Thursday 9 March 2023

Britain's Brexit purgatory

There was never any possibility that last week’s announcement of the Windsor Framework would be immediately transformative. Even so, it’s surprising that there’s been so little attempt by Rishi Sunak’s government to build on the momentum it seemed to offer to create the kind of new post-Brexit strategy discussed in my previous post. Instead, we have uncertainty, drift, and strategic incoherence.

The Windsor Framework on hold

One reason for this was the decision, which looks to have been a tactical error, not to set a timetable for the next steps, either in terms of a parliamentary vote or a decision from the DUP on whether to accept it as a basis to re-enter the power-sharing institutions. The rationale, presumably, was to avoid the charge of trying to ‘bounce’ people into accepting the agreement, hence Sunak emphasising that everyone would have ample time to study it.

The consequence is that the DUP have been able to announce the creation of their own scrutiny process, which may not yield an outcome until next month. That in turn gives the Tory Brexit Ultras a skirt to hide behind, since many of them have said they will defer judgement until the DUP have pronounced. As I suggested last week, this is all rather bogus since the issue isn’t really about the legal fine print of the agreement so much as the extent to which its opponents are politically willing and able to pursue their dogmatic purism. On that, the DUP, especially, are authoritatively reported by Sam McBride of the Belfast Telegraph to be split.

To the extent there is any time pressure, it comes from the fact that Joe Biden may be unwilling to visit the UK for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement in April with matters still unresolved, especially the matter of the functioning of the Northern Ireland Assembly. But, if he doesn’t, that will be an embarrassment to the UK government which is certainly not something which will much bother the DUP or the ERG.

Drift and uncertainty: Horizon, REUL and GDPR

This leaves the Windsor Framework in limbo, which also means that some of the gains which could follow from it are on hold. The most obvious example is UK participation in Horizon Europe, with multiple reports suggesting that the government isn’t even committed to pursuing this. It is hard to decode this. One possibility is that, until the Windsor Framework is secured, the government does not want to stoke Brexiter opposition to it by emphasising that it is a path to a more general rapprochement with the EU. But many of the reports suggest another possibility, which is that Sunak genuinely doubts whether UK scientific research is best served by participation in Horizon, rather than spending the money in some other way – even though the scientific community is very clear (£) of the central importance of the programme.

The same uncertainty attends the Retained EU Law Bill (REUL), for reasons discussed acutely by Paul Waugh in the i. For now, it continues its passage – it is currently being mauled in the House of Lords – but again the reason isn’t clear. It could be to sweeten the Windsor pill for the Ultras. It could be because, despite the implications of Windsor, Sunak is still flirting with the divergence agenda implied by REUL. Either way, just as snubbing Horizon would go against what scientists want, pursuing REUL would be in total contradiction to what businesses, and multiple charities and environmental groups, want, as well as being a constitutional disgrace and administrative nightmare. It would also go against the grain of the Windsor Framework’s attempt to improve the tone of UK-EU relations and the UK’s international reputation generally.

Less widely reported is the latest stage in the ongoing saga of divergence from EU GDPR regulations, with the government this week introducing a new data protection Bill, replacing the previous one which it paused last October after Sunak came to power. It is too early to be sure, but the new version seems to somewhat backpedal on substantive divergence whilst continuing with the nonsensical idea of a UK only approach which will mean businesses that trade with the EU facing dual regulation or, just as likely, ignoring the UK system – exactly the same conundrum that faces all post-Brexit attempts at regulatory divergence. So the approach seems to be neither full divergence nor complete conformity, again showing strategic confusion, ultimately leading to the key unknown of whether the outcome will mean the EU withdrawing, as it is always free to, the UK’s GDPR adequacy recognition.

Incoherence and folly: the Illegal Migration Bill

Nothing illustrates this lack of strategic coherence better than the current Illegal Migration Bill which began its legislative passage this week. It’s not clear whether the government is unaware of the double meaning of its title or simply doesn’t care. It’s certainly striking to see the almost psychotic glee with which Suella Braverman talks about pushing “the boundaries of international law” and indeed, already, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has warned that the plans are likely to breach the 1951 Refugee Convention. At root, this reflects the Brexiters’ absurd idea, endorsed by Braverman in relation to the Internal Market Bill when she was Attorney General, that ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ trumps international law.

