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Brexit: What the Hell Happens Now? by Ian Dunt

by Venky

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Theresa Reintke, a German politician and member of the European Parliament, while waxing eloquent at the conclusion of the European Council meeting held on the 17th and 18th October, 2019, over the current shambolic state of affairs in the United Kingdom, said, “The EU is not tired of the UK. The EU is not tired of the British people. We are simply tired of Prime Ministers who don’t understand that if they don’t get their deal through Parliament they should put it back to the people.”  The latest Prime Minister to have the metaphorical egg slapped on his face is the intransigent and remorseless Boris Johnson, whose party failed to defeat an amendment, to delay approval of the UK Prime Minister’s departure deal from the European Union. Popularly known as the Letwin Amendment – named after Sir Oliver Letwin, a British politician who has served as the Member of Parliament for West Dorset since 1997 – this amendment was passed 322 – 306. As a consequence, the confusion surrounding the entire Brexit charade has become even more confounding. A vacuous and uncertain future has gripped the people of United Kingdom in a vice like grip. “What happens next” is the universal conundrum escaping the lips of millions of hapless and helpless souls, who are being held ransom to the self-serving interests of a band of obnoxious politicians.

The question of what happens after Brexit was in fact answered in a brilliantly lucid fashion by Ian Dunt, the editor of Politics.co.uk in his marvelous book, “Brexit: What the Hell Happens Now?” The reference to the word hell in the title of Mr. Dunt’s book could have been neither aberration nor accident. For as he assiduously points out, by voting to leave the European Union in a referendum initiated by a complacent and, to an extent, naive David Cameron, the United Kingdom has chosen a hellacious path to tread. On the 23 June 2016, voters in the UK were posed the existential question: ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union.’ The results were: Remain 16,141,241 (48.1%) Leave 17,410,742 (51.9%). While the Brexiters, of the likes of Liam Fox, David Davis, Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Mogg were besides themselves with glee at the stupefying decision made by the voters, the Leave campaigners, “misunderstood the EU, misunderstood Article 50, misunderstood the WTO, misunderstood the economy and misunderstood the legal framework in which they must now operate.”

As Mr. Dunt articulates, the very edifice of the Leave campaign was based on a farrago of fictitious provocation, masquerading as justifiable truths. A bus campaign where a misleading slogan, ‘We send the EU £350 million a week. Let’s fund our NHS instead’, was painted on its sides; rhetorical jeremiads for a points-based system of immigration, and similar preposterous stuff jousted with a lackadaisical opposition which was astonishingly bereft of ideas. Echo chambers were thus perpetuated and information bubbles manufactured which ultimately led to people placing emotion over reason.

Mr. Dunt, in his extremely readable book, takes unsuspecting readers through the Gordian Knot of Brexit and solves the seemingly intractable puzzle, all the while employing language that is simple, easy to understand and most critically, retain. So here are a few key takeaways from Mr. Dunt’s exemplary book:


Theresa May activated Article 50 – the European Union rule that must be invoked by any country wishing to leave – on 29 March 2017. Article 50 is very short. As Mr. Dunt illustrates in a chilling fashion, the creator of the Article, the former Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato exclaimed after the Brexit referendum, ‘I wrote Article 50, so I know it well. My intention was that it should be a classic safety valve that was there but never used.’ Choosing to be flamboyantly colloquial, Mr. Amato added for good measure, that if another leader ‘is as mad as Cameron’ and offers a referendum on leaving the EU, Amato warned, they should know that: ‘When it comes to the economy, they have to lose.’ As Mr. Dunt points out, the United Kingdom must comply with administrative, legal and trade Brexits to extricate itself fully from the European Union. A task easier said than done.


 At the heart of the European Union, lies the quintessential philosophy of a Single   Market, within whose confines is enshrined the principles of freedom of movement,   goods, services and people. Devoid of the bane of tariffs, these principles provide an element of certainty for the members of the Union in so far as trade is concerned. In one fell swoop, UK has deprived itself of the benefits conferred by the Single Market. Further, as Mr. Dunt, elucidates, “It is likely to lose it with many of the countries that trade with Europe. The EU has these agreements with Australia, Canada, China, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, the United States and Switzerland. When Brexiters say that they want to leave Europe to trade with the rest of the world, they fail to realise that leaving Europe is an obstacle to trading with the rest of the world.”


