within" the EU's internal market, she had finally decided with her Lancaster House speech that she wanted to remove us completely not just from the EU, which was all the British public had voted for, but also from its internal market.

The only thing that is certain about our referendum result, Booker thus writes, is that, whatever else the 17.4 million of us who voted "leave" thought we were voting for, it was not the ever more chaotic shambles of an impasse we are looking at today. Yet this was ultimately made inevitable by the fact that Mrs May went into the negotiations without any workable plan which might get round those complexities which to this day she has never understood.

As a few of us, he adds, were urging long before the referendum that there was only one practical way to secure the outcome which most people in Britain would probably have welcomed if it had ever been raised to the centre of our national debate. This was the only one which would have met the requirements of the referendum result by taking us completely out of the EU without inflicting potentially catastrophic damage to our economy.

As Booker has said too often before, if only we had chosen to join Norway in the European Free Trade Association and thus remained within the European Economic Area, we would have freed ourselves overnight from three-quarters of all the EU's laws and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, while continuing to enjoy near "frictionless" trade with the internal market from outside the EU itself.

We could not only, like Norway, have won the right as an independent country to make trade deals with the outside world, but gained significantly more influence on shaping the rules of the internal market than we had previously. Furthermore, we need never have heard of the Irish border problem. In short, we could have avoided virtually all those intractable obstacles besetting us today.

Yet none of this was ever honestly explained to us or properly debated. Instead our politicians chose en masse to take us into a labyrinth in which every passage inevitably leads to a dead end.

And so, says Booker, on Thursday last, when the "Benn amendment" offered parliament a last chance to look again at that Norway option, it was rejected by just two votes. We are, Booker concludes, trapped in a labyrinth entirely of our own making. But external reality is now finally closing in on our years of make-believe.

This Benn amendment, of course, was an attempt to take control of the government's agenda, "to enable the House of Commons to find a way forward that can command majority support". In this, Booker is perhaps more optimistic than I am. The chances of the MP collective finding a "way forward" in my view is so remote that it can be completely dismissed.

We've seen as much with Nick Boles who turned the promising idea of the Norway option into an ill-thought-out proposal to use Efta/EEA as a temporary parking slot, then to replace it with an even more ridiculous idea of "Norway-plus", tying it in with a customs union.

This has since transmuted into "Common Market 2.0" which embodies all the worst aspects of the Boles train crash, with not the slightest chance of it being adopted.

The problem, as we have pointed out so many times, is that there is no standard model for the Efta/EEA option. The EEA Agreement is an adaptive framework, each of the Efta States having crafted its own bespoke arrangements to suit their particular circumstances.

Furthermore, for each of the States, the Agreement does not stand alone. With Norway, for instance, it is augmented by an additional 50 bilateral treaties which, collectively, facilitate the EU-Norway relationship.

For the Efta/EEA option to fit the special and extensive requirements of the UK was never going to be easy or fast. This is why the UK needed to hold off with its Article 50 notification to allow time to put together the details and organise the negotiating schedules.

And while the political classes are currently tormenting themselves with the question of whether to opt for a short or long Article 50 extension, right from the outset I was suggesting that the first order of business after the Article 50 notification should have been to agree a prolonged extension, just to give us the time to complete the negotiations.

Yet, even now, there are those who believe the "Norway option", or even a "Norway-style agreement" can be used as a quick fix, to make up for the failure of the Withdrawal Agreement, or even to replace it. These are people who are demonstrating their complete inability to understand the complexity of the EEA Agreement, and their lamentable failure to deal with anything more demanding than an expenses claim form.

With the millions of words so far written, it is probably fair to say that no-one has approached the task of managing the Brexit process with the same degree of coherence that found its way into the Flexcit plan, or evolved their thinking to such effect as has emerged on this blog, with the help of its readers.

The proof, as they say, is in the eating. At no time have we ever been lost for ideas of where to take Brexit, or ever been uncertain as to what needed to be done. While the Johnny-come-latelies pad out the ether and newspaper columns with ever-more unworkable schemes, there resides in those who contributed to the Flexcit plan a body of knowledge which the political (and media) classes have never been able to match.

As it stands, using the EEA template remains the best bet, although it is unlikely that we can rely on Efta embracing our membership. That creates complex but not insurmountable problems on how to replicate the institutional structures necessary to administer the agreement. And then there will still be dozens of supplementary agreements that will have to be negotiated, not least on customs cooperation and VAT.

By comparison with the clarity we are able to offer, such has been the inadequacy of the official UK negotiating team that we are left with the wholly unsatisfactory Withdrawal Agreement as the best (and only) option in town, and nothing on the table to follow.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Phillip Hammond is now saying that even if the MP collective agrees the deal on Tuesday, it will still be "physically impossible" for us to leave the EU on the 29th March.

When it comes to incompetence, therefore, this is way beyond ocean-going level. The entire political and administrative establishment, with nearly three years to play with and all the resources of the state, has comprehensively failed to deliver on a policy which has been its main objective.

Not only that, but we have a dysfunctional parliament which, as numerous observers point out, is able to assemble majorities only to express what it does not want, and lacks entirely the ability to form a consensus on that positive "way forward".

Thus, with only days to go to the scheduled Brexit day, we have Hammond telling us that the government can't tell us whether we'll leave in April, May or June. And, if it cannot bring together a majority to support Mrs May's deal, then it "will have to look at a longer extension", which puts us in "uncharted territory".

There in two words is summed up the totality of the dereliction of our government, its utter incompetence which has brought us to the brink of failure and economic catastrophe. It has taken us on a long and arduous journey, only to lead us, without hint of apology, into "uncharted territory".

It is not only the government that is to blame though. This is truly a collective failure of a system that has laid bare its own incompetence and has shed the last vestiges of any credibility it ever had. Its failure could not be more pronounced, more absolute and more inexcusable.

What is perhaps even more damning is that those responsible have no real idea of their own inadequacies and have neither the capability nor the humility to understand why they have so roundly failed. Nor do they have the first idea of what they need to do to make things better. They look failure in the eyes and can only promise us more of the same.

With nothing to offer us but dribble from the likes of the oaf, it is left to the sheeted dead to squeak and gibber in the streets. They do not even have the wit to realise how loathed they are.