Blue Room

The Exiting the EU Committee yesterday published 39 “Sectoral Reports” (not 57, or 58, or eleventy-three), selectively redacted for our reading pleasure.

Looking at my own sector of Higher Education, the key page of the relevant report is p. 12, “Sector views: This information was provided by the Government to the Committee, but the Committee has decided not to publish this section”. The rest compiles 2015/16 statistics on EU staff and students and HE funding. Page 9 notes that the “latest figures on education exports (2014), show that EU HE students contribute £2.6 billion per year to the UK economy”—a mere 7.43 Brexit-bus-weeks per year. In other words, they bring in about 25% of the actual net cost to the UK of our annual EU membership.

Rather than leading with the public release of these wholly inadequate sector “reports”, the main Brexit story on the Today programme this morning was blue passports. I hadn’t realised just how long the UK has had burgundy passports; they were introduced in 1988, almost thirty years ago. How emblematic of this whole farrago: UK society and the UK economy ripped apart for the sake of aging voters’ nostalgia for things from a generation ago. Let’s bring back flares and paisley while we’re at it. Or let’s just give them their pointless symbolism, and keep what really matters. Here’s the referendum we should have had:

Blue passports

Everyone is behaving as if the cliff has been avoided, because everyone wanted to be able to forget about it until January 2nd (or 3rd in Scotland), but the Phase One agreement is a fudge, and the worst is still to come. There’s no way May can sell Norway to hardline Brexiters: they know it’s EU-in-name-only. Which leaves Canada and the cliff—or, in practice, both. Actual trade negotiations won’t start until 30 March 2019, it will be impossible to agree a formal trade deal in the 21-month transition period, and after 29 March 2019 there’s no backsies for staying in the EU, which means we fall off the cliff on 1 January 2021: hard borders in Ireland, collapse of the UK service industry, the lot. The EU might give us some sort of dispensation over flights, out of pity, but they can’t agree everything out of pity. Assuming they would want to...

A Brexit which is seen to be much worse for the UK than it is for the EU actually makes Brexit more likely, because it means the EU cares less if the UK goes and because it incentivises Brexit headbangers to keep making as much aggro as possible to get across the finish line.

Thanks to WTO “most-favoured nation” status, a Canada+++ deal is a non-starter for the EU:

CETA contains a “most favoured nation” or “MFN” clause, which provides that (subject to some limited exemptions), if the EU grants better treatment to another country, such as the UK, it will then grant equivalent treatment to Canada.

If you add anything to Canada to make a new UK deal, Canada becomes Canada plus whatever you’ve added. Brexiters would no doubt then demand Canada Plus Plus Plus Plus Plus Plus.

One problem with using the name of the country as shorthand for their trade deal is that it lulls Leavers into thinking that we’ll be either “just like Canada” (and hey, what’s not to like?) or “even better than Canada” (maple syrup, plus plus plus!). In reality, we’ll be “Canada minus NAFTA minus enormous natural resources”. We should really be talking about CETA, not “Canada”, and EFTA, not “Norway”. Using tedious acronyms would also help remind people that you can’t live some carefree life free from bureaucracy and regulation outside the EU. The Swiss are outside the EU, and they’re a byword for bureaucracy.


My new year’s resolution is not to resign myself to Brexit, but to resist it. We’re at a point where the only realistic Brexit choices are Norway, Canada or the cliff, but where “none of this reality [has] filtered through to Theresa May”. If a Canada deal and the death of services exports proves unpalatable, and May does end up trying to sell us Norway, she’ll be trying to sell de facto EU membership minus any influence, and that’s eminently opposable on the same “take back control” basis that Leave used last year.

It’s going to need a ramping up of grassroots anti-Brexit activism to help the wavering middle realise this, though, and I’d rather help with that than wait for the axe to fall. (I’m talking to myself here, trying to steel my own resolve and shake off this 2017 mood of despair.) There’s such a simple line of attack open to anti-Brexiters now, given what’s happened in the intervening 18 months and what we’ve learned about it all:

If you could make one policy change that would require very little change in everyday practice, but which would improve our economy by £10 billion a year, boost the pound, attract new investment, secure workers’ rights, improve our international standing, keep authoritarians and interfering rich foreigners in check, help protect the environment, help millions in the UK who are worried about their futures, improve opportunities for young people, and free up our resources to deal better with poverty, low productivity and funding the NHS, would you? Yes? Then stop Brexit.

Adapted from comments posted to Metafilter.

22 December 2017 · Politics

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