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The Brexit Border Backstop

The other Europeans are not laughing at the English for the most part. They are looking at them with pity and scorn. But also with a great deal of impatience.

On Tuesday the British parliament rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s ‘deal’ for Britain’s exit (‘Brexit’) from the European Union, painfully negotiated over more than two-and-a-half years, by an overwhelming 149-vote majority.

It was the second time parliament, including a large chunk of her own Conservative Party, rejected the deal she made with the EU last November. And the main reason both times was the so-called ‘backstop’: a commitment by May’s government to avoid a hard border in Ireland at all costs.

Today (I am writing on Wednesday), the British parliament will also reject a proposal that Britain just leave the EU without a deal. ‘Crashing out’ would mean instant customs barriers at the United Kingdom’s port, airports and land borders, with immense disruption of trade including food imports and industrial supply chains. It would be an economic disaster.

On Thursday, once that option is foreclosed, the British parliament will vote on asking the EU for a postponement of the departure date (currently scheduled for the 29th of this month). That vote will almost certainly pass, but neither the government nor parliament can even agree on how long a postponement to ask for.

If your local daycare was this feckless, you’d move your children at once.

The EU will probably grant the United Kingdom a delay to avoid a ‘no-deal Brexit’, but there will be no more negotiations: the delay would only be to give May time to sort out the politics of getting her deal through. It will be a long delay, not just a few weeks, because nobody believes she can do that quickly (if at all). And it will require the consent of all the EU’s 27 other national leaders.

It’s all about the ‘backstop’. That’s why parliament won’t pass May’s deal, and it’s why the EU refuses to re-negotiate it.

May’s November deal with the EU promised that the United Kingdom would stay in the existing customs union with the EU, and also remain closely aligned with the ‘single market’ that guarantees the free movement of goods, capital, services, and labour across the whole EU – until and unless the two parties negotiate an alternative arrangement that keeps the inter-Irish border unpoliced and almost unmarked.

If you drive the 500-km. border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, the road crosses it dozens of times (there are 270 vehicle crossings). The only way you know you have crossed the border again is that speed limits are posted in kilometres in the republic, but in miles in the North.

But for 30 years during the ‘Troubles’ (1969-1999), which saw 3,000 people killed in a province of less than two million people, the border was a war zone. British soldiers, of whom hundreds died there, called it ‘bandit country’.

The killing ended with the ‘Good Friday agreement’ of 1999, which managed to achieve a compromise between the Protestants of Northern Ireland (who feel British) and the Catholics (who mostly identify as Irish). There would be power-sharing at government level, and the border with the Republic would become invisible. The Irish nationalists in the North could even have Irish passports instead of British ones.

Brexit is almost entirely an English nationalist project – Scotland and Northern Ireland both voted to remain in the EU – and the Brexiteers just ignored the fact that leaving the EU would sabotage the Good Friday deal by creating a hard border in Ireland. There would have to be customs officers and passport checks, or else there would be huge amounts of smuggling and an uncontrolled flow of illegal migrants.

But a hard border would bring the war back, even though most people don’t want it. The population on the UK side of the border is overwhelmingly Catholic, and any attempt to control the border without putting officials on it will fail: the local people will just destroy the cameras and other sensors.

But put in customs officials, and you will need police to protect them – and soon enough you will need soldiers to protect the police. Welcome to the Troubles, volume two.

So the Irish government demanded that the border stay open and invisible. It is and will remain a member of the EU, so that became EU policy. Which means Northern Ireland (and therefore all the rest of the UK) must stay in the customs union until someone comes up with a magical method for controlling the border invisibly.

That’s why the ‘backstop’ was necessary, and Theresa May accepted that when she signed the deal last November. But she cannot sell it to her own party’s hard-line Brexiteers, let alone to the other parties in parliament. Magical thinking still rules, and the arrogance is as breathtaking as the ignorance.

