I am a leaver. Obviously I will take some great pleasure in this arduous phase being over and watching the remainder walkathon as they’re visited with much-deserved karma for their obstructionism – which is in part responsible for the failure of this process. But no deal is by no means a success. The failure of the Article 50 process merely starts another process of negotiation and another fierce political battle. One where the UK is excluded from a number of pivotal markets and will find itself putting out brushfires all over the shop. At that point, the EU will have a gaping hole in its customs frontier which is a major liability that threatens to weaken the single market, undermining the sovereignty of the EU. Brexiteers assume that our departure leaves a gaping hole in EU finances which will change EU attitudes considerably. This is a major miscalculation in that the £39bn was never a lump sum, nor is it an especially large figure in terms of EU income. The EU’s first priority will be to address the frontier problem in Ireland.
The assumption that because the EU loses an important export market it will face internal pressure to soften its stance underestimates how seriously the EU views the threat of an unpoliced border without formal arrangements with the EU. In the first instance, the UK remains aligned in most senses so the immediate risks are minimal – so through a mix of fudges and waivers, the EU can stave off the installation of customs facilities for the interim. That is time enough to gradually tighten the noose at Calais and step up the process of freezing the UK out of lucrative services markets – enough for it to hurt. The obvious reality that seems to escape Brexiteers is that the EU is a trade superpower with greater clout than us but also one that places greater value on its founding ideals than it does commercial expediency. It has taken the necessary unilateral measure to safeguard its own immediate interests so those mythical pleas from “German carmakers” will fall on deaf ears.
More likely the EU will face demands not to allow the UK any competitive advantages while EU firms hoover up our share of the EU market. The question, therefore, is how long the Johnson administration can withstand the onslaught of negative economic signals and the manifestation of real job losses. But that’s karma for you. The Telegraph, Spectator and the rest of the Tory blob have played up the idea that May’s withdrawal agreement is a customs union when in fact the requirement is alignment with the rules of the Union Customs Code. It may not have been what the Brexiteers had in mind but the simple truth is that we would end up in any circumstances aligning with the EU both on regulation and tariffs because it is in our interests anyway. For now, the Brexiteers have the power and they think they’ve won. They seem to think that Brexit day is the end of the matter where we move on to other things. Sadly this is not the case. Our external relations are a continuum and there is no endpoint.
Leaving without a deal only ensures the road to a new normal is longer and harder and much, much more costly. The power then ends up back in the hands of those who never wanted Brexit in the first place who’ll be keen to undo as much of the damage as possible. The economic imperative will override the fundamental democratic argument underpinning Brexit. That is the essential problem here in that this is very much a “Tory Brexit”, seeing Brexit as a Trojan horse for a radical economic experiment rather than something worth doing for a principle. Though no deal is a collective failure on the part of our media and politics, the ultimate responsibility will lie with Boris Johnson and to a large extent Dominic Cummings – who favored bluster and bluff over knowledge. From the outset, they’ve viewed this as a game of 3D chess necessitating plots, schemes, gambits, and trickery when all it really demanded was for the UK to agree on a coherent position and work with the EU to deliver it.