The UK’s Brexit Shambles

Photo by Christopher Michel | CC BY 2.0

Blighty this week has been frying in record warm temperatures. The army had to be called in to assist firefighters dealing with large moorland fires in the north of England.

Out of control fires are perhaps an apt metaphor for what is happening in UK politics.  Tory misgovernment gets worse with each passing day.

Tory handling of Brexit has been chaotic from the beginning, and is now beyond shambolic.

Ministers no longer leak surreptitiously against each other, since this has been superseded by denunciation and threats made brazenly in public by Tory Brexiteers and Remainers alike.  These two hate each other more than they do the opposition Labour party.

The EU has always been crystal-clear that Brexit means exactly that, namely, the UK’s exit will be a 100% departure from the EU.

The Tories, split among themselves, are either fine with this (the “hard” Brexiteers) and a range of ad hoc factions craving “more flexible” options tending towards  a “soft” or “softer” Brexit.

Theresa “the Maybot” May, a hack politician if ever there was one, is hopelessly out of her depth in dealing either with her own viciously divided party or the brutally uncompromising eurocrats in Brussels.

Where her own party is concerned, she tries to placate all sides, and of course ends up pleasing none.

It’s open season for the Tories when it comes to embarrassing the Maybot or undermining her in public.

In negotiating with the eurocrats who insist the UK’s exit will only be a 100% departure from the EU, the Maybot pleads for one that will be a 99%, or a 90%, or a 75%, or a 50%, or a 20% divorce, depending on which faction in her party seems to be in the ascendancy that week, or whichever fat cat CEO (it was the turn of Jaguar Land Rover and Airbus this week) issues a dire warning about the impact of Brexit on his company’s jobs and profit margins.

At the press conferences which follow her fraught and unproductive meetings with the eurocrats in Brussels, the brutes say time after time she is “delusional” for not accepting that Brexit can only be 100% and nothing else.

This hardline EU stance may however be an opening ploy to force the UK on to the back foot from the outset.

The eurocrats try to din into the Maybot’s head that the “soft” Brexit option has never existed, and that it is akin to a mirage tricking the exhausted and starving desert explorer of yore.

The brutal reality is that any post-Brexit modus vivendi between the EU27 and the UK will only come about with the agreement of both sides.

The UK has no power to force the EU27 to concede anything, a post-Brexit relationship with them cannot be brought about unilaterally by the Brits, and the future of Brexit is thus completely out of the UK’s hands.

The Tory cabinet held a “crunch” Brexit summit this weekend at Chequers, the prime minister’s official country residence.

May’s hope was that a Brexit façade can somehow be concocted which will be assented to by all cabinet members while being palatable to the EU27.

To guard against leaks, all participants at the Chequers summit had to surrender their cell phones on arrival.

What emerged at this meeting was a proposal for a version of the Norway-type arrangement with the EU27 (that is, an outside-the-EU linkage with the EU single market and the EU customs union).

In Norway’s case this entailsthe following:

No participation in EU decision-making, while having to abide by all the eurocracy’s decisions when dealing with the EU27.

Norway has incorporated nearly 75% of all EU law into its own legislation.

Norway has accepted the free movement of people, goods, services and capital between itself and the EU27.  The overwhelming majority of the UK’s Brexiteers are anti-immigration, but Norway has a higher per capita immigration than the UK.

Norway has had to accept the EU’s commercial standards, financial regulations, employment laws, and pay a substantial amount to the EU budget.

The UK will have to accept all the above, in line with the EU’s insistence that any post-Brexit arrangement with it must be predicated on the UK’s “regulatory alignment” with the EU27, all on the latter’s terms.

Blighty will thus be “independent” of Brussels while effectively being run from Brussels. In most areas to be negotiated under the Chequers proposal, the EU would be the “rule-maker”, Blighty the “rule-taker”.

The driver of the UK’s economy, for the worse rather than better, is its financial sector, and the EU will probably insist–  in the name of cyber security, money-laundering concerns (London is the world’s money-laundering capital), funding for “terrorist organizations”, tax-dodging, etc.– that all UK financial-sector transactions with the EU27 adhere to an EU regulatory framework.

The UK’s current options are snared in an inexorably simple trinary:  a complete divorce from the EU, Remain, or somehow this proposed modified Norway-type arrangement (which may still be rejected by Brussels).

The first two options are unpalatable to different wings of the Tory party.