What happens next? Nobody has any idea.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 1 and 7. (“The other…impatience”; and “The EU…leaders”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Brexit Chicken

9 January 2019

There’s no need to practice bleeding, as the soldiers say, but the British government didn’t get the message. On Monday, it paid 89 truck-drivers £550 each ($930) to simulate the immense traffic jam that will happen in Kent if Britain crashes out of the European Union without a deal at the end of March.

The drivers had to bring their vehicles to Manston, a disused World War Two-vintage airfield in Kent, where the government is planning to park 4,000 big trucks if a ‘no-deal Brexit’ on 29 March leads to new customs checks on trucks heading for Europe. Every extra two minutes’ delay at customs, say the experts, would mean another 15 km. of trucks backed up on the roads leading to the cross-Channel terminals.

So the drivers parked their trucks on the airfield, then drove down to the port in convoy while the traffic-control experts measured…what? This wasn’t the 10,000-truck gridlock jamming the roads that might happen in late March. It was a single file of 89 trucks driving sedately along an uncrowded road. It looked like an exercise in pure futility, a Potemkin traffic-jam.

Yet it did have a rational purpose – a political purpose. It was being staged to persuade the British public, and especially the British parliament, that Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative government really will take the United Kingdom out of the EU without ANY deal if parliament does not accept HER deal.

May’s deal is almost universally disliked. The Remainers hate it because they don’t want to leave the EU at all, and the Brexit hard-liners in her own party hate it because it keeps Britain too closely tied to the EU.

Never mind the details – they are almost theological –but the upshot is that May cannot get parliament to pass the exit deal she made with the EU, which would at least keep the trade flowing. She just doesn’t have the votes. And she can’t get the EU to amend the deal either.

The opposition to her deal in parliament is so strong that she cancelled a scheduled vote on it a month ago because she was bound to lose it. She is now committed to holding the vote on 15 January – but she still doesn’t have the votes. So she is threatening to jump off a bridge, and take everybody else with her, if they don’t back her deal. It has become a game of Chicken.

The charade in Kent is part of a government show-and-tell campaign to prove that she really means it. So are the predictions that the chaos at the Channel ports will be so bad that Britain will have to charter planes to bring scarce medicines in, and that supermarket shelves will be bare (Britain imports 30% of its food from the EU), and that zombies will rule the streets. (I made that one up, but you get the picture.)

The problem is that nobody believes her. May has manipulated the parliamentary rules and schedules to make it appear that there are no legal alternatives except her deal or a catastrophic no-deal Brexit, but she just doesn’t convince as a suicide bomber. Indeed, there was a vote in parliament on Monday night that blocked the government’s ability to make tax changes connected with a no-deal Brexit without parliament’s “explicit consent”.

That doesn’t actually mean that it cannot happen, unfortunately. Parliament can block her deal, but unless it can agree on some other course of action Brexit happens automatically on 29 March – without a deal. And that really would be nasty.

How nasty? William Hague, a former leader of the Conservative Party, summed it up well in the Daily Telegraph: “I don’t know what will follow a rejection of [May’s] deal…a constitutional shambles, a second referendum shambles, a no-deal exit shambles, a Corbyn [Labour government] shambles. I just know that it will be an abysmal shambles.

“People who say that the deal is the worst of all worlds haven’t understood how bad things might get,” Hague concluded. As May herself admits, a no-deal Brexit is “uncharted territory.”

So what will really happen when parliament starts voting later this month? There will almost certainly be more than one vote, as the 650 members of the House of Commons, no longer constrained by party loyalty – it’s too important for that – swing this way and that. But there may not be a majority for any specific course of action, in which case parliament will probably end up voting for a second referendum.

May has sworn that she will never allow that, because it would be a betrayal of the 52% who voted ‘Leave’ in the first referendum in June 2016. But in the end she probably will allow it, because she is not a suicide bomber.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“How…territory”)

Brexit: No Turning Point Yet

Even with Donald Trump scheduled for a brief visit to the United Kingdom this week amid massive protests, it’s still ‘all Brexit, all of the time’ in the sceptred isle – and the long struggle over the nature of the deal that will define Britain’s relationship with the European Union post-exit allegedly reached a turning point last weekend.

