Brexit: two wasted years

In a couple of weeks time we head off on our biennial midsummer trip to Sweden. That means it’s nearly two years since the last one, which also means it must be nearly two years since the Brexit vote, since I vividly remember flying out there the morning after the referendum. To avoid getting too depressed about the way things are going I’ve tried to avoid thinking about it too much this year, but that has mostly been a total failure, so I’m going to share the pain by ranting about it here instead.

To begin with I was (as you can probably tell from my earlier writing on the subject) disappointed that Leave won, and I thought we would be worse off outside the EU, but I actually wasn’t expecting it to be a total disaster. I thought that the government would just get on with the painstaking process of negotiating an agreement with the rest of Europe, compromising where necessary, and at the end of it day-to-day life would stay much the same for most people in the UK, just with a slightly poorer economy and maybe more annoyances for those who wanted to live and work abroad.

How wrong I was. Nearly two years on, I’m now seriously worried that it is shaping up to be a total, life-destroying disaster after all.

Earlier this week, a leaked report suggested that the UK would start to run out of food, medicine and fuel within days of a “no deal” Brexit. Predictably this has been dismissed as scaremongering, but it’s worth pointing out two facts about it: firstly, it originated from within the government, not from the EU or from some pro-Remain think tank; and secondly, this wasn’t even the worst of the possible scenarios they studied, it was the middle one of the three!

Brexiters in general seem unconcerned by this. It’s unthinkable that food shortages could ever happen in a modern western democracy, they say. And they’re absolutely right. It is (or at least was until now) unthinkable, but the point they’re missing is that it’s not unthinkable because of some innate law of the universe that guarantees a ready supply of all life’s essentials for rich countries no matter what happens. It’s unthinkable because a huge amount of effort has gone into building mind-bogglingly complicated legal frameworks and agreements that allow these things to flow as freely as possible, frameworks that now work so well that most of us barely ever stop to think about where the necessities we rely on actually come from. In Britain’s case many of those frameworks are now deeply integrated with the EU, and whether you like that or not, that is where we are right now. And the Brexiters have voted to tear those frameworks apart without, apparently, having any idea what to replace them with.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying (as some people do) that Brexit is inherently impossible, or that every possible version of it would be utterly catastrophic. There are two ways Britain could have left the EU without destroying itself in the process. The first would have been to seek a Norway-type deal, still fairly closely integrated with the EU without actually being a full member. This would have its disadvantages in that we would have to follow a lot of EU rules without having much say over them, but it would have been by far the least disruptive option and would have avoided scenarios like the ones the leaked report warns of.

The second option would have been to make a more complete withdrawal from the EU’s institutions, but to do it gradually enough that there was time for the UK to develop its own alternatives (for example, to build the necessary customs infrastructure and associated legal frameworks). Most experts (yeah, yeah, I know they’re not popular in Brexit Britain) seem to think it would take at least 5 years, if not considerably longer, to do this in a way that would allow a smooth transition to life outside the EU.

Unfortunately, the government has repeatedly ruled out the first option due to its various “red lines” (on trade deals, freedom of movement, ECJ jurisdiction, you name it), and we don’t have the 5+ years it would take to implement the second option properly. We have 9 months. Because as soon as the government triggered Article 50 in March last year, they started the clock counting down to March 2019, at which time we’ll be out, deal or no deal.

This two year period would have been far too short to make all the preparations required for the clean break with the EU that the government claims to want even if they hadn’t already pissed away more than half of it fighting like rats in a sack and achieving the square root of bugger all (which they now have). In my view it was criminally irresponsible of them to trigger Article 50 without first at least laying the groundwork for the extra agencies and institutions that a UK outside the EU was inevitably going to need, and even more so to trigger it without even having a coherent and realistic plan for what to do next.

It’s difficult now to see any way out of the corner they’ve boxed themselves into. If we end up leaving the EU without a deal there will be chaos, that much is obvious. Even if we negotiated a free trade deal similar to Canada’s, for example, we’ll still be screwed come March next year, because 9 months is just nowhere near enough time to replace all of the EU institutions we’d be leaving with new UK versions. It simply can’t be done. It seems increasingly obvious that the only way to avoid disaster now is to negotiate to stay in the single market and customs union, either temporarily or permanently, but the government still refuses (publicly at least) to recognise this.

It makes me wonder what on earth they are trying to achieve and what they think is going to happen. Are they just genuinely shambollic and incompetent, lurching from one crisis to the next, knowing on some level that they’re doomed but forever too distracted grappling with this week’s immediate problems to fully acknowledge it? Are they so deluded that they really think the rest of the EU is going to cave in and give them everything they want, despite all evidence to the contrary, not even bothering to prepare for the possibility that they might not get it? Or do they think that the chaotic aftermath of a no-deal Brexit will enable them to get away with policies that no-one would ordinarily vote for, privatising the NHS and slashing the welfare state and human rights protections to the bone, relying on the people rallying round to uncomplainingly make sacrifices in a time of national crisis?

Or is the whole thing just a bluff? Are they going to bring the country right to the very brink, close enough that no-one can fail to see what a terrible idea Brexit really is, so that when they cancel it at the last minute most people will quietly breathe a sigh of relief rather than getting angry about the referendum result not being respected?

Much as I would love that last explanation to be true, I think the truth is more likely some mixture of the first three. If so, I think the strategy of using Brexit to enable extreme right wing policies is a very risky one. Whatever the reason, if we end up having (entirely avoidable) food and medicine shortages on the Tories’ watch, they’re surely finished. Their reputation for being the responsible, prudent, safe option (not that it was ever deserved to begin with of course) would be in tatters and whoever stood against them in the next election would probably win a landslide victory.

They may think that a compliant press and frequent rousing calls for the country to patriotically unite behind them would help them weather that storm, but I wouldn’t be so sure. Brexit isn’t some unavoidable natural disaster or an attack from outside, it’s completely self-inflicted and unnecessary. I can’t see many Remainers in 2019 thinking “Well, I didn’t want Brexit in the first place, but now that the Tories have made a monumental, unprecedented balls-up of the whole thing and brought my country to its knees, I’d better throw my support behind them”. I can tell you right now, I certainly won’t be.

Oh well. It’s an interesting time to be following politics, that’s for sure. And despite the doom-and-gloom tone of most of this piece, I still don’t actually think a chaotic “no deal” exit is the most likely outcome. It’s certainly a real possibility, but my money would be on a humiliating climb-down to a messy last-minute compromise, when it finally dawns on the Tories what a “cliff edge” Brexit would really mean for the country and, more to the point, for their own careers. I hope I’m right.

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