Nightcap

  1. Diversity as a right-wing ideal Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
  2. Trumpist populism could easily linger longer than most people readily assume Francis Fukuyama, American Interest
  3. Brexit and the oral culture of journalism John Quiggin, Crooked Timber
  4. Europe’s comparative advantage in violence Philip Hoffman, Economic History Review

Brexit Breakdown and Confusion

I posted earlier this month on Brexit Breakdown suggesting that the aims of enthusiasts for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, leaving the European Union, have been eroded as the UK government’s positions drifts towards ‘soft Brexit’ accepting alignment with EU regulations on industrial goods and food, at the very least. This is still the case, but the situation has become increasingly complex, driven in an unpredictable way by contradictory forces, as I will attempt to explain below.

Full ‘soft Brexit’ would mean membership of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), with almost complete adherence to European regulation. ‘Hard Brexit’ means eliminating any adherence to EU regulations, which in its most rock hard form means a willingness, even a preference, for crashing out of the EU with no agreement, resorting to World Trade Organisation rules to govern trade. On the other side are ‘Remainers’, including myself, who ideally would like to stay in the European Union after a referendum reversing the decision of two years ago; and who if this is not possible will work for the return of the UK to the EU at a future date.

It is still the case that over time the government has drifted towards soft Brexit, though not EFTA, and seems likely to end up agreeing to an even softer Brexit after EU negotiations are complete. The most notable area of likely compromise with the EU is to preserve an almost completely open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland by allowing de facto membership of the EU Customs Union of Northern Ireland through a de facto border in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, largely in the form of EU customs inspections on ships between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

The House of Commons anyway came very close recently to voting for the UK as a whole to form a customs union between the UK and the EU, so a proposal backed by the government for a form of customs union between the UK and the EU allowing an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic without a customs border in the Irish Sea would certainly pass the House of Commons. It is one of the oddities of Brexit that a free vote of the House of Commons would result in the UK joining EFTA and this is resisted by the leadership of the two largest parties.

The Labour Party leadership resists EFTA (or any other way in which the UK stays in the Customs Union or the Single Market) though most Labour Party Members of Parliament, party members, and voters support remaining in the EU. The Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn supported Remain in the referendum though he has always looked like a socialist critic of the EU as a capitalist club. The Conservative Party leadership resists EFTA, though most Conservative MPs supported Remain in the referendum and would vote for EFTA now, and the leader (who is also Prime Minister), Theresa May, supported Remain during the referendum. In the case of the Conservatives though, party members and voters are mostly Leave and hard Brexit.

Theresa May gathered her Cabinet at the Prime Minister’s country residence, Chequers, recently to force through a soft Brexit package, in the hope of ending increasingly public conflict on the issue. Two members of the Cabinet have since resigned and Brexiteers in the House of Commons have forced some concessions, though of a rather secondary kind, which might disappear in further negotiations with the EU and the final parliamentary vote on the exit deal.

The consequences of recent political manoeuvres are as follows:

  1. The government has moved towards a softer Brexit,
  2. Hardcore Brexiteers have pushed back with some success,
  3. A second referendum seems more likely though not the most likely scenario,
  4. A no deal hard Brexit seems more likely though not the most likely scenario.

These four things do not seem to go together and what has happened is a drift from what seemed like the overwhelming probability of a hard Brexit with an agreement, to a relatively chaotic situation in which it is becoming harder and harder to decide on the most likely of the possible outcomes.

Hard Brexit without a deal has come to seem more likely because hard Brexiteers in the Conservative Party may undermine any agreement the Prime Minister (who has recently started to exercise direct control over negotiations) may reach with the EU and there are signs that the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) will take voters from the Conservatives in the case of a soft Brexit. Theresa May is trying to achieve a position which can get most MPs behind her, and most Conservative MPs will probably support any deal she proposes. However, the hard Brexit people are willing to do anything to undermine a deal they consider inadequate and may vote with Labour in voting down a deal, though for very different reasons.

