On Article 50 Day

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A genuine opportunity for democratic renewal – if we can keep it

Many believed – either through arrogance or hopelessness – that this day would never come.

Article 50 Day: the day that the British government triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and formally signalled to the European Union our decision to secede from that dysfunctional, anachronistic and profoundly anti-democratic political union, conceived more than a century ago and constructed in a post-war age now almost completely alien to us.

Of the many pictures which may come to represent “Brexit Day” in historical memory, the two images which struck me are the photograph of Theresa May signing the Article 50 notification letter in Downing Street last night, and the television footage of the British official (Ambassador Sir Tim Barrow) in Brussels, striding into the European Council building to deliver the note to president Donald Tusk.

Why? Because these images more than any other represent the astonishing triumph of democracy over the near-unanimous will of the political establishment.

Theresa May signing Article 50 Letter - Downing Street - Brexit - EU

Sir Tim Barrow - Article 50 letter - Brexit- European Union - Britain

Theresa May did not want to sign the Article 50 letter. During the referendum she campaigned, albeit half-heartedly and often nearly invisibly, for Britain to remain in the European Union before accepting the inevitable and promising to implement Brexit as she manoeuvred for the Tory leadership.

And the British civil service, foreign office and diplomatic corps, represented here by Tim Barrow, our Permanent Representative to the EU, certainly did not want to deliver the letter, so accustomed are they to thinking and operating only within the narrow tramlines of those competencies not surrendered to Brussels..

The generations of politicians, diplomats and bureaucrats who currently run Britain were raised on a narrative of national decline and inevitable dependence on the Brussels political union as the only means of amplifying our fading voice in world affairs. Their formative years were spent during the Winter of Discontent and marked by one post-war national humiliation after another. The tremendous post-1970s (Thatcherite) revival has failed to disabuse them of the utterly false, poisonous notion that Britain is a small and insignificant country, no longer capable of governing herself in the manner of other independent countries such as Canada or Australia, let alone as the fifth largest economy and major cultural, commercial, diplomatic and military power that we truly are.

By huge margins, these people were deeply wedded to Britain’s inevitable future as a European Union member state, and consider Brexit a huge mistake bordering on a tragic act of national self-harm. And yet Theresa May signed the letter, Tim Barrow delivered it, Article 50 was duly triggered and the process of Britain’s secession from the European Union was put into motion.

Why is this something to be celebrated? Because at a time when there is every reason for cynicism and doubt, it shows that at a fundamental level, the British people are indeed still in charge of their own destiny.

Theresa May did not want to sign the letter and Tim Barrow did not want to deliver it, but they did so because they retain a sufficient fear of (if not respect for) the public that they dared not abuse their power by overriding the results of a public referendum. Note that there is no such reticence about subverting democracy in the diminished union we are now leaving – unfavourable referendum results in member states (relating to EU treaties or the ill-fated constitution) have consistently been treated as unfortunate but minor setbacks and then sidestepped by the Brussels machinery, its leaders safe in the knowledge that they are so insulated from democratic accountability that they will suffer no consequences for their actions.

In Britain, however, there remained just enough fear of the people for our leaders to be forced to do the right thing, against their will. That’s not to say that they will get Brexit right, not by a long stretch – right up until Referendum Day, many Brexiteers were too busy hating the EU to identify the future relationship they wanted to have with it, while bitter Remainers did much to poison public and media opinion against the kind of transitional EEA deal which would have caused the least economic disruption. But given a mandate to take Britain out of the European Union our leaders are now doing so, however clumsily and against their will. This is as it should be.

Brendan O’Neill also gets it:

What we’re witnessing in Britain today, with Theresa May triggering Article 50, is something radical: the political class is going against its own judgement under the duress of the demos. The polite, peaceful duress of the demos, it should be pointed out.

We know that 73 per cent of MPs want to stay in the EU. We know many in the House of Lords are horrified by Brexit and were keen to hold it up. We know 70 per cent of business leaders wanted Britain to remain, and that some of them launched costly legal battles to try to stymie the Brexit momentum. And yet in the end, all of them, every one, has had to roll over and give in to the masses: to the builders, nurses, teachers, mums, old blokes, unemployed people and others who effectively said to the political class: ‘You’re wrong. We should leave’. To the people surprised that such a state of affairs can exist, that the political set can be made to do something it doesn’t want to by the mass of society, including even uneducated people: what did you think democracy meant? This is what it means.

