You can’t always get what you want. It’s both a truism and the title of a song by The Rolling Stones, whom I was fortunate to see live in concert in Barcelona last week. What’s there to say about Mick Jagger and his colleagues that hasn’t already been said? With a career spanning fifty years and a gazillion albums sold, the band could be forgiven for kicking back and enjoying a long and celebrated retirement. But after watching them power through a mesmerising stadium act that remains second to none, there is no doubt: they may all be in their seventies, but the Stones are still cool, still very much in touch with the modern world.
It’s an obvious segue, but if only the rest of his fellow baby boomers were as politically astute as Mick Jagger. This is the generation that propelled the Leave campaign to victory, but, with every passing week, the fact that you can’t always get what you want – a return to the ‘good old days’ before EU membership (perhaps not coincidentally, an age of youth and vigour for most elderly voters) – becomes ever more apparent. But still the right wing press and ambitious Tory ministers promise a golden future outside the European Union. The walking, talking, anachronism that is Jacob Rees-Mogg even invoked the spirit of Agincourt (a battle that took place in 1415) this week in a fringe speech at the Tory Party conference. What should we celebrate next? Alfred the Great and the candle clock as an example of dynamic entrepreneurialism and “can do” spirit?
It is a tragedy for the country that the senior Brexiteers are still being allowed to live in the past despite massively losing ground in a General Election that was supposed to consolidate their vision of Britain’s future outside of the EU.
Instead of being returned with a huge majority, the Conservative government now hangs by a thread, propped up by a regressive and illiberal minority party from Northern Ireland, one whose core values – from opposing abortion to virulent prejudice towards LGBT rights – are an anathema to the majority of Britons.
But leading Eurosceptics are behaving as if nothing has happened, and continue to use their toxic notions of English exceptionalism like a battering ram in selfish pursuit of a policy that only they truly believe in. They splutter about the current impasse in negotiations and talk emotionally about Britain being punished and held to ransom by a tyrannical power.
This is, of course, piffle. We voted to Leave. No one forced us. We have to acknowledge that our decision will not play out in a vacuum; it creates a great deal of unwelcome disruption and uncertainty for other member states. The EU is merely protecting the interests of the twenty seven countries who will remain after we have left. This was entirely predictable and it presages how other countries will seek to negotiate and protect their interests once we start discussing trade deals. Portraying the UK as a ‘victim’ of EU inflexibility when we are the ones who created the uncertainty is plain stupid.
Bizarrely, much of the complaints centre on the EU’s refusal to give way to Britain’s demands for unhindered trade and market access after Brexit, contrary to all the promises of the Leave campaign. This is pretty much what economists and trade experts in the Remain camp were warning about when they were shouted down as being agents for Project Fear. It’s not surprising that having been left with almighty egg on their face, the Brexiteers are alarmed but it’s hard to see why (other than arrogant stupidity) they expected anything else. What’s depressing is seeing Leave voters (typically late middle-aged or elderly white folk) on ‘Question Time’ assert, with no evidence whatsoever to support their argument, that “they” will have to do a deal with us because “we” are Britain.
Boris Johnson claims that we will not pay to have to be a member of the Single European Market (SEM). But this is either dishonest – he surely knows this won’t be permitted – or just inept. And he’s not the only preacher of folly. Ahead of the Conservative Party Conference, some leading Tories were calling for Britain to confirm its intention to revert to WTO rules as early as this Christmas, even though we don’t officially leave the EU until March 2019. Forget that reverting to WTO rules was never, even in the slightest, presented as a consequence of voting Leave, free market ideologues like Liam Fox are now revealing their true objectives. Their coup is weakened but not mortally wounded and now they are trying to press home their advantage whilst they still can.
It seems to me that what the Leave campaign has never grasped, or chooses to ignore and mislead the public about, is that the Single Market and the EU itself are indivisible. One cannot exist without the other; ergo, one cannot be inside the SEM but entirely independent of the European Union.
The SEM is not an abstract idea. It’s a concrete undertaking by all the EU members to harmonise barriers to trade in ways that now underpin countless micro-transactions and decisions affecting companies and individuals. A lot of what Boris and his band of merry Brexiteers rail against as “meddling” are the necessary rules that preserve a system our prosperity depends upon. For every rule that appears to stop us from sending unemployed migrants back to their country after three months (and actually, the Dublin Agreement allows us to do exactly that – it’s just that we’ve never bothered), there are thousands of regulations dictating the types of chemicals that can be used in fire retardants, the acceptable operating temperature for LED light bulbs and the labelling requirements for chicken soup, to name but three. I don’t care if you personally think this is all nonsense or political correctness gone mad. The fact these rules exist create opportunities for British firms and protect British consumers. And besides, the last thing the world needs right now is a trade row over soup.
Without these rules, members could target favourable policies – rules-of-origin checks, cross-country differences in regulations over product standards and safety, antidumping duties, tax breaks, subsidies, or laxer environmental or labour laws – towards their own firms to make production cheaper. Since this would distort competition and create unfair advantages across the single market, policies governing these areas have to be harmonised. By removing those non-tariff barriers, everyone wins.
Because the SEM is fundamental to the EU itself, there is simply no way that the EU can politically or economically allow the UK to leave the EU and:
- Remain part of the SEM without contributing to its functional costs. To be part of the SEM requires members, including countries like Norway and Switzerland that are outside it, to pay into the EU budget to cover the costs of regulation and applying those regulations.
- Remain part of the SEM without abiding by its rules – e.g. competing on a level playing field against businesses from other EU states. And that means accepting freedom of movement.
- Recuse itself from the authority of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the event of trade and other regulatory disputes. This would allow the UK to sidestep all the regulations that ensure fairness within the SEM and, more pertinently, allow it to do so for free. It will never happen.
Britain has been fully integrated into this system for so long that its benefits have been taken for granted. To say that ripping us out of those treaties is ‘easy’ or will make us ‘better off’ is patently absurd. It almost feels like we’re trying to remove some kind of nanotechnology implant that was inserted long ago to make us faster, fitter, stronger. The EU has become so embedded at a cellular level with who we are that there is no practical way to remove it easily. And even if we try, we can never go back to who we were. The trauma will leave us worse, not better off.
And always, we have to remember that the UK currently has all the benefits of membership but is choosing voluntarily to leave. It is not for the EU to resolve this dichotomy. Boris is leading the country towards economic catastrophe and so I am happy to be negative and pessimistic if that’s what it takes to stop this folly. Because in the end, however engaging he may seem, it really is hard to have any sympathy for the devil.