The Taboo Debate: Unreformed Remain is no more serious an option than Clean Brexit

The United Kingdom is a prisoner of geography. It is part of Europe. Unlike the rest of Europe it is, however, protected from invasion by a natural barrier, the English Channel. There is no natural barrier between Brussels and Moscow other than a few rivers. The imperative behind the “The European Project” is not just the prevention of another war between France and Germany which begins with an invasion of Belgium. It is to protect against another invading horde from the East: whether Mongol or Muslim. The Commission cannot allow “Clean Brexit” to succeed. It needs the only armed forces that kill in cold blood to remain within the Union – it is not “just” our money.

Nor is “Clean Brexit” in the interest of the UK. London has been a pan-EU trading centre and entrepot between the Continent and the “rest of the world” for over a millenium: transitioning over time from long ships and tally sticks to electronic freight forwarding and on-line trading. London is one of the few places in the world where one can do business in whatever language, under whatever law the parties wish. That position is under threat from attempts to create a protectionist hegemony under EU law. London’s economic prosperity is linked, however, to that of our EU partners. Hence the equivocal attitude of those in the City who wish to be able to continue to business under EU law, just as they do under US law or the various schools of Sharia. They want the EU to succeed, so that they can make money out of that success. But they also want the freedom to look outwards to the rest of the world.

At this point we need to unravel a few fantasies – such as how much, or perhaps how little, the economic success of our European trading partners depends on the “achievements” of the European Union. A cruel view of Brussels today is: several thousand lobbyists working to protect the interests of corporate clients and well-funded NGOs by negotiating meaningless harmonisation, sweetened by subsidies and exemptions to pay off politically powerful and well-organised protectionist interest groups (like French farmers, fishermen and lorry drivers). Apart from the customs union and those matters also covered by WTO “rules”, progress towards a genuine single market has been glacial.

To take a few IT-related examples:

  • Why can you not legitimately watch the BBC over iplayer in Brussels?
  • Why do pre-fabricated buildings ordered over the Internet cost so much more in Austria than in Germany?
  • Why can a British lorry driver not do a circular route UK -France – Belgium – Netherlands – Germany – UK, picking up and dropping short-order loads (from parcels to containers) en route?
  • Why is it so much harder to organise the the secure and seamless pan-EU tracking of components/parcels/vehicles along supply chains than it is between the UK and the US or China?

“Never, in the field of human endeavour, have so many worked to long and so expensively to achieve so little”: so many convoluted exercises to agree common processes which are ignored or bypassed by those who dominate global markets but condemn indigenous suppliers to playing catch up in their own domestic markers.

During the run up to the referendum I nailed my colours to the mast, saying why I would vote Remain.

I now know I was wrong.

Leaving does indeed appear to the only way to bring about the reforms necessary to make it worth remaining. Michel Barnier and Davis Davis are doing an excellent job, given that both have been given impossible terms of reference. Unless and until changed these will not prevent impasse before the UK stops paying more than the legal minimum and the Commission finances collapse. Hence the current attempts by Brussels and its allies to collapse the UK Government before that happens.  But we need the EU to be reformed, not weakened, let alone destroyed.

The “solution” is akin to that adopted by Alexander the Great in Phrygia, by then a decaying but still pretentious province of a crumbling Empire. Depending on who you believe, he pulled the linch pin from the yoke of the cart, thus enabling the Gordian knot to be unraveled from within.

We need to accept that agreement on a comprehensive package is impossible, let alone by March 2019 – whether or not we could agree financial terms. Without fundamental changes in negotiating positions which are impossible for either side to publicly agree, the talks will indeed collapse. We should, therefore allow them to do, while focusing, in parallel, on what we want the relationship after 2019 to be. That way may, paradoxically, be the best way of saving them.

But to do so, we need to go public on our “true” strategy, while allowing the actual talks to proceed in private.  In public we should also focus on the positive, not the “red lines”.

We should state:

  • which research programmes we are happy to continue funding (perhaps making unconditional funding commitments),
  • which new programmes we would like to see (e.g. active co-operation on developing the skills of the future with a pan-EU dimension to global programmes).
  • which freedoms of movement, reimbursement of health care costs, transfers of benefits etc. we are happy to agreed payment,
  • which WTO disputes processes we would like to see used on those areas within its purlieu where we disagree (probably not many),
  • how we would like to see mediation on those areas outside the remit of the WTO where we cannot reach agreement,
  • which overhead costs and other financial commitments we are happy to accept, subject to independent audit and disagreement should be handled,

and that we are happy to accept a series of longer term programmes to discuss (separately from the arbitration/mediation process) not only the areas of disagreement but also new opportunities for co-operation, with no artificial time constraint or prior commitment.

The prime aim is to enable relatively painless switch from an impossible process to one which can reach an interim agreement by 2019 on the 80 -90% that is uncontroversial while politely kicking the rest into the long grass – for attention over time. A subsidiary aim is  to focus the lobbyists efforts on what their clients want at the practical level and on working in co-operation to achieve this.

I know that idea of public negotiation is taboo (and all IT salesmen are trained to avoid a menu sales pitch lest the customer does a pick and mix) but one of the core complaints about the EU is its “democratic deficit”. Meanwhile the referendum result and that of the election earlier this year showed how little the British public outside London trusts the Westminster Village or shares the values of the Metrosexual (deliberate Freudian slip) Elite. We will not carry the British public, let alone public opinion in other parts of the EU, with “yet another stitch up behind closed doors”. Given the impact of social media, let alone supposed Russian cybermeddling, the leaks over time may soon build into the revolutionary flood of 2018 (c.f. 1848 and 1968) – as students across Europe (except the UK) blame (rightly or wrongly) the EU for their lack of worthwhile employment opportunities.

If they ally with the Farmers, Fishermen, Lorry and Taxi drivers and others whose earnings are being driven down by the current wave of immigrants, I doubt that the new embryonic European Army, let alone the Belgian Police, will be able to protect the Berlaymont from a rioting mob and the Parlement will have to retreat to its expensive funkhole, alias “official seat”, in Strasbourg.