Yes, this is what democracy means. To do anything else – to override or subvert the referendum decision for Brexit – would mean the triumph of technocracy  and well-meaning dictatorship over democracy.

We tend to forget, because it has not been this way within living memory for many citizens, but in a democracy the leaders are supposed to fear and respect the people and their judgment, not the other way around. As government relentlessly expanded and the bureaucratic state encroached ever more on our lives, we have unfortunately come to fear the government far more than government leaders fear the public – but not so with Brexit. Government ministers know that to defy the Brexit vote and seek to remain in the EU against the wishes of the people would visit such anarchy and destruction upon the country that they daren’t seriously even consider it (save inconsequential politicians such as Tim Farron). And so no matter how much they dislike it, today they implement our instructions.

Of course, Brexit is just one issue. In many other arenas of public life, officials have absolutely no qualms about defying public opinion and treating voters as polling units to be managed or placated rather than autonomous, thinking and engaged citizens to be feared and respected. We must take care not to merely repatriate powers from Brussels back into the arms of a power-hungry, over-centralised Westminster government that will fail to act in the interest of the UK’s diverse home nations and regions, and which carelessly surrendered its own powers to Brussels without democratic consent in the first place. Now, more than ever, we must hold our politicians and civil servants to account.

Brexit is the start of an opportunity for real democratic and constitutional reform, not an outcome in itself. Secession from the European Union makes the rejuvenation of our democracy possible, but by no means inevitable.

When queried by a stranger as to the outcome of the constitutional convention he was leaving, American founding father Benjamin Franklin famously replied: “A Republic, if you can keep it”.

Today, as Theresa May’s government (for all its many flaws) triggers Article 50 and serves notice on the European Union, we seek to reclaim our national self-determination and renew our democracy – if we can keep it. If we can rise to the occasion and collectively seize the great opportunity which now stands before us.


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Deal Or No Deal?


So, to summarise our prime minister’s magisterial achievement at the European Council summit in Brussels:

  • We won’t become part of something (a European superstate) which can only come about through a new treaty which Britain already has the right not to ratify, making this renegotiation “win” utterly superfluous
  • We have supposedly won a unique exemption from “ever closer union”, though curiously the treaty which firmly commits us to this goal will go unamended
  • We won’t join the euro – an obvious extension of the status quo which any British prime minister could have achieved simply by staying home in Downing Street and binge-watching Netflix
  • Same for Schengen and “open borders”
  • There will be new restrictions on migrant benefits, now apparently a burning issue yet something which wasn’t even on most people’s list of EU grievances until David Cameron suddenly started talking about it just prior to his European shuttle diplomacy

Peace for our time.

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Time To Get Angry About David Cameron’s Brexit Negotiation Trickery

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Whether you are staunchly pro-EU or eager for Brexit, the prime minister is playing the British people for fools with his manufactured last-minute crunch talks with Donald Tusk. Do we really want to reward this kind of behaviour from our politicians?

If the conventional media narrative is to be believed (and it isn’t), David Cameron has secured a “major breakthrough” in his talks with EU leaders on our suddenly-central concern about migrants claiming benefits.

Of course, this “win” consists solely of a so-called “emergency brake” on immigration which could only be applied with the consent of other EU members. And migrants coming to Britain to supposedly claim benefits is so far down the list of things which are egregiously offensive and wrong with the European Union that the whole pantomime is laughable. But this is all that David Cameron has, and much of the media is gamely writing it up as a meaningful event.

From the Telegraph:

[European Council President] Mr Tusk had been due to publish his final offer to the UK today, but has now agreed to hold another 24 hours of talks after Mr Cameron told him that the deal on the table was “not good enough”. The Prime Minister warned Mr Tusk that Britain could vote to leave the EU unless Brussels does more to ensure that the number of foreigners coming to the UK is reduced.