May’s hold on the Conservative Party is weak after her very poor performance in last year’s general election and no one expects her to be the leader at the next election (though given that the impossible seems to be becoming possible maybe we should not accept this as a given). Any election for the leader requires a contest in the parliamentary party to determine two candidates, with the Conservative Party membership as a whole deciding between them. The membership will undoubtedly vote for the more hard Brexit candidate, which at the moment seems likely to be Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg. Rees-Mogg has absolutely no governmental experience at all, which would create an unprecedented situation if he does become Conservative leader and Prime Minister.

Neither Rees-Mogg nor Johnson is popular with the parliamentary party, so there must be a real possibility that neither makes it the final list of two candidates, presuming the parliamentary party does not persuade the candidates behind the leader of the first round to abandon the contest, which is what happened in May’s case. This could set off a major crisis in the Conservative Party.

The possibility of a second referendum (labelled a People’s Vote by its main advocates) is increasing because it seems likely that hard Conservative Brexiteers allied with the Labour Party will vote down any soft Brexit, and it also seems likely (but less likely as hard Brexiteers are more willing to vote against their own government) that an alliance of soft Conservative Brexiteers and the Labour Party will vote down any hard Brexit. It also seems very possible that the EU will reject any UK offer, as the arguments within Parliament and the Cabinet on the terms of Brexit refer to what can be agreed within British politics, not what the EU might find acceptable. At the very least it seems increasingly likely that substantive Brexit will be postponed, apart from withdrawal of UK representatives from EU institutions, for at least a couple of years after next year’s formal withdrawal.

The various forms of deadlock described above have not yet made a second referendum likely, but are increasing the likelihood of a second resort to the People to find a solution, though the question that would be asked, the form of any such referendum, its timing and so on remain unclear. Opinion polls show increasing support for a second vote and for then remaining in the EU, while the media is giving more coverage to the possibility. I would be happy to see such a result myself. The increasing uncertainty about what Brexit means itself undermined Leave claims that it would be an easy exit. Nevertheless, I have to say that the UK is probably leaving and that a no-deal Brexit is also increasing in probability.

Brexit Breakdown

Ir has been obvious for at least a month now that soft Brexit has won out in the UK, though the Prime Minister Theresa May would never admit such a thing directly. Government discussion of access to the EU internal market at its existing level, or very close, and keeping the border open between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland (a fundamental of the peace settlement in the north) would at the very least require continuing regulatory alignment in goods (that is, following the rules made by the European Union).

It seems very likely that negotiations of the terms of exit with the EU itself would make even this partial alignment with the internal market inadequate in order to get the desired level of access. At the very least EU negotiators would demand some inclusion of services (financial services are the big issue here) and something at least resembling free movement of labour.

That inclusion would be full UK access to the internal market after exiting and would require at least a Swiss style relationship with the EU, in which there is full market access in exchange for accepting EU rules and something close to free movement of labour. Such a relationship would mean accepting judgments of the European Court of Justice even if they are not incorporated into UK law. The UK might not follow Switzerland into EFTA (European Free Trade Association, see paragraph below).

It has even been suggested that the UK might find it necessary to adopt a ‘Norway’ solution, in which the UK is directly a member of the European Economic Area. Norway has free movement but opts out of common agricultural and fisheries agreements. It is not part of the EU customs agreement. Like Iceland, Lichtenstein, and Switzerland, it is a member of the European Free Trade Area, which essentially harmonises regulations between these countries and the EU; that is, EU regulations are enforced by EFTA institutions.

It is clear that most Conservative MPs and businesses (though more large business than small business) regard something like the arrangements above, soft Brexit, as preferable to hard Brexit (trade agreement with the EU as a completely external country, possibility of no deal). These MPs and business people, along with most Treasury economists and economists in general, believe that keeping complete access to EU markets is more valuable than vague claims of a trade boom through deals with non-EU states across the world.

