The case for pessimism: out of date?

The great advantage of a blog like this from my point of view is that it provides me with an archive of things I have written and said over the years that don’t end up on my cv. And so this is a post written primarily for my own benefit, linking to an article I wrote for the Irish Mail on Sunday in the week after the UK triggered Article 50 (there wasn’t an online version available at the time).

I was pretty pessimistic back in April — perhaps overly so. Since I was focusing on the British side, how could I not have been?  On the other hand, if I were writing the piece today I would place less stress on the economics, and more on the politics of the Border. That greatly limits the range of acceptable outcomes — but who is to say that the Irish government won’t succeed in its efforts? The recent EU paper on the subject is gratifyingly hardline in its approach to the issue: the language relating to avoiding “a hard border, including any physical border infrastructure” is exactly what we would have wanted, and has probably not been sufficiently commented-upon in Britain, ruling out as it does the Canada-US and Norway-Sweden options that some Brexiteers seem so keen on.

Since time is running out, and bespoke transitional arrangements are even less obtainable than they were a year ago, the most plausible and realistic way for the UK to avoid a cliff-edge would seem to be a transition involving the status quo, more or less.* That would kick the border issue into touch for a couple more years: and once we get to that stage, who knows what might eventually happen?

*Although I do still think that the cliff is a possibility, for the reasons stated in that column or here (sorry, more self-archiving).

10 replies on “The case for pessimism: out of date?”

There might be reason for optimism if it were clear that Her Majesty’s Government wanted to avoid a cliff-edge, but I don’t think it does. Or, rather, I think that the terms HMG wants [have cake and eat it] will not be acceptable to the EU, because they would require the abandonment of core principles and the legal basis for the EU’s very existence. If HMG has the slightest understanding of the magnitude of what it — as a candidate third country and outsider — is asking for, it is concealing it very well. Furthermore, I do not believe that HMG has the slightest conception of the complexity of the administrative arrangements any Brexit — soft, hard or Davis waffle — would require.

As an antidote to optimism, I recommend Richard North, a committed Brexiteer who does seem to know what he’a talking about — unlike HMG.


To quote the big man in the photograph from the Commons (last Wdnesday).

“We all know, and British business knows, that we need a smooth transition. We do not need change until we are certain that we have some acceptable new arrangements. The Government’s position paper on customs arrangements—I will not read it all—says: “This could involve a new and time-limited customs union between the UK and the EU Customs Union, based on a shared external tariff and without customs processes”. 

I will not go on, but there is an absolute whisker of difference between the Government’s paper and what the Opposition are now saying, and what everybody of the slightest common sense, in my opinion, is saying—that we should stay in the single market and the customs union until we know that we can smoothly transfer to some new and equally beneficial arrangement. Again, I would like some reassurances on that. 

I detect in the wording of the Bill and the Opposition’s amendment that we are crawling towards the cross-party approach that will obviously be required to settle this in the national interest. It is absurd for the Labour party to say that it is all agreed on the new policy it has adopted, and it is absurd for the Conservative party to say, “We’re all agreed on whatever it is the Secretary of State is trying to negotiate in Brussels.” The public are not idiots; they know that both parties are completely and fundamentally divided on many of these issues, with extreme opinions on both sides represented in the Cabinet and shadow Cabinet, let alone on the Back Benches. 

Let us therefore resolve this matter. Let us make sure this Bill does not make it impossible to stay in the single market and customs union, and let us have a grown-up debate on the whole practical problem we face and produce a much better Act of Parliament than the Bill represents at the moment.”

The “crawl” to a cross-party approach is in full swing.

Here [assuming the story is true] is an example of the sort of idiocy to be found in the upper reaches of HMG.

I suspect that this chap and his Legatum friends want Brexit because they want a bonfire of regulations that might inhibit their own activities. And there seems to be a strong strand, in T May’s thinking as in others, of dislike for any restraint — by parliament or by courts, British or EU — upon the powers of the executive. With T May as the monarch, and Legatum and others as her courtiers, Britain will be a paradise for spivs.


There are, in fact, only three really possible Brexit scenarios at this stage.