“They had nothing else to offer. They had no Plan B. She faced them down,” said a senior government official about the hard-line Brexiteers after Prime Minister Theresa May got them to sign up to a so-called ‘soft Brexit’ at a crisis cabinet meeting last Friday. But the armistice between the ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ factions in her fractious Conservative Party lasted less than 48 hours.

On Sunday morning hard-line Brexiteer David Davis, the ludicrously titled Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, reneged on his short-lived support for May’s negotiating goals and resigned in protest. Then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson followed suit, claiming that May’s plan meant “the (Brexit) dream is dying, suffocated by needless self-doubt.”

The sheer fecklessness of the ‘Brexit dream’ is epitomised by Johnson, who first compared May’s negotiating plans to “polishing a turd”, then came round to supporting them for about 36 hours, and finally resigned, saying that they would reduce the UK to a “vassal state” with the “status of a colony” of the EU. Yet at no point in the discussion did either of them offer a coherent counter-proposal.

And what is all this Sturm und Drang about? A negotiating position, devised by May with great difficulty two years after the referendum that yielded 52% support for an undefined ‘Brexit’, which could never be accepted by the European Union. Its sole virtue was that it seemed possible to unite the ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ factions of the Conservative Party behind it. But the unity imposed by May broke down before the weekend was over.

All four of the great offices of state – prime minister, chancellor (finance minister), foreign secretary and home secretary (interior minister) – are now held by Conservative politicians who voted Remain in the referendum. Yet they are unable to persuade their party to accept even a ‘soft Brexit’ that preserves Britain’s existing access to its biggest trading partner, the EU.

The Brexiteers’ power lies in their implicit threat to stage a revolt that overthrows May, fatally splits the Conservative Party, and precipitates an early election that brings the Labour Party to power. They may not really have the numbers to do that – it’s widely assumed that a majority of the Conservative members of parliament secretly want a very soft Brexit or no Brexit at all – but May dares not test that assumption.

So, horrified by the prospect of a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn (who is regularly portrayed by the right-wing media as a Lenin in waiting), the Conservatives are doomed to cling desperately to power even though they can probably never deliver a successful Brexit. And the time is running out.

The United Kingdom will be leaving the European Union on 29 March of next year whether there is a deal that maintains most of its current trade with the EU or not. In practice, the deadline for an agreement is next October, since time must be allowed for 27 other EU members to ratify the deal. If there is no deal, the UK simply ‘crashes out’, and chaos ensues.

The volume of trade in goods and services between the United Kingdom and the rest of the EU is so great, and the preparation for documenting the safety and origins of goods and collecting customs on them so scanty, that the new border would simply freeze up.

That would cause great difficulty for many European enterprises, but for Britain it would be a catastrophe. As an example, two-fifths of the components for cars built in the UK are sourced from elsewhere in the EU. Yet most of the time available for negotiating a soft Brexit has already been wasted, and Britain still does not have a realistic negotiating position.

This preposterous situation is almost entirely due to the civil war within the Conservative Party between the Brexit faction the rest. The only reason that there was a referendum at all was because former prime minister David Cameron thought that a decisive defeat in a referendum would shut the Brexiteers up and end that war. He miscalculated.

The Brexiteers spun a fantasy of an oppressive EU that was the cause of all Britain’s troubles and sold it to the nostalgic older generation, the unemployed and underemployed who were looking for somebody to blame, and sundry nationalists of all colours.

They narrowly won the referendum with the help of a rabidly nationalist right-wing press, spending well beyond the legal limits in the campaign – and, it now appears, with considerable support from Russia. (The biggest contributor to the Brexit campaign, mega-rich investor Arron Banks, met the Russian ambassador at least eleven times during the run-up to the referendum and the subsequent two months.)

There’s still a chance that reason will prevail before the UK crashes out of the EU, of course. But the odds are no better than even.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10, 11 and 13. (“The volume…position”; and “The Brexiteers…colours”)

Italy: The Enemy of my Enemy is my Friend

NOTE: THE NEW COALITION GOVERNMENT IS SUPPOSED TO BE ACCEPTED BY THE ITALIAN PRESIDENT TODAY, 21 MAY, BUT AT THE TIME OF WRITING IT STILL HAD NOT HAPPENED. CHECK.