Hard Brexiteers believe that economic growth of other parts of the world requires breaking free of EU shackles on global free trade. The soft Brexit, as well as Remain, argument is that membership of the EU does not prevent trade with the rest of the world and that some EU countries are already doing that very well compared with the UK. On this argument, geographical proximity will always make EU trade disproportionately important so that limiting access to EU markets in the hope that non-EU countries will want free trade agreements is unnecessary and probably very damaging.

May’s drift towards soft Brexit after presenting herself as the guardian of hard Brexit has the support of most of the Cabinet, and Conservative MPs, but has been disappointing hard Brexiteers for some time. An agreement of the full cabinet at the Prime Minister’s country residence for soft Brexit has led to the resignation of the two most hard Brexit-oriented ministers.

It seems unlikely this this will deter May from a soft Brexit policy, which everyone agrees can only become more soft in negotiations with the EU to achieve an agreed exit. It also seems unlikely that most Conservative MPs will resist this policy. The biggest problem for May could be that the opposition parties want to vote against the government in call circumstances, so could vote with hard Brexit Conservative MPs to bring down any Brexit agreement.

At this point Brexit might completely break down, with the UK becoming a full member of EFTA, so in practice a member of the EU which exchanges some opt-outs for absence from the decision making processes and institutions. It might even lead to a suspension of Brexit, or a second referendum in which the electorate chooses between the exit package and staying in the EU.

At present, the most likely options in descending order are: 1. soft Brexit, outside formal association with the EU, but like that in practice, 2. formal association with the EU, maybe meaning membership of EFTA, 3. the complete breakdown of Brexit. This could change and so far change has been to move further and further away from hard Brexit.

Personally I support continuing membership of the EU. It is inevitable that large parts of the UK economy will ‘align’ with EU regulations, so it is best to be part of the institutions and processes which decide on these regulations. That is the most pragmatic version of my argument.

I am also a strong European integrationist, even a federalist romantic. The qualification of this idealism is that integration should not go further than public opinion or institutional capacity can accept at any one moment and that economic realities should guide the relationship with Europe for and against the kind of integration I favour at heart.

My own ideal is a kind of revival of the medieval dreams of ‘universal’ (i.e. European) Empire. The poet Dante was a great exponent of such a vision in his classic of political thought On Monarchy, which does not exclude city republics, even favours them under a high European sovereign. We can join it with Marsiglio of Padua’s slightly later call for an empire with elections to have something like democratic federation for Europe.

Leaving my European romanticism aside for the moment, the current realities are that the UK’s exit from the EU has become more and more complicated by the disadvantages of disentangling complex and far reaching institutional and economic links, particularly when most people involved want to keep an open border with the Republic of Ireland and keep 100% of the current level of access to the internal market.

Latest thoughts on Brexit: Its Decay, Italy (and Ireland), Cars, and Giving up British Citizenship

The slow decay of Brexit: a Rule-Taking Country

I don’t mean that the UK will stay in the EU. I fully expect it to formally depart next year. If the poor performance of the UK economy compared with the Eurozone continues, I also expect the UK to rejoin in a few decades, when the growth divergence is not just in figures, but felt in everyday life, such as when people find it too expensive to travel in Europe or buy goods from Europe; if they do travel they notice that everything seems expensive and there are more nice things abroad than at home, while European tourists will seem to have huge amounts of money to throw around.

It might or might not work out like that, but the point here is that the UK, behind headlines about soft versus hard Brexit, is moving towards an ‘alignment’ with the single market and the customs union: not formal membership but keeping nearly all the rules. The short term losses in trade from leaving both the single market and the customs union, along with the Republic of Ireland/Northern Ireland border question, have combined to make de facto membership of the single market and the customs union inevitable. Hardening the border at all between the two parts of the island of Ireland is economically disruptive and very threatening to a Northern Ireland peace settlement, in which the Irish nationalist-republican side in NI can live with being part of the UK as long as the North and the Republic are unified via the EU and associated commercial agreements.