The Brexiteers while nursing a grouse against the Freedom of Movement, seem to possess enough alacrity to still long for the Single Market benefits. However as could be expected, the EU is vehement in its assertion that there will be no compromise on freedom of movement. Jean-Claude Juncker said there would be no ‘nuances’ for the UK. A statement released by the 27 remaining European leaders stressed that access to the single market ‘requires acceptance of all four freedoms’. Angela Merkel told the German parliament: ‘If you wish to have free access to the single market then you have to accept the fundamental European rights.’ The then French President Francois Hollande stated: ‘There cannot be freedom of movement of goods, free movement of capital, free movement of services if there isn’t a free movement of people.’


Even though not a member of the EU, Norway, along with Lichtenstein, and Iceland are members of a wider European Economic Area (“EEA”), that enables them to enjoy the benefits of free trade. If the UK is looking to emulate the Norway Model, it needs to understand the nuances that separate Norway from itself. Using a clever set of tactics, “Norway goes above the head of the EU, to the global regulatory plane and influences standards there. These standards then float down to the EU level. A classic example is the Fish and Fisheries Product Committee of the Codex Alimentarius, whose Chairman is Bjorn Knudtsen, a Norwegian. The UK however enjoys no such privileges.


As Mr. Dunt illustrates, ‘Raoul Ruparel, who was hired by David Davis to provide expertise on the Brexit process, has admitted that leaving the customs union would reduce GDP by between 1 and 1.2% in the long term and cost the UK economy £25 billion a year. Other studies expect the hit to GDP to reach 4.5% by 2030. This is because leaving the customs union opens a Pandora’s Box of bureaucratic horror.’


 It needs to be reiterated in no uncertain terms that Scotland and Northern Ireland voted by 62% and 55% respectively to stay in the EU. With such a resounding and decisive mandate, it is ambiguous as to whether the existing constitutional arrangements binding the two countries with the UK can survive contact with the EU machine.


Once the UK manages to successfully extricate itself from the EU, it may find itself making the proverbial transition from the frying pan, into the fire. The WTO can be a raging cauldron where as Mr. Dunt informs his readers, ‘each and every member can trigger a trade dispute against you. To join it, Britain must conduct some of the most technical, complicated and unprecedented trade negotiations in history.’


The transitional period since the triggering of Article 50 has been mired in confusion, shrouded by deception and characterized by an absolute lack of cohesiveness and purpose. This unfortunate fact is illustrated superbly by Mr. Dunt. ‘The International Trade Secretary Liam Fox started by promising to obtain trade deals with the rest of the world while his colleagues secured an agreement with the EU. In July 2016, he told The Sunday Times that ‘about a dozen free trade deals outside the EU’ would be ‘ready for when we leave’. There was, of course, a problem: Britain could not negotiate or sign a trade deal while a member of the EU. Even if this hadn’t been illegal, it would have been illogical. Potential trading partners didn’t want to negotiate a trade deal with the UK until they could see what its relationship would be with the single market.’ An absolute farce!


The vicious spiel concocted by the advocates for Leaving on the subject of immigration, has led to a virtual paranoia, which partly was responsible for the Brexit verdict. Mr. Dunt hits the nail on the head when he argues that for the development of the economy, immigration is an absolute key. ‘Immigrants are useful in two respects, economically speaking. Firstly, in general someone else has already paid for their education and training. Those who arrived between 2001 and 2011, for instance, endowed the UK with productive human capital that would have cost it £6.8 billion in education spending. Secondly, they often leave to go back home when they’ve finished working, meaning even later life costs are sometimes avoided.’ Alas, when everything looks like a nail, the viewer has to go about his work with a hammer.


The EU is an incredibly smooth machine whose working is lubricated by the grease of structured components. Every Regulatory Function has its own agency manned by people possessing the requisite expertise. Britain, once it is out of the EU must endeavor to replicate the same set of supremely efficient regulatory systems. The almost insurmountable nature of this exercise is revealed by Mr. Dunt, when he sets out an illustrative list of agencies whose workings would need to be mirrored:

One element, of which Britain finds itself absolutely shorn of, is time. With a jaw dropping string of legal, administrative and trade compliance, matched by a disproportionate lack of expertise, Britain finds itself at the cross roads. With a united and unrelenting EU refusing to either accord or accommodate, the UK finds itself in a bind. At the time of this writing, the policy mavens have issued a dense ‘Withdrawal Amendment Bill’ that is couched in extraordinarily complex language and adorned by the calisthenics of a convoluted and complex language.

The only way out for the UK perhaps might not be either the Single Market or the Customs Union or even the European Economic Area, but Theresa Reitke’s Second Referendum.

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