Brexit: golden rules and taboo questions

The Brexit debate sees the endless repetition of mendacious claims, meaningless slogans and fake news. But key questions appear off limits – because no-one wants to discuss the possible answers.  They reveal that what is a stake is not a simple matter of “in” or “out”. It is what is allowed to happen afterwards – and who really wants what.

Now that the manifestos of the European Reform parties in other members states have been published can we begin to read some of the arguments that no one wants us to hear.

I therefore feel a need to throw a rock into the stinky pool to see what emerges.

But first the Golden Rules for interpreting the answers.

  1. Nothing is quite what it seems.
  2. Everyone has a vested interest, alias valid point of view and they all have good reasons for them.
  3. Those accusing others of ignorance or stupidity should take a look in the mirror and then think a little harder.

Please bear these rules in mind when asking taboo questions and listening to the answers.

I summarise my top three below, I also summarise some of the answers. I would very much wish to hear yours.

1 What is the difference between “the” Customs Union, “a” Customs Union and Swiss style frictionless borders?

  • “The” Customs Union means that US multinationals can continue to pay VAT and Corporation Tax on UK earnings in Dublin or Luxembourg.
  • “A” Customs Union means that US multinationals may be able to continue to pay VAT and Corporation Tax on UK earnings in Dublin or Luxembourg.
  • Swiss style frictionless borders mean VAT and Corporation Tax on domestic earnings are collected (and retained) locally while goods from, for example, Italy can transit a non-member to France (and vice versa) with no need to stop. Pre-cleared Swiss imports and exports can transit equally rapidly. The TIR processes predate the EU and are international. The Mayor of Calais (which stands to lose most from border delays, Calais also owns the port of Dover) has promised equally rapid processes. The risk is that he may have problems with striking customs officials (fearful for their jobs) or fisherman (if they are not squared after Brexit).

2 What is the Irish Backstop?

The Irish backstop is  a McGuffin . The aim is to delay decisions that could lead, inter alia, to a 10% (or more) cut in the budget for running the Commission before the current incumbents have left.  Such a cut could necessitate halting sessions of the European parliament in Strasbourg. This is already being called for by reform candidates in other member states.  It would be a severe embarrassment to President Macron – but not to anyone else.

3 What difference would No Deal and reverting to WTO rules make?

It depends which rules you invoke:

  • A two year period of no change while agreement is reached?
  • No change until agreement is reached?
  • Independent arbitration (various formulae) when agreement cannot be reached?

None of these is the nirvana or the existential threat claimed – according to which side you are on. All, however, end the ability of the EU (or EU Court) to impose a solution in the event of dispute. They also end the potential for imposing changes that have not been agreed by the UK.

So what other questions do you think need to be asked? 

Having spent twenty five years of my life trying to make a reality of the mythical digital single market, with its tangle of geographic software and content licenses and differential pricing, I can think of plenty more questions. Then there are questions about the various “licence to practice” barriers to the free movement of professional and technical staff – except when they are in short supply and will not undercut the natives. The depressed after-tax earnings of freelance IT staff in the UK should, of course, be blamed on IR35 and Tier 2 visas for non-EU immigrants. The EU has had little impact. It has its own shortages and many of our freelances have done better by working in, for example, Germany.


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