This is what I get from following Eurosceptic sources when they get round to proper conversation and analysis, rather than fighting the remain-leave battle. Brexit outbursts of premature triumphalism over Italy, or demands to abolish the upper House of Parliament because the Lords uses its constitutional rights to pass amendments they don’t agree with back to the Commons for the final decision, are a distraction from the collapse of full Brexit.

The idea of a ‘no deal’ walk-away from the EU has been abandoned and inevitably the UK will accept single market/customs union rules while the government makes a show of leaving everything. Because the UK very probably will not be a formal member of the single market (though there is a possibility of joining the EEA which would mean formally staying in the single market), it will be able to reduce migration from the EU (not a great thing to my mind), which will bring joy to a large part of the population (particularly the Brexit-voting part). No doubt the reality of moving to what Jacob Rees-Mogg (a well known, hard-Brexit Conservative MP) calls ‘vassal state’ status will be covered over with that issue, but the reality is the UK will accept rules for customs and economic regulation made by the EU indefinitely.

‘Indefinitely’ means ‘permanent’ though this is being covered up by talk of ‘transitional periods’. Alternatives to this have collapsed with the failure of ‘no deal’. The New Hard Brexit is to accept aligned rules on goods, but not on services, with the UK’s exceptional role in financial services in mind. However, there is no indication that the EU will give this kind of deal, despite the Brexiteer posturing about the UK being too powerful to push around, which has clearly been shown as empty by negotiations so far.

Over-excited Brexiteers getting Italy wrong (and Ireland)

So a new government formed without anti-Euro currency finance minister. 5 Star and the League (the coalition partners) are not impeaching President Sergio Mattarella. The idea they would is a bit of a joke anyway, as it would require the agreement of the Supreme Court and a vote of both chambers of the Italian parliament to achieve an impeachment. The issue behind the non-impeachment was that Mattarella had vetoed an anti-Euro candidate for finance minister: Paolo Savona (who now has another post in the government).

Some relevant facts here. 1. Italian presidents have the constitutional right to veto ministerial nominations and have frequently done so before 2. Recent Italian opinion polls show support for the Euro at over 60% 3. Neither coalition party ran on an anti-Euro manifesto.

Claims that Mattarella is some pathetic weak instrument of the European institutions who ordered him to keep Savona out are themselves absurd. 1. There is a shared preference of Mattarella, the Italian public, and European institutions for staying in the Euro 2. Mattarella is from a political family in Sicily, which went anti-mafia and Sergio Materall’s brother, Piersanti, who was head of the regional government, was assassinated by the mafia as a result. I think we can say Sergio is a character of substance to stay in politics after that.

Regarding constitutions and democracy, constitutions establish limits on the power of temporary majorities through rules and institutions designed to embed basic rules about rights and the use of power. This is why democracy of a kind worth having is referred to as ‘constitutional liberal democracy’. You cannot both be in favour of constitutional democracy and complain when constitutional constraints express themselves in the action that Mattarella took, which is well within his formal powers and previous precedent.

Many of the triumphalist Brexiteers in the UK, who were shouting about Mattarella as an enemy of democracy who was about to be punished, are admirers of the US ‘constitutional conservatism’ which, on the face of it, advocates very strict restraints on the actions of elected bodies according to the supposed original meaning of the constitution. You can’t have it both ways. And even if you think democracy means the unrestrained right of a majority, there is no majority support for leaving the Euro in Italy and no manifesto mandate for the coalition to leave the Euro.

You could argue that Mattarella made a mistake about perceptions and had been outplayed, that had some plausibility for a few days but does not look so correct now. Mattarella has got what he wanted and will not be impeached. It’s true that the League has strongly increased its support since the election in opinion polls, but that mostly precedes the ministerial crisis. Brexiteers are still clinging to an attempted triumphalism over Italy. The Italians are standing up to Brussels, which supposedly is a lesson to Britain to be tougher in Brexit negotiations. Well it is a bit soon to say whether the Coalition in Italy represents Eurosceptic triumph and hard to see what this has to do with Brexit negotiations.

