“The politics don’t work” - Part 2

My last article considered the allegation that the immigration politics of Flexcit don’t work.

Let’s now turn to the wider allegations that “the politics don’t work” beyond the immigration issue. There are three main ways these allegations manifest themselves:

1. That the public won’t understand or accept the concept of a “journey out” (which is core to Flexcit) as opposed to a one-time exit event.

2. That people won’t be much exercised by the pro-globalisation approach of Flexcit. Indeed people may distrust that as much as they do our EU membership.

3. That Flexcit doesn’t speak to people’s every day grating experience of the EU, whether on fussy regulations (e.g. olive oil bottles in restaurants, frequency of bin collections, child car seat rules) or on the costs of membership — “people always understand money and what it could buy instead”. The related implication is that Flexcit is “wonkish” and too difficult to understand.

Tie these points together with “the immigration politics don’t work” and it builds an image of Flexcit allegedly being far away from the political realities of ordinary voters’ concerns; that Flexcit is therefore politically naïve at best. That may extend further into casting Flexcit advocates as modern-day puritans harping on about what may be true “on a strict reading” but which doesn’t “play” to the instincts of the British people. Indeed with their focus on eventually reconstructing British democracy, one might even cast Flexcit advocates as the Levellers of their age — part of the wider “Roundhead” movement of Brexiteers yet taking the logic of democracy much further and consequently being treated with suspicion by the rest of the movement.

So let’s first turn to the concept of a “journey out”.

Brexit is correctly defined as the UK giving up EU membership. The multi-stage Flexcit plan meets this objective at the very first stage — by exiting EU membership. That alone needs to be baldly stated because some Flexcit critics claim it doesn’t. Alongside that, the plan proposes that the UK still be a part of the single market, very much like some other non-EU countries. It proposes such an exit route in order to de-risk any potential or mooted economic side effects of Brexit and also does so in the knowledge that many of the single market rules now originate at global level where, as an independent nation, the UK would once again be able to make its full voice heard. We would be giving up 1/28th of a seat on global bodies in order to take a full seat.

In the referendum campaign so far, the pro-EU side has erroneously but constantly equated the EU with the single market because they know that the risk of a quick departure from the single market resonates much more than appeals to “love the EU”, which pro-EU voices realise is simply not going to work. Indeed some pro-EU voices even openly acknowledge that the EU is rubbish.

So immediately we have a total difference of view regarding the political pulling power of the single market. Pro-EU strategy suggests continued participation in the single market “plays well” politically. Many Brexiteers clearly think it plays badly, including more moderate Brexit voices like Douglas Carswell.

They surely can’t both be right.

By neatly combining Brexit with continued single market participation in the first stage, Flexcit kills a mass of risks stated by the pro-EU side. The only thing then standing in the way of this approach is the pro-EU theme that those in the single market but not in the EU have “No Say”; a theme that has been all but destroyed by globalisation. And two thirds of the public believe we have no influence in the EU anyway.

So Flexcit can make a powerful case for taking up an EEA position at the point of Brexit. Where the “politics don’t work”, say the critics, is that we will get stuck in that position; that there will be no transition beyond this point and so subsequent Flexcit stages addressing immigration (Stage 2) and moving single market rule-making away from the EU (Stage 3) won’t actually happen. In other words, they don’t believe the interim EEA position is interim, which could say more about their ‘one-time-Brexit’ mindset than anything about Flexcit.

But what needs to be understood is that Stage 2 is undertaken from the EEA position achieved in Stage 1. It does not require the UK to leave that position. It acknowledges that the UK would then have an emergency brake on migration and could also implement joined-up policies that reduce pull factors for migrants. It also considers the position on the European Convention on Human Rights, particularly with regard to asylum seekers, which the UK could then reconsider outside the EU treaties. The same is true for the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees (and 1967 protocol), which calls in another basic principle of Stage 2 — we would be more empowered as a country to do something about immigration. What we actually do (and we as a country may choose to make only minor adjustments) would be down to us. But as part of such national considerations, we may find new global partners in any quest to change global arrangements e.g. Australia.

None the less, the point here is that we would reach Stage 2 simply by virtue of reaching Stage 1.

Now it’s true to say that Stage 2 will not satisfy some UKIP supporters. But we have to increasingly accept this will always be the case — nothing will assuage such people short of a full unrealistic block on immigration or at the very least an Australian style points system which doesn’t do what UKIP thinks it does. We therefore come back to the point that it’s UKIP’s immigration politics that ultimately don’t work, not the politics of Flexcit. What they are really saying is that Stage 2 of Flexcit does not take them to where they want to be — to a relatively isolationist Britain that thinks the EU is evil (and which humours those who rant about muslims and the EUSSR).

And on that they are right. Flexcit does not take us there. But it does give us an awful lot of very sensible stuff.

Stage 3 — decoupling the Single Market from the EU — is more interesting and is happening almost by default, driven by the ongoing process of globalisation. The act of the UK exiting the EU to an EEA position would itself have a centrifugal effect on the EU, as both sides of the debate accept. If/when the soon-to-be-largest-economy member state left the EU it would create a much greater economic and political counter-weight to the EU and that situation would inevitably have to be accommodated. And that’s before even considering:

a) the effect of Brexit on other EU member states, particularly the ‘pull’ on Sweden and Denmark to join the UK, Norway and Iceland in an EEA position.

b) the rest of the EU’s new-found freedom to integrate further and faster, without the drag of “non-believers”.