From the European Union’s point of view Brexit, the impending departure of the United Kingdom, is a pity but not a disaster. Britain never joined the euro, the common currency used by most EU members, and the English were always the awkward squad in the EU’s march towards an ‘ever closer union’. Whereas the defection of Italy could threaten the EU’s survival.

Two and a half months after the election on 4 March, Italy is finally getting a new government. It is a bizarre coalition of the Five-Star Movement (M5S), a populist party of the left, and the League, a populist party of the far right. Moderates both in Italy and in the wider EU reassure themselves with the thought that it cannot survive, let alone cooperate, but they may be wrong.

There is actually a good chance that the new coalition will survive, at least for a while, because it is based on the ancient principle that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. And the enemy the two parties have in common is the European Union.

Until recently the M5S was promising to hold a referendum on Italy’s membership in the euro, while the League was advocating outright withdrawal from the EU. They have backed away from those extreme policies for the moment, but what they are promising to do will nevertheless bring them into direct and severe confrontation with the European Union.

The coalition’s ‘contract for change’, a joint programme agreed earlier this month, is a patchwork quilt of both parties’ favourite policies. It includes the M5S pledge of a minimum basic income of 780 euros ($917) a month for the poorest Italians, and the League’s demand for a flat tax of 15% on the incomes of middle-class Italians, and only 20 % even for the rich.

This will doubtless please a great many Italian voters (which was the whole point of the idea), but it involves an extra $132 billion per year of deficit spending. This blatantly violates the EU budget rules designed to keep the euro currency stable.

The Italian government’s foreign debt is already so big that only the implicit guarantee of eurozone membership keeps its borrowing costs down. A few more years of Italian over-spending, however, and the stability of the euro itself will come into question, so the EU will fight very hard to block the coalition’s spending plans.

A confrontation is also likely to erupt over illegal immigration, with the new coalition government pushing for a change in the ‘Dublin regulation’ that requires refugees to seek asylum in the first EU country they reach. For the great majority of the ‘refugees’ who make it across the Mediterranean each year, that first country is Italy, and most Italians want the
burden shared more fairly among all the EU countries.

That would seem to be enough dry kindling to get the fire going, and yet an open fight between the Five Star-League coalition and the EU will probably be postponed for a while. It
will get kicked down the road because the EU needs all the unity it can muster to resist the US assault on global trade.

The problem is not just the steep US tariffs on a variety of EU products that are due to kick in soon. The bigger issue is rapidly becoming how to protect European banks and companies trading with Iran from being forced to pull out of Iran by Trump’s promised ‘secondary sanctions’. That’s a sovereignty question, and the other big EU countries will bend over backward to keep Italy in line until this issue is settled.

In the longer run, however, a major confrontation between Italy and the rest of the EU is coming if the coalition government lasts. When it arrives, the two parties that make up the coalition are quite likely to fall back on their previous plans for quitting the euro currency and even the EU as a whole.

As Oscar Wilde remarked in a quite different context: “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” For the EU to lose first the United Kingdom and then Italy would certainly look like carelessness, but it should not be seen as an inevitable event. More like a chapter of misfortunes.

The narrow Brexit victory in the UK (52%-48%) was driven by a generation of English nationalists (‘Little Englanders’) that is rapidly ageing out, while the great majority of the under-35s voted ‘remain’.

The great majority of Italians want to stay in the EU, but their general discontent led many to vote for parties that are (among other things) anti-EU.

Some new EU members that spent almost half a century under Communist rule and very little time as democracies, like Poland and Hungary, are back under authoritarian rule, and the disease seems to be spreading.

It could turn into a perfect storm that unravels the European Union, but cheer up. At least Europe would recover some of its fine old traditions, like picturesque dictatorships, ultra-nationalism, sporadic wars, and maybe the occasional world war.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 10. (“A confrontation…countries”; and “The problem…settled”)