Meanwhile, gravel-voiced thugs like Lee Anderson grind on about “pandering to the ECHR”. For, of course, it’s no secret that for a huge swathe of Brexiters, from Braverman herself, through Nigel Farage to Theresa May’s former advisor Nick Timothy, derogation from the ECHR is the end game. From their point of view, the very fact that, notwithstanding the cruelty it will inflict, the Bill will almost certainly not solve the overblown ‘small boats crisis’ doesn’t matter at all. It will just serve to justify their push for the sunny uplands of international pariahdom. In the meantime, there are fresh opportunities to attack the civil service and the BBC.

Sunak gurns along with all this, presumably seeing some electoral advantage in it, but more bystander than leader since none of it sits remotely easily with his Windsor Framework announcement. That was not simply about resolving the Northern Ireland Protocol row. It was also about doing so in ways which drew back from previous threats to break international law, first with the Internal Market Bill and later with the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, as well as from the flouting of the original Protocol by unilaterally extending some of the grace periods within it. In this way, it was not just about having better relations with the EU but, more widely, repairing the huge damage done to Britain’s international reputation by its Brexit shenanigans.

The Illegal Migration Bill puts all of that in jeopardy, making a nonsense not just of the Windsor Framework’s aspirations in that respect but also of Britain’s post-Brexit international role more generally. For Brexiters have constantly claimed that this role will be one of global ambition, a pivotal player in upholding the rules-based international order. Much of that is overblown rhetoric, of course, but as support for Ukraine has shown it is not totally meaningless (which isn’t to say that, as Boris Johnson and others are still fraudulently claiming, it was Brexit that enabled that role to be played).

However, supporting Ukraine points up sharply the incoherence of Britain flouting international law with respect to refugees, since that hardly provides the moral high ground for opposing Russia’s attempts to annexe Ukraine. Of course, they’re not the same thing, but once a country starts picking and choosing which parts of the rules-based international order it will honour it inevitably loses the ability convincingly to criticise other countries for doing the same.

As always, it comes back to Brexit

If all this illustrates the incoherence of the post-Brexit strategy that the Windsor Framework agreement seems to presage that is for two reasons (or three, if we include Sunak’s political weakness) and, unsurprisingly, they relate to Brexit.

The first is that the Illegal Migration Bill is the clearest current example of how, to frame it in the terms of recent posts on this blog, Brexitism is still very much alive and kicking in UK politics. As Adam Bienkov argued in Byline Times this week, Braverman’s Bill mobilises the same dishonest tactics as Vote Leave (and, for that matter, Leave.EU) used during the Referendum campaign, especially the claims made that ‘Turkey is joining the EU’ and what that would mean. And beyond that direct comparison lies the miasma of a racism that (often) doesn’t quite dare speak its name, the bogus conflation of illiberalism with patriotism, and the invocation of external threats and internal saboteurs. But for these, the great British people would have ‘simple’ solutions to all that ails them.

If that reprises the tropes of the pre-Brexit arguments, the second reason is a distinctively post-Brexit one. For the Illegal Migration Bill is also about the way that Brexit has failed to deliver its promises to ‘control our borders’, a promise which itself was based on the utterly dishonest conflation of immigration in general, EU freedom of movement, and refugees and asylum seekers. More than that, as regards refugees and asylum seekers, who are the Bill’s targets, Brexit has actually made things worse. A recent report by Professor Thom Brooks of Durham University shows that Brexit is “the primary factor” in the sharp growth of small boat crossings since 2020.

The reason for this is that, with Brexit, the UK left the Dublin III regulations, deriding them as an example of EU bureaucracy, and failed to negotiate an alternative agreement, the suggestions the government made being rejected by the EU as an attempt at ‘cherry-picking’. In particular, this means the UK no longer participates in the part of the regulations that allows for asylum seekers to be returned to the ‘first safe country’ they reached in order for their claim to be assessed. It is deeply ironic that Brexiter politicians, including Braverman, constantly parrot the line that asylum seekers should make their claim in the first safe country they reach rather than travelling to the UK when it derives from an EU system they have chosen to leave (they garble this, anyway, as there is no such requirement on the asylum seekers themselves, rather, it is a requirement on the countries involved).

