Brexistential Crisis

Any sort of future relationship where the UK closely follows the EU’s single market and customs union rules, despite not being a formal member of either, is frankly worse than staying a member. It would prevent Britain from signing free trade deals with other countries outside the EU, which was the whole point of Brexit for many. The next year will be crucial. Whatever happens, or indeed does not happen, we need to make clear what it is that Britain wants come March 2019, and anything other than complete sovereignty and independence would be entirely missing the point. It is time we #TakeBackControl of these negotiations.

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By Alexandra Phillips l December 11, 2017


BRUSSELS-For the first time, I’ve started to get nervous about Brexit.

“Let her get on with it” I would quietly urge my more rabid Leaver friends over the past few months. “It’s a lot more complex than you are making it out to be” I reminded those who were frothing at the mouth for an unrealistic vision of sashaying off into the sunset subtly flipping the bird to Brussels behind our backs as we depart.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m as Brexity as they come. I want nothing more than a return to full sovereignty so that the UK can make sensible, practicable and bespoke decisions to boost its economy, protect its cultural heritage and raise its standard of living. But I was never under any illusion that this would be easy, or quick.

What I didn’t expect was furore over a deal that is basically the status quo in perpetuity.

A Deal Is Done! (But is it really staying a member in all but name?)

A deal is done! That was the proclamation of many politicians and headlines. No cliff edge, a gentle prolongation of the status quo, yet the UK leaving the EU nonetheless with time to really ruminate over how we want to shape our future sovereignty. Sounds like a sensible plan.

Yet, I can’t decide whether to be concerned by this, or not. For it comes with a big if.

This is all well and good, most sensible in fact, if it’s only temporary.

For what has been decided is that the UK will continue following all the Single Market rules and Customs obligations, for the foreseeable future, until, well, I suppose we sign a Free Trade deal, but nothing has really been said about that explicitly.

We are minded to remember that at present, these are our standards too, which we have already transferred all into UK Law via the Great Repeal Bill. I have made the case before that our starting point of homogeny actually makes us all the stronger a candidate for a quick free trade deal. So perhaps we are walking in exactly the correct direction.

But this seems to suggest that until such a free trade deal is drawn up, it’s business as usual. And who knows when an FTA can be completed, and what it will say?

This document has been described as the “withdrawal deal”. It had better be so. Although it fails to make any mention of how long these conditions and commitments should last. The single word ‘perpetuity’ certainly spooked me.

Any sort of future relationship where the UK closely follows the EU’s single market and customs union rules despite not being a formal member of either is frankly worse than staying a member. It would prevent Britain from signing free trade deals with other countries outside the EU, which was the whole point of Brexit for many.

The government would have to scrap Liam Fox’s job as International Trade Secretary and bin his entire newly formed department.

Yet, its deliberate ambiguity means that every side can claim victory and leave that debate for another day.

It’s Cogito ergo Brexit. Brexit in a different space time dimension. Basically, a Brexistential conundrum.

Remember that time when the UK almost forgot it includes Northern Ireland?

The document requires “full alignment with the rules of the internal market and the customs union which support north-south co-operation [on the island of Ireland]”

Yet, what was going to be a set of specific circumstances (crudely, wrongly, and utterly absurdly) for Northern Ireland alone to prevent a hard border, now seems to be what has been adopted for the entirety of the UK.

How we reached a point in negotiations where we seemingly casually decided we could kind of just leave Belfast behind without telling them, while the rest of the UK permanently emigrated, is possibly the most reckless, revolting, and ridiculous thing I think I have ever witnessed.

Belfast is not some kind of low scoring card we can just swap in a clumsy trade. It’s as much a part of the UK as Edinburgh, London, and Cardiff. Let alone be flippantly discarded at the behest of the EU.

The whole thing has hardly filled me with confidence.

If our PM continues to wait for Brussels to explain to her quite how Brexit is going to work, she is entirely missing the point.

I am still waiting for her to make it very clear we won’t have the EU dictating terms, but instead she wearily slid Northern Ireland across the table amidst the exhaustion of the ongoing furore. You don’t just casually hand over a constitutional nation just because it’s the only part of the country that happens to share a land border with someone else.

At least the UK has stayed intact, but it also seems to be staying in the EU, too!

The big if

I appreciate that Brexit is political major surgery.