(i) withdraw the Article 50 notification of the intention to withdraw, the word used in Article 50 (a course of action considered entirely feasible by the drafter of the article, Lord Kerr, and endorsed by the then head of the Council legal service, Jean-Claude Piris)

(ii) no agreement and a disorderly Brexit with the UK trading on WTO terms overnight

(iii) (a) a withdrawal agreement (WA) under Article 50, with the UK formally leaving the EU on a certain date (probably 29 March 2019 because this is the date that has entered the public mind although it only applies if there is no agreement) which includes a standstill i.e. extension of agreed areas of the EU acquis to the UK (notably most elements of the internal market, including the customs union, and ALL the economic policy areas the EU is currently implementing) but without any further participation by the UK in the institutional decision-making procedures of the EU (a possibility allowed for in the EU27’s existing negotiating guidelines) to allow time for the UK to negotiate a new permanent relationship with the EU.

(iii) (b) negotiation of said new permanent relationship.

In a current interview in Prospect Magazine Lord Kerr thinks that (i) is still a possibility but would require another referendum. The problem he finds with (iii) (a) is that in order to negotiate such an arrangement, the UK needs to establish beforehand what it wants (iii)(b) to be.

My own view is that the UK, with or without the UK being clear nationally as to what (iii)(b) should be, will end up with (iii)(a) and that that this will eventually, with a few added bells and whistles, turn into (iii)(b).

In the interest of clarity, could you reference the section in article 50, or anywhere else, that allows for a withdrawal of the notice to withdraw as already submitted(your scenario (i) above)?

Your oblique reference to Ken Clarke’s speech in the House of Commons took a while to find, but it was certainly worth the read.

As far as the conservatives are concerned, the “crawling towards the cross-party approach “, is by no means a foregone conclusion.
Their gutter press inspired visceral hatred of Labour ranks higher than the impending pain of a hard Brexit, which in any case most of them will not feel personally.
And Labour should be, and will not be, in any rush to get the conservatives out of their hard-Brexit mess, an ideology inspired by a combination of old imperialists and a neocon Singapore-on-the- Thames mentality.

The short answer is that there isn’t any, the reason being rather obvious. Were there such a reference, the provisions for withdrawal would be viewed as frivolous. The UK has, however, behaved in a frivolous manner. I understand that in law, the notification of an intention can be reversed. That is the view of the two gentlemen I mentioned.

To complete the picture, what the ardent Ultras of the Tory party want (from letter circulated and signed by some 30 MPs).

“In order to ensure that no-one seeks to use a transition period as means of keeping the UK in the EU by stealth, the government must add the following clauses to any transitional deal: 

There must be a clearly defined timetable for this country’s departure from the single market and customs union. Any deal should also reserve the right for the UK government to unilaterally withdraw from the deal via domestic legislation: we need to be sure that our own government is in charge of the deal – not the EU – and that the deal won’t become permanent. 

We need to make sure the UK is not forced onto a conveyer belt of EU regulation: The European Communities Act 1972 must be repealed, in full, on exit day. Likewise, on exit day, we must ensure we are exempted from Article 3 TFEU. 

There can be no Henry VIII laws which automatically add EU/EEA laws onto our statute books, and we must be free to negotiate and sign trade deals during the transition period. 

Finally, the UK must have the power to take back control of key parts of its immigration system. In short, when we leave in 2019 – we need to make sure we are well and truly out. 

With these clauses in place, the will of the British people will have been respected, and the country set on a course to make a great success of Brexit.”

As matters stand, in terms of the requirements for it to happen in an orderly manner, Brexit simply cannot be a success, least of all politically for the Tories.

May’s next move is awaited with considerable interest.

It is quite likely that if the UK leaves the EU but remains in the (or ‘a’) EEA and CU then it will simply stay there indefinitely as it becomes clearer to the electorate that there is no net gain from subsequently leaving them. This is what is motivating the cliff-edge faction.

That feeds into the calculus for HMG’s current priority – navigating the Conservative party conference.

The Euro-sceptic right are, in the public perception, looking increasingly like a ragged bunch of fantasists in the process of hanging themselves with a rope they never thought they would get hold of. Whether public opinion will shift decisively enough for the UK’s ‘leaders’ to follow by withdrawing Article 50 before the end of the 2 year period remains to be seen.

As I’ve said before, Ireland should take no part in helping the Brexiteers to bounce the UK over the cliff in the meantime.

I do not think that “opinion formers”, for want of a better word, in Ireland are even aware of the risk that you mention. (A good example is the recent hullabaloo about the Public Services Card when it is obvious that some such identity instrument will be a sine qua non in the immediate future; better adapted to as a member of the EU rather than an ex-member, the likely case for the UK).
The risk,luckily, is not that great. Irrespective of how people voted, the “writing on the wall” is equally visible to all.

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