A common Brexiter objection is that, prior to 2020, relatively few asylum seekers arriving in the UK were returned to the first safe country, but the Brooks report (pp. 23-24) explains that this reasoning is fallacious. The point is that, now, people smugglers have an incentive to direct asylum seekers to the UK with the promise that, if they manage to arrive, they will no longer be subject to Dublin III return rules. Nor was this unexpected or unpredicted: as Brooks explains, the government was repeatedly warned that this would be the effect. Whether through indifference or incompetence this created an opportunity for Farage, especially, to whip up new fears, fears which now constitute both a political problem for the government as well as a political opportunity for it to exploit.

This isn’t the place to discuss all the iniquities and absurdities of the Illegal Migration Bill, or indeed the long and dismal story of Britain’s hostility to refugees and asylum seekers, a hostility wholly disproportionate to the relatively limited extent of its exposure, in global terms, to the pressures that refugee movements can bring. It’s certainly not obvious why, rather than simply face up to and rectify its failure to administer an effective system to check asylum applications, anyone thinks the only answer is the pariahdom of ECHR derogation.

Instead, the particular point to emphasise here is that the current migrant panic is bound up with the twin unsayables of the false promises made for the ‘control’ Brexit would deliver and the blunt fact that Brexit has actually exacerbated the problems. This inability to be honest about Brexit then leads to a policy which, if pursued, directly contradicts any strategy of rehabilitating Britain’s reputation as a stable and respected bulwark of global order and standards, a reputation damaged by Brexit in general and the antics of Johnson in particular.

Brexit: unsayable but omnipresent

This nexus of dishonesty about Brexit and the strategic drift which accompanies it goes well beyond the issue of refugees and asylum seekers. Seven years from the Brexit referendum the government still has no clear, articulated idea of what Brexit actually means or what it is for. In those circumstances, it’s inevitable that decisions become simply tactical ones about the politics of party management or news management. This strategic drift blights not just science and business but farming and the environment, regional policy, and just about every other area of British life, including some of the most basic, bread-and-butter issues.

For example, it makes it impossible to properly address the NHS crisis, because doing so would mean admitting the adverse impact of Brexit, especially but not only in terms of staff shortages, as outlined in a recent Nuffield Trust report. It can’t even be publicly acknowledged by government ministers that Brexit plays any role at all in current food shortages, despite expert analysis and even though the majority of the public themselves recognize that this is so (ironically, the lack of political honesty about this may actually lead the public to over-estimate how much of the problem is attributable to Brexit).

It's tempting, and to some degree right, to think that one reason for this lack of strategic coherence is because this is a tired, conflict-ridden government, almost serving out time until it is dispatched, and buffeted by constant scandals and crises. Yet, even in this respect, the long hand of Brexit plays its part. The revival this week of recriminations over the handling of coronavirus, fuelled by self-proclaimed “scoop getter” Isabel Oakeshott (scoop apparently no longer meaning the hard-won fruit of diligent journalistic investigation, but persuading some gullible sap that, prior history notwithstanding, you can be trusted not to break a confidence), is a reminder of the multiple connections between that and Brexit. Indeed, to the extent that Oakeshott is both an avid Brexiter and lockdown sceptic, as were many of those who rushed to defend her (£) as if she was a latter-day Nellie Bly, it was not just a reminder but a continuation.

Similarly, Partygate returned to the news and, with that, a reminder of its own relationships with Brexit and populism. That then became bound up with the role of Sue Gray, giving another opportunity to bash ‘remainer’ civil servants. And lest anyone think that I am reaching to find a Brexit connection, the link between Gray’s supposed ‘stitch-up’ of Johnson and civil service remainerism wasn’t made by me but by Tory MP and former Party Chairman Sir Jake Berry. In any case, as with last week’s squeaking about the constitutional proprieties of King Charles meeting the European Commission President, the supposed outrage about Gray came ill when from the mouths of those who have spent years trashing established norms of conduct in the name of ‘getting Brexit done’.