We need experts in every unique area of government to rewire, replumb and reconstruct the way the entirety of Britain functions, vein-by-vein, tendon-by-tendon, organ-by-organ, if we are to cleanly and safely extract ourselves from our economically conjoined twin. It will take time, and I’m of the firm opinion that we have to get this right.

I am under no illusion that inevitably Britain lacks the expertise required in all fields and thus will have to train up mandarins to populate our corridors of power. Otherwise, why would we have an on-hand supply of hundreds of world leading trade negotiators hanging about when we haven’t been able to forge our own trade deals for generations? I also get the distinct impression those extant in Whitehall were hardly likely the ones who went out and voted for Brexit, which, in essence, sent a wrecking ball hurtling through the middle of their long established, lethargic departments atrophying daily due to their dependence on instructions from Brussels.

But if in the meantime we are stuck in the customs union and unable to change our trading relationship with the rest of the world, sticking with the EU’s non-tariff and tariff barriers and even paying what we collect to them, how can we build up a portfolio of other international relationships?

It has not been made clear whether we are precluded from beginning such negotiations.

And it’s fair to say the status quo safety net will bring welcome relief to many businesses and industries, which actually helps, if you are trying to convince other folk from investing in you.

But it also suggests a strange period of limbo that many Brexiteers may find hard to swallow. If you don’t trust the Government, and no Parliament can bind its successor either, it opens the door for the UK to easily be centrifugally pulled back into the EU.

Worse still, if ‘perpetuity’ drags on and on, it would actually be worse than just staying a member. It would be by diktat without discourse.

Pragmatic Optimist

However, (and I say this cautiously) I think what the Government has done is actually give themselves time to breathe. Brexit has happened, every side keeps stating that, so we have to believe them. This is supposed to open the door for further negotiation and the eventual signing of an FTA.

Neither Switzerland nor Norway, who are in the EFTA Convention and have a Free Trade Agreement with the European Union, are in the Customs Union, and are free to sign their own trade deals with third countries. Switzerland has a remarkable network of 28 free trade agreements with 38 partners outside the EU. Once we have evolved the current deal into a free trade negotiation, we would then be in our rights to change or adapt the current settlement under a new deal as an independent nation and start to create our own bespoke arrangements with all corners of the globe. But those will take time, too. If made explicit that this development is a starting point for a quick FTA, then I fully support it.

Also, with the UK out of the way and the EU at full pelt in their scramble for full federalisation, this would lead to a set of circumstances where repealing Brexit would become impossible.

A bit like Newton’s third law of physics, the more integrated the EU becomes, the more impossible it would be for the UK to be able to, and indeed even want to, rejoin, given that the political will of a sovereign and independent UK and its future governments desired to pursue this path. The greater the premise then becomes of incremental increasing divergence. If we imagine Brexit to be the birth of a new entity, right now she’s newborn, dependent upon her parents round the clock and being suckled, until she learns to walk, feed herself and eventually fly the nest.

In truth, this is always how I imagined it would be. Not overnight, not sudden and all the better for it. Any attempt to rapidly cleave the UK from the EU would create such problems it would become succour to those who oppose Brexit, and likely end up having the entirely opposite effect.

Yet, I can’t help feeling more than underwhelmed.

I can’t help feeling dispirited by this, for it seems to me that none of this perceived progress is of the imaginative kind, and when one gives Brussels more than just an inch, they almost always opt to take the proverbial mile.

The End of The Beginning

What we have seen so far is child’s play. We have gone down the route of maintaining a status quo and, so far, no detail has been given on what happens next. This is merely the end of the beginning. The real work starts now.

It was always going to be tough. We thought Brussels wouldn’t hold the door open as we left, yet seemingly this is exactly what they are doing. But now we have to confidently stride out of it.

We’ve bought time, which can only be a good thing, although the fact that it’s taken 9 months to simply do that is hardly a good sign that Brexit will move at anything other than a glacial pace. But we do have to get this right.

The next year will be crucial. Whatever happens, or indeed does not happen, we need to make clear what it is that Britain wants come March 2019, and anything other than complete sovereignty and independence would be entirely missing the point.

It is time we #TakeBackControl of these negotiations.


Alexandra Phillips is former Head of Media for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), the political party in Britain that successfully campaigned to leave the EU and was aide to its charismatic leader Nigel Farage. She left UKIP after the referendum victory and joined the Conservative Party in order to ensure other big political ambitions are met in the U.K. She is a political advisor and communications consultant in London. Ms. Phillips is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis, of the conservative-online-journalism center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.

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