[..] Last week the EU offered Mr Cameron a watered-down version of the “emergency brake” that would allow him to temporarily limit access to benefits – but only if Brussels agrees that UK public services are being strained. It was described by Eurosceptic Tories as a “bad joke” and “an insult to Britain”.

On Sunday night Mr Tusk accepted Mr Cameron’s demand that any “emergency brake” comes into force immediately. It allows Mr Cameron to reject claims that his “emergency brake” will be subject to a veto by Brussels.

Of course, this is being breathlessly talked up by Downing Street:

“It is very significant that they have conceded this,” a Downing Street source said. “They are saying that in the current circumstances, levels of migration into the UK meets the requirement for an emergency brake. It shows that this is not a theoretical brake and that it is something that will definitely happen.”

So because Donald Tusk has generously granted that the “emergency brake” may come into force straight away, we are supposed to gratefully take our crumbs from the table and forget about the fact that as with every other area that David Cameron once airily promised to reassert British sovereignty, the critical decision ultimately rests with Brussels.

What a transparently false and cosmetic exercise this all is. If Donald Tusk was prepared to release his “final offer” to the UK today and is now only delaying publication until tomorrow, no significant changes can possibly be made in that short span of time.

David Cameron may have huffed and puffed and made a great show of telling journalists that the current deal is not “good enough”, but he will secure no more from Donald Tusk. 24 hours is insufficient time for Tusk to hammer out a new deal and get sign-off from the twenty-seven other EU member states, so if anything radically different does appear tomorrow it will have been pre-agreed by the other twenty-seven and almost certainly shared with Cameron too as part of a cosmetic, scripted act of political theatre.

At this stage in the game, Donald Tusk knows what the other EU leaders are willing to concede and David Cameron knows exactly how much he can demand if he wants an agreement to be signed off in order to ram the referendum through by June (and this still seems very improbable to me). The only ones in the dark are the British public, who were never meaningfully consulted before the prime minister jetted off to air our concerns to Brussels – concerns which he never took the time to consult over or understand before embarking on his mission.

As I and many other Brexit bloggers have pointed out for some time, there is no “renegotiation” taking place, nor has there been. But if we must persist in talking in terms of a renegotiation then we should recognise that David Cameron is sitting at the same end of the bargaining table as the other EU leaders, sharing as they do a common goal of keeping Britain within the political union. We, the British people, are at the other end of the table, on our own. Nobody is arguing our case. Meanwhile, our prime minister colludes with his European colleagues to determine precisely how little they can get away with offering while still buying our acquiescence.

Of course, all of this is quite immaterial, depressing though it may be. For there is no change or concession possible which will change the European Union from being an explicitly political, tightening union whose every act and function serves to drain sovereignty and autonomy from its constituent member states and pool it in Brussels, where it can be wielded by politicians who make the Westminster political establishment look like the model of transparency and accountability.

On this point at least, Daniel Hannan is absolutely right when he writes in CapX:

Either way, the ‘row’ between David Cameron and Donald Tusk, which journalists are reporting so breathlessly, is non-existent. There is nothing to have a row about. Either Westminster is still in charge of welfare policy, in which case the PM doesn’t need anyone’s permission to change the rules; or Brussels is, in which case any alteration requires a treaty change which, as all sides now accept, won’t happen for many years.

I realise that reporters have to write something. I’m sure someone somewhere will have been interested to read that the Downing Street menu involved apple and pear crumble. But, please, guys: the whole thing is such an utter, obvious, confection. You can be pro-EU or anti-EU. There are sincere arguments both ways. But let’s not pretend that anything is changing.

But while the back-and-forth with Donald Tusk and the eventual reveal of whatever package they have already cooked up is hardly news, it is still worth reminding ourselves of the lengths to which the British prime minister will go in order to trick the British people into believing that he has radically changed the terms of our EU membership.

And it should rightly make one wonder: if David Cameron can be so manipulative when it comes to the European Union, how can we trust him on any other matter?

