Monday, 9 January 2017

Brexit: a veritable chorus of muddled thinking

Some people were upset with me when I recently mentioned that the Brexit movement seemed dominated by muddled thinking. ‘Condescending’, they found my comments, not to say snobbish, prejudiced and dismissive.

Well, let me confess that I’m as muddled as anyone.

It seems to me that the entire subject is dogged by, shot through with, submerged under muddled thinking. That’s for a simple reason: no one has any idea of what the implications of Brexit are.

It’s easy to say “Brexit means Brexit” but what could possibly be more dismissive than that? When it comes down to it, we in Britain are going to have to tackle the details behind such a casual slogan. On that detail, there’s nothing but muddle.

A recent report by Gavin Shuker, our MP in Luton South, opened my eyes to some of the issues I’d lost sight of but which we shall need to address in leaving the EU. 

The United Kingdom has devolved much political authority from the centre to its constituent nations, most of all to Scotland. But when that happened, certain areas of responsibility weren’t even discussed because they had already been delegated to Brussels, to the EU. An example would be agricultural matters, covered by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

After Brexit, those powers will be repatriated to the UK. But where will they go? Will they be handled by the central government in London? Or will they be transferred to the devolved governments in the constituent nations? Has given anyone even given thought to the matter?

Agriculture: when “we” take back control, who will that “we” be?
Westminster – or Westminster, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast?
In any case, what’s going to replace the Common Agricultural Policy? Farmers are already getting organised. They want to see all the CAP’s subsidies maintained. In other words, they want the British government to go on paying them once they stop receiving them from the EU. That’s not to say that they’re not prepared to adapt to Brexit. They’d be prepared, you  may not be surprised to learn, to accept a lot less regulation than the EU tended to impose.

Those subsidies are paid for out of taxes. So there might be some outside the farming community who would take a rather different view. For my part, I’d be happy to see the subsidies continued, but I’d like the health and environmental regulations at least maintained. 

Things are no easier in the industrial or service sectors. Luton depends heavily for employment on the car industry (Vauxhall) and the airport. Can we count on similar guarantees for Vauxhall as were offered by the government to Nissan? Those guarantees persuaded the company to keep to its plan of producing a new model in Sunderland, North East England. It’s clear that other car manufacturers would like similar treatment. But can everyone be offered the same sweeteners? And if they were, wouldn't companies in other industrial sectors demand them too? 

So will Nissan turn out to be a one-off?

And what about aviation? Britain is currently covered by the European Common Aviation Area agreement. Other non-EU countries are signatories to it, such as Norway or Serbia. Nothing stops us coming to an arrangement with it too, though that would mean continuing to accept EU rules in the area. But is anyone making this a priority? 

Shuker didn’t mention this problem, but one that strikes me as important is fisheries. That’s principally because there has been real EU success in that area: fish stocks that were seriously threatened before are now recovering. But British fishermen are frustrated with the constraints EU regulation put on them. Do we want more cod wars? Do we want to go back to over-fishing again? Do we want to roll back that significant achievement?

There are huge numbers of other measures that need to be agreed and taken.

Only last week, the British representative to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers resigned. He had warned the government that negotiating all the details associated with Brexit could take as long as ten years. That wasn’t information the government wanted to hear, so he went.

However, when we think about just the issues I mentioned above – who gets the powers repatriated from Brussels, how do we deal with farmers’ subsidies and regulation, how do we agree a fisheries policy, what do we do with the auto industry, how do we sort out aviation – and add that these are just a few of the myriad matters to deal with, ten years doesn’t sound like an exaggeration.

It’s been reported since that there is serious disquiet among the civil servants handling the negotiations with the EU. They feel there are too few of them and, as Rogers’ case demonstrates, their advice isn’t listened to attentively enough.

Too few people. A government that believes it can forge ahead without listening to expert advice. Far more extensive and far more complex issues than we or the government seem to be allowing for.

I don’t know about you, but that sounds like muddled thinking to me.


Anonymous said...

You have summed it up well, so Brexit mean Brexit, clear as mud.

David Beeson said...

Neatly summed up, thanks!