What loud mouthed Brexiteers in the UK say about Italy is in some ways not very important, but what is important is the presumption to know more than they do and circulate false assumptions about European politics in the UK, which in turn distorts our debates and assumptions, and which can then pop up amongst Proper centre-right journalists and commentators Who Should Know Better.

Something similar has emerged with Brexiteer attitudes towards Ireland’s attempts to keep an open border with Northern Ireland. Manipulated by the EU institutions with naive and incompetent leaders (rather reminiscent of old prejudices about the Irish being stupid) has been standard opinion, and then there was the claim by a senior Conservative politician, Iain Duncan-Smith, that the Irish position is to do with a forthcoming presidential election. 1. The Irish president has no political powers whatsoever 2. There may not be an election, since no one has announced a wish to run against the incumbent so far and it may suit the major parties in Ireland to leave it like that. Funnily enough all those stupid naive Irish leaders manipulated by the EU have given Ireland much greater economic growth than the UK. What an economic miracle there would be in Ireland if they were as clever as Brexiteers!

It’s difficult to stop Brexiteers from 1. using simplistic rhetoric about majorities and Will of the People to suit their immediate anti-EU goals without concern for consistency and the values of liberal democracy 2. Living in an imagined world where European politicians they disagree with are stupid and/or slaves of the European Commission, conspiring against democracy. These views should be challenged and left with the true believers, away from informed debate.

Brexiteers and German car companies

UK enthusiasts for leaving the EU have a strange obsession with German car makers. They export so many cars to the UK, they will MAKE the German government which will MAKE the European Commission give us the exit deal we want. This has been going on from all kinds of people ever since the Leave Referendum (maybe during the campaign as well, but I missed that). It is an expectation that has obviously been falsified by the course of negotiations in which the EU has got 10s of billions of Euros from the UK to even start negotiations (though the UK tries to pretend otherwise) and has refused the kind of market access the Brexiteer enthusiasts assumed they would get automatically thanks to Volkswagen, BMW, and Mercedes (!).

Even today, listening to the Telegraph Brexit podcast, I heard Christopher Hope (the highly affable and mostly reasonable chair) keep on about how German carmakers were going to make Brussels gives the UK what it wants. The guests, pro-Brexit people from the Telegraph, were clearly bemused as they had been explaining how the UK was going to remain ‘aligned’ with the single market. Clearly if the UK is already de facto accepting the ‘indefinite’ (i.e. permanent) application of single market rules, German car makers have no incentive to MAKE Merkel give the UK another deal preferable to hardcore Brexiteers.

Of course the saddest expression of this muddled thinking came from Boris Johnson (the notoriously attention seeking and inconsistent foreign minister) when he claimed Italian prosecco wine manufacturers would make Rome/Brussels give the UK a Brexiteer-friendly trade deal. It turns out demand for prosecco in Italy is greater than supply and the makers can easily live with reduced demand in the UK.

The German car industry is of course much larger and not dependent on the supply of a particular kind of grape. Still, just one seventh of German cars are sold in the UK. Now obviously it would be very bad news to lose one seventh of the market, but there are no circumstances in which German manufacturers would sell no cars in the UK, the drop would never be as great as one seventh. Sales of German cars are already declining in the UK and given weak UK economic performance compared with Germany, the decline is likely to continue. Anyway, it should now just be really bloody obvious that German car manufacturers have not united to force Berlin/Brussels to accept a hardcore Brexit agenda! There is clearly a very big stream of reality distorting national self-obsession amongst Brexiteers who believe this kind of thing. Well it has now been shown to be thoroughly incorrect, let go now!

Brexit Bureaucracy and Renouncing UK Citizenship

UK nationals living outside the UK in the EU are applying for citizenship abroad to retain rights they lose after Brexit. Some of these countries forbid dual citizenship so UK citizens are renouncing UK citizenship. The Home Office takes the opportunity to raise fees for renouncing citizenship, though evidently its revenue is already increasing because of charges for renouncing citizenship. Didn’t Brexiteers tell us Brexit would reduce state bureaucracy?