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The Daily Smackdown: David Cameron’s Begging Letter To The EU

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The problem with the European Union cannot be solved through a renegotiation, because the renegotiation is just another symptom of the problem

If you hadn’t already worked out that David Cameron’s EU renegotiation is a sham, a PR exercise from a PR prime minister designed to make it look as though Britain is leading real change in Europe when in fact we are merely haggling over a few cosmetic and inconsequential concessions, then your remaining doubts should now be answered.

Yesterday, the government released the wheedling, subservient letter that David Cameron has written to Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, begging his permission to reclaim a few minor and superficial aspects of British sovereignty. The fact that half of the prime minister’s demands – such as the call for the European Union to respect the principle of subsidiarity – are things which the EU has long been committed to doing on paper, but shown zero interest in following in practice – gives zero hope that whatever Cameron takes home from Brussels will be honoured.

But Britain’s fundamental problem with the European Union cannot be solved through a renegotiation, because the renegotiation itself is just another symptom of the problem. For as long as any British prime minister must flatter and beg countries like Portugal or Malta and seek their permission before acting in our own national interest, we have no true sovereignty and the European Union will remain an unwanted, antidemocratic millstone around our necks.

No possible outcome of David Cameron’s EU renegotiation will come close to touching this fundamental issue, because the EU is determined to remain a supranational political union, sitting above national governments and gradually acquiring more and more of their power. That’s just a fact, and those europhiles still in denial need to stop deluding themselves that an organisation with its own parliament, executive and judiciary is somehow just there to promote love and understanding between the peoples of Europe, with no designs on our democracy. Such a view is childishly naive.

Even if Cameron’s plea for Britain to be somehow exempted from the Treaty of Rome commitment to ever-closer union is heard, this will simply relegate us to a form of “associate membership” which would leave us – as Leave HQ put it so succinctly – “out on the edges and still on the leash”.

And so we are left with a cosmetic list of demands based not on any attempt to reflect the concerns of the British people, but based instead on what limited concessions David Cameron thinks he might be able to cajole from his European friends. He is essentially starting at his desired outcome (Britain voting to “remain” in the EU) and then working backward, rather than starting with Britain’s national interest at the forefront of his mind, and then letting the chips fall where they may when it comes to the renegotiation.

The whole exercise is a sham, and I refuse to be a part of it. I will not report the ups and downs of the coming “renegotiation” effort, with the inevitable carefully choreographed table-banging rows between Britain and France or the back-and-forth with Poland on migrant benefits access, because the whole thing is a PR exercise designed to make it look like our Conservative In Name Only government are looking out for our national interest when in reality they are only looking for a way out of an unwanted political problem.

Or as my Conservatives for Liberty colleague Ben Kelly puts it in his must-read piece:

There are no negotiations because the outcome of this act of political theatre has been decided for some time, the great deception is already in play. Osborne and Cameron will go through the ridiculous charade of demanding “associate membership” and their EU colleagues will play along and agree to their “demands”.

They will then return declaring a great victory for Britain and ask the public to endorse it in the referendum and give them a mandate to create our “new deal” in a “reformed EU”, which may very well include promises of minor concessions of reduced contributions and some leeway on the “four demands”.

On the surface, this two tier structure will seem enticing, in reality not only will we retain all the major disadvantages we currently suffer – from our trade policy being an ‘exclusive policy of the EU’, to the union’s redundancy in a globalised world, to its essentially anti-democratic nature – but once the eurozone integrates further we will be truly isolated within the union as a second class member.

What matters most now is not whatever choreographed stunt George Osborne or David Cameron cook up every day to make it look like they are going to battle for Britain. What matters most is honing our arguments in favour of Brexit to reach out to the undecided middle. And this means coalescing around a viable plan for a phased British exit from the EU, one which reassures wavering voters that stepping away from the EU is a prudent move, and not a leap into the unknown.

That plan is called Flexcit – I have seen no others that come close to Flexcit’s level of detail and rigour. All eurosceptics, Brexiteers and “Leave” campaigners now have a duty to read it, improve it where possible and then either champion it or propose a better plan of their own.

EU Renegotiation - Brexit - European Union

Further Reading:

The biggest gamble of all is to stay in the EU

The Cameron Deception: “associate membership” of the EU

Mr. Cameron still can’t beat the Flexcit offer

The EU makes us self-absorbed and insular

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