Its Little Englander wing wants a complete divorce from the EU, motivated by the absurd and futile fantasy of regaining a lost imperial greatness, and, in a more sinister way, the fuller implementation of an even more vicious neoliberalism freed from “the bureaucratic red tape” and “big government” of the already neoliberal EU.

More than one Tory Brexiteer, with no apparent recollection of the Bhopal disaster, has lamented Blighty’s not having India’s health and safety standards.

May’s post-summit statement indicatedthat the UK will accept EU rules on commercial standards, including agricultural products after Brexit, in order to avoid “border friction”.  In other words: EU standards will prevail.

Protections in areas such as the environment, employment laws and consumer protection would not fall below current levels.  In other words: EU standards will prevail.

The Maybot arrangement proposes a looser arrangements for services, with the concession that this will involve less mutual access to post-Brexit EU markets.  In other words:  you win some, while losing some.

Where jurisdiction is concerned, decisions by UK courts will observe “due regard paid to EU case law in areas where the UK continued to apply a common rulebook”.  In other words: EU law will prevail.

A “combined customs territory” is proposed by the Maybot, allowing the UK to apply domestic tariffs and trade policies for goods entering the UK, and their EU tariffs equivalents for goods heading into the EU. In 2014, the proportion of all goods and services by the UK to the EU was 44% (55% for all of Europe).  In other words: a win for the EU27.

In a post-summit interview, May refused to rule out so-called “preferential access” for EU citizens after the UK leaves the EU.  In other words: if “preferential access” for EU citizens allows them almost unhindered entry into the UK, this will be a win for the EU27.

And all the above concessions involve no UK participation in EU decision-making.

There are a few other details not mentioned here, but for now the key terms of the Maybot’s proposal amount, in the eyes of all the UK media, to a “soft” Brexit.

So what are the hardline Tory Brexiteers hoping for next?

The Brexit hardliners may be hoping for two scenarios before attempting to take more conclusive steps: (1) the EU, holding all the cards, modifies May’s “soft” Brexit proposal in ways that require her total capitulation to the eurocrats, so the proposed deal falls apart, and in consequence the discredited May is easily deposed by the Brexit hardliners; and (2)  the Maybot proposal, once negotiated with the EU, is put to a vote in parliament (and gets defeated), or somehow a second public referendum is called, and the Leave verdict of the first referendum is confirmed (the hardliners will feast on this), or the Leave verdict of the first referendum is overturned (the Remainers will feast on this).

Who knows what will happen?

A clue as to what is likely to happen in the Tory party is supplied by the opinion of the right-wing and pro-Brexit Daily Telegraph:  “Theresa May won her battle with Eurosceptic ministers on Friday night as she announced the cabinet has signed up to a Brexit deal that keeps Britain tied to EU rules and regulations indefinitely”.

Given that such an arrangement has been repudiated by the Tory Brexiteers from the beginning, it would seem, therefore, that they have decided to save their ammo for a future battle against the Maybot’s version of the Norwegian option.

When a meda-shambles exists, a throw of the dice from all those involved is always the most likely outcome.  It happened at Chequers this weekend.

All Brexit bets are now off, because whatever the future is, it can last a very long time.

The next step is for the Chequers proposal to be turned into a White Paper which will be presented to parliament sometime next week. If approved, it will become the UK’s official negotiating position in talks with the EU.

The eurocrats will then have their say, and an early signal about their likely response has already been sent by them.  According to The Guardian:  “In Brussels… sources warned that May’s customs compromise looked very similar to the “new customs partnership” that the EU rejected as “magical thinking” 11 months ago”.

The same Guardianarticle also reported a response to the Chequers proposal from the business sector: “more than 100 entrepreneurs and founders of UK businesses dismissed it as unworkable….”

The UK foreign secretary, the sociopathic Boris “BoJo” Johnson, one of the leading Brexiteers, resigned after likening it to “polishing a turd”.   Also resigning was the woefully inept hardliner Brexit Secretary, David Davis, saying the Chequers plan was “unworkable”.

Labour has said it will vote against the Chequers plan in parliament, and if pro-Brexit Tory MPs vote with them in a “no confidence” parliamentary motion, May will almost certainly be toppled.

Next weekend Trump will arrive in the UK for a scaled-down “working visit”, after being invited by the ever-ingratiating Maybot for a full state visit.

He may not know which prime minister will be there to greet him.

The Orange Man will however be avoiding London, except for a night spent at the US embassy, because of the anticipated massive protests.

Demonstrators have promised to be outside banging pots and pans throughout the night.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.