Four months after the EU referendum, our leaders continue to shrink from the challenges (and opportunities) which lie ahead
As is nearly always the case, Pete North has the best analysis and summary of exactly where we are with our Brexit deliberations – and right now, the answer is rather depressing:
For several months we had the great and the good telling us how important the single market was and how valuable the EU was to the UK. Now that they are tasked with leaving the EU we see that they can barely define the EU and the single market let alone offer an adequate critique as to whether it is right for the UK.
Through successive treaties our parliament has idly signed away substantial areas of policy to be decided overseas with hardly any public scrutiny. It is therefore ironic that MPs now demand parliamentary sovereignty in scrutinising the terms of the exit arrangements when they showed so little interest in what they were signing away.
By voting to leave the EU we have caught the entire system of government off guard to show that is is totally ill-equipped to govern – and those claiming to represent us have failed in their duty to safeguard our democracy. Through forty years of negligence the UK’s trading relationship with Canada is decided not by Number Ten or Westminster. Instead it depends entirely on the Walloon assembly in Belgium.
And therein lies the inherent flaw in the EU design. The DNA is faulty. Introduce democracy and the whole thing grinds to a halt. Take it away and power ends up in the hands of the few. It cannot work and it cannot be reformed yet we have endured decades of politicians telling us otherwise.
One of the most depressing aspects of life post-EU referendum has been watching our national leaders shrink from the challenge of implementing Brexit. I don’t mean that they are all necessarily in denial, or that they wish to subvert the referendum result – but rather that their every public pronouncement suggests that many of them are simply not up to the task which lies ahead. Typically, this isn’t a question of intelligence, but rather a lack of imagination and ambition. And in truth, perhaps it is too much to expect the same politicians used to implementing EU decisions or operating within their constraints to suddenly step up and become adept drivers of a country suddenly without training wheels.
The debate has thus devolved into two rather tiresome strands – the one held by most Remainers, who have become intent on catastrophising Brexit at every turn and seizing upon every scrap of potentially troubling news as further evidence that the end is nigh, and the opposing, buccaneering view which loudly insists that everything can be wrapped up to Britain’s complete satisfaction by March 2019, and sees any questioning of this certainty as evidence of anti-Brexit treachery.
This blog falls down the gap between these two comically exaggerated positions, which is perhaps why I haven’t been writing about Brexit as much as I should have been lately. One can only slap down so much ridiculous establishment catastrophising of Brexit (now the nation’s fluffy kittens are in peril, apparently), while pointing out the need for a transitional arrangement and securing continuity of access to the single market still falls on deaf ears among those in charge, and only feeds the smug (but not entirely false) Remainer assertion that Brexiteers don’t know what they are doing.
And yet a transitional arrangement is exactly what we need, as Pete North explains:
What will become clear in due course is that Britain will need a continuity arrangement that sees little or no change to the labyrinth of customs procedures and regulations that make up the single market. Neither Britain nor the EU can afford to start tinkering under the hood of long established trade rules. The sudden collapse of CETA at the hands of a Belgian provincial assembly shows just how dysfunctional the system is.
If anything is inflicting damage on the UK it is not Brexit but the overall uncertainty over what Brexit looks like. This in part down to those media vessels determined to make Brexit look like a catastrophe and in part down to those politicians who have not bothered to plan for the eventuality. We are four months on from the referendum and key ministers are still struggling with basic terminology.
Brexit is by far the biggest and most ambitious thing that this country has attempted in decades – frankly, since the Second World War. It demands painstakingly extricating Britain from a web of agreements and schemes of a complexity befitting an organisation which still seeks to become the supranational government of a federal Europe. But to make it even more complicated, we will wish to maintain many avenues of cooperation after leaving the EU’s political union, meaning that a slash and burn of laws will not do – hence Theresa May’s much over-hyped Great Repeal Act.
As Pete points out, it is highly ironic that sulky Remainers are suddenly so interested in having Parliament examine every aspect of the secession deal (with the more juvenile characters, who clearly know nothing about negotiations, expecting to be briefed in advance) when over several decades they blithely signed away powers to the EU with barely a second thought, and certainly no real public debate.
It makes the Remain camp’s current favourite attack line – Brexiteers wanted to return decision-making power to Parliament, so why won’t they let Parliament have a say?! – especially cynical. But the argument is wrong anyway. “Returning powers to Parliament” is a handy catchphrase, but it is a glib one, always favoured more by eurosceptic MPs than the general public.
The current anti-establishment rage currently roiling Europe and America shows that political leaders have become too distant from (and unresponsive to) the people, no matter the level of power. Therefore, returning powers to the Westminster parliament is not enough – we need an end to British over-centralisation and the devolution of power back to the counties, cities, towns and individuals.
Sadly, the chance of meaningful constitutional reform taking place in Britain any time soon continues to hover around zero. And rather than Brexit being the catalyst for such change, as this blog once hoped, it now seems that an intellectually and imaginatively challenged political elite will hide behind the complexity of Brexit as an excuse to avoid doing anything else of substance. One can easily foresee a situation in a decade’s time where Britain is technically outside the EU but stuck in an increasingly permanent-looking halfway house, with acceptable access to the EEA but with none of the later work to move towards a global single market even started.
Would this be good enough? Well, Britain would be outside of the political structure known as the EU, which was always the base requirement – so if one is happy to shoot for the middle and accept the bare minimum then yes, it might have to do. But it would be an appalling failure of ambition, when there are real opportunities to improve the way that international trade and regulation works and to revitalise British democracy through wider constitutional reform.
But to realise great ambitions requires there to be half-decent leaders pointing the way. And looking at the Tory “Three Brexiteers” and the dumpster fire that is the Labour Party, one cannot help but conclude that great leaders – even just competent heavyweight politicians – are in short supply at present. Do you really see Boris Johnson’s name featuring in a future Wikipedia article about the great British constitutional convention of 2020? Or Theresa May’s? Jeremy Corbyn or Hillary Benn’s?
Do I regret my decision to campaign for Brexit? No, never. The European Union is offensive to any proper sense of democracy, or to the notion that the people of a sovereign nation state should decide and consent to the manner in which they are governed. Being rid of the EU (and hopefully helping to precipitate that hateful organisation’s eventual demise) is a solidly good thing on its own. But Brexit could be so much more than it is currently shaping up to become.
And perhaps this is the most damning thing of all about the European Union: the fact that 40 years of British EU membership has slowly turned the nation of Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee, Margaret Thatcher, Hugh Gaitskell, Tony Benn, Barbara Castle and Peter Shore – men and women of principle and substance – into the nation of Tony Blair, David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Chuka Umunna, Diane Abbott and Owen Smith.
A nation simply does not bounce back from that kind of decline in the space of a few years, and the more that our contemporary politicians carry on about Brexit the clearer this becomes.
Assuming that Brexit goes to plan, it may not be until the next generation of political leaders come of age (at the earliest) before we can finally take full advantage of our newfound freedom.
Top Image: Stux, Pixabay
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