Re-visiting Brexit botches

In short, Brexit remains an inescapable feature of British politics, constantly present at the same time as being ignored or denied, and resistant to being corralled into any kind of coherent strategy. Whether that is because Sunak doesn’t have such a strategy, or because he is too weak to pursue it, or because it is inherently impossible isn’t clear. He has further chances coming, starting with today’s Franco-British summit, an opportunity to improve relations so strained by Brexit, but with the issue of returning refugees re-inflamed by the Illegal Migration Bill reports already suggest (£) there will be no progress on that, another indication of the perils of incoherence. Still, Sunak may well be able to repair the damage caused, amongst many other things, by Liz Truss’s ‘the jury’s out’ maladroitness and Johnson’s ‘punishment beatings’ calumny.

There will be another opportunity next week when the revised version of the Integrated Review is published, which is expected to coincide with his trip to the US to meet Joe Biden and Anthony Albanese for talks about the AUKUS agreement. At one level, such a review is mandated by the changed foreign and defence policy landscape created by the Ukraine War. At another, it reflects the lack of realism of the original March 2021 review, which, as I noted at the time, downplayed the UK’s European role whilst making grandiose claims about its ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’ with little sign of the resources to make good on it. Having made some similar observations, defence analyst Joshua Huminski notes that this did not impress the US, obviously Britain’s main and crucial security ally, and that what is needed this time round is “pragmatic realism”, meaning a “clear reprioritization of continental European security” that “reflects reality”. In other words, precisely what is needed for the wider re-set of national post-Brexit strategy that the Windsor Framework gestured towards.

Perhaps that will happen, but the longer it takes, the more the damage will mount up. So much of what needs to be done has been made worse by the rushed, hubristic decisions already made. The Integrated Review is one example as, though it is of a very different sort, is the absurd, now delayed, but still planned replacement of CE conformity assessment marking with the UKCA mark. So too is the revamp of data protection legislation mentioned earlier. For that matter, the REUL is the legacy of Liz Truss’s brief, ill-fated, premiership and Jacob Rees-Mogg’s ludicrously over-promoted role within it. Admittedly, the latter formulation suffers from the implication that there is any role for which Rees-Mogg might be considered suitably qualified other than that of understudy for one of Flashman’s less charismatic henchmen in an Amdram production of Tom Brown’s Schooldays.

In other words, there have already been attempts, if piecemeal, to articulate a post-Brexit strategy but, for the most part, these already need to be undone because of Brexiter hubris and incompetence. There is perhaps some sign that the government has learned something from rushing through the largely pointless, if not downright damaging, trade deals with Australia and New Zealand, but if the anticipated accession to CPTPP is simply trumpeted as a Brexit benefit rather than a minor piece of damage limitation, and itself damaging to some sectors, it will suggest that the Brexiter delusions still hold sway.

Waiting for strategic coherence

What is crucial to grasp is that almost everything I have discussed in this post is interconnected, a series of moving parts which need to move in the same direction if there is to be strategic coherence. For example, it is widely understood that securing the Windsor Framework is central to securing CPTPP accession. It is also central to improving relations with the US, which will be further improved by a Europe-focused Integrated Review, and both will help to normalize UK-EU relations, which could lead to improvements in trade and security cooperation. None of these things will eliminate the damage of Brexit, but at least they won’t increase it and at best they might mitigate it. But, at the same time, the UK turning its back on Horizon, continuing with REUL, diverging from GDPR, and especially pursuing an internationally-despised and illegal policy on refugees will work in the opposite direction.

So for the time being it is not just the Windsor Framework that is in limbo, but Brexit Britain itself. The first may resolve one way or another fairly soon, and give an indication of the national direction of travel, but the second may last for months or years. Donald Tusk once remarked that there was a “special place in hell” for those who had advocated Brexit “without even a sketch of a plan” for how to deliver it. In fact, it is not they but the country that is suffering the consequences, if not in hell, then at least in purgatory. The first half of that word derives from the Latin for ‘to cleanse’, whilst it is fitting that the second half is Tory.

Purgatory isn’t an altogether pleasant place to be, clearly, and it brings with it the possibility of even worse to come, but, by the same token, there’s still at least some hope.

No comments:

Post a Comment