Over all, one can easily foresee a recasting of the EFTA/EEA/EU relationship and a corresponding hastening of a genuinely pan-European structure for the single market that is more closely tied to global rule-making. In that scenario, existing United Nations institutions such as the UN Economic Commission in Europe (UNECE) would augment their key roles in technical standards setting.

Coming back to whether all of this “works politically” boils down to whether globalisation itself “works politically”. After all, there are many who are deeply concerned about globalisation and some of those concerns are because it bears some resemblance to EU governance, only more distant and more impregnable to voters (albeit inter-governmental rather than supranational — itself an important distinction between the two levels).

That’s true but who are these concerned people? I would contend that they are mostly the angry and fearful on both Left and Right. Nothing will placate them short of an Island Left/Right paradise — whether “socialism in our time” or an isolated & chauvenistic form of nationalism.

But the large broad centre of politics (including I may say a reasonable number of Brexiteers across the Brexit spectrum, including some in UKIP) will sympathise with an outward looking Britain with a global vocation. And that is why the politics of this will win out, as long as the journey to a liberal, democratic, outward-looking nation can be articulated in inspiring and personally relevant ways. Which I believe it can.

Finally let’s take a look at the last point relating to “the Flexcit politics don’t work”, namely that Flexcit allegedly doesn’t speak to people’s every day experience of the EU, particularly the daft regulations and the costs.

Starting with the costs: engaging with the world costs money. And so do certain industries (farming) and projects in the UK. The savings from leaving that some then say we can spend on more nurses or whatever are therefore largely an illusion. The other point is that if the net costs of EU membership weren’t nearly £10bn a year but say a fiver, would you persuaded to stay? The answer from those minded to leave the EU is invariably No. In which case, why use the cost argument? As some pro-EU critics further point out, it is a squabble over something like 1% of all government spending and consequently any EU argument based on cost sounds faintly ridiculous.

The mention of nurses a moment ago does however give a clue to why it is used: it’s basically a cheap political shot. But such a tactic (built on dodgy assumptions) does not a strategy make and is liable to blow up in the faces of those who use it.

In other words it doesn’t work politically, except at the margins for those who are already fully committed to Brexit.

On so-called “fussy EU regulations”, Flexcit doesn’t focus on these for the simple reason that many of them will not disappear on UK exit from the EU, because they originate at global level. It’s therefore largely a false argument. And further, globalisation’s effects on the EU provide us with a stronger Brexit argument than has hitherto been the case.

And yet it must be acknowledged that there are some apparently silly regulations and also that they can provide an argument that resonates. Daniel Hannan has for example recently talked about the regulations around the use of child car seats and the frequency of bin collections in making his case for Brexit. As he is right to point out (but others often miss), it is not that these regulations are necessarily wrong but that they are “coming from Brussels” when they are surely small enough to be a national or even local matter.

But these examples also demonstrate the difficulty in separating rules with EU origin from rules with global origin. The child car seat regulations (and indeed any car regulations) start out as UNECE regulations and many waste disposal/landfill regulations can be traced back to global climate change agreements. And then of course there is the national layer of UK government that can always be relied upon to legislate and regulate anything that moves. That’s why it proved so difficult to get rid of quangos a few years ago despite a government commitment to do just that. In short, it’s a complex area that can rarely be blamed solely on the EU, meaning deregulation/ cutting red tape will largely be the same chimera they have always been.

There are some absurdities in regulation of course, and it’s quite fun to make hooting noises about them (and the subject therefore attracts “career hooters”) but to suggest there will be a bonfire of regulations after Brexit doesn’t stack up. There will be some standalone deregulation opportunities in specific sectors and one could say that Flexcit advocates should use those when the argument calls for it. But such examples are relatively (and increasingly) limited and in any case, would many folk get particularly animated by say the EU’s Alternative Investment Fund Managers Directive?

So yes the argument about daft regulations has some place but that place is much more limited than the prevailing general outrage against regulations suggests. And in some ways one doesn’t want to encourage that general outrage any more than is necessary, as it will be pulled apart. Whether we like it or not, there is a need for cross-border regulation.

In conclusion, some constraints on free movement can be applied at the point of Brexit but they will be more limited in scope than hardcore Brexiteers would wish (yet also better than one might assume). And neither the costs of the EU nor those “fussy EU regulations” can be used much in the case to leave.

Does that strip Brexiteers of their arguments and does it make leaving pointless? Those are two different things.

It certainly does not make leaving pointless: we would be setting out on a journey to remove the EU (which neuters UK economic interests) from UK policy making and to cast a better future that once again gives us the agility, self-government, and self-assurance to thrive in a modern networked world. The table above shows how much better Stage 1 alone would be compared to EU membership.

It does inevitably strip out some old “eurosceptic” arguments, but let’s turn that around: How does the anti-EU movement’s favourite method of Brexit play politically? The one that usually rests on some variation of the WTO Option, which contains significant risks, and is portrayed by the pro-EU side as a leap into the unknown, even “terrifying”, because it is tied to rejection of the single market? The one that thinks we have become so intertwined with the EU over 40 years (“80% of all laws…”) yet simultaneously thinks the UK can cut off from it all at high speed, like an axe to remove a tumour?

Yes that one.

For if there is one thing that does work politically, it is the threat or not to people’s every day livelihoods. And the one very big thing that Flexcit does is to neutralise all fear about that point, before adding that Brexit sets the UK on a de-risked path to a global trading and global leadership future.

And on that, the politics surely do work.