Informed reporting from Brussels suggests the Chequers proposals are heading towards delivering a rebranded Customs Union. This will be couched in terms of a temporary and transitional nature, but with little to actually vouchsafe that future promised motion, and structurally everything to hinder it.
Treating the parliamentary and public debate that will imminently develop as a simple ‘Marathon into Snickers’ marketing exercise would be a mistake of the first order. As has been explored elsewhere, Whitehall’s touted model is inherently flawed and carries with it considerable baggage. It was ruled out during the referendum and so has no mandate from that poll. It was ruled out by the Conservative Party manifesto, which pledged “we will no longer be members of the single market or customs union”. And it is inherently unstable, since it has fewer safeguards than Norway’s supposed “Fax Democracy”, beyond those clauses that would sectorally collapse bilateral arrangements – and we have already seen how big corporate interests pile in to hinder change.
All of this leaves the end settlement in a more exposed position than a parking spot on Richmond’s riverside in April.
These points may well be familiar to the reader. But there is an important bigger picture that planners are also missing – how the model itself will undermine the very strategic gains that are the most exciting prospects of the Brexit referendum result.
Thanks to a largely unwarranted obsession with the Northern Irish backstop, our perspectives on the Brexit negotiations have narrowed to that of the watchmaker, whose intense concentration is drawn into how he delicately toys with complex and minuscule cogs. But we should also be keeping an eye on the wider shop. There are huge and historic stakes in play.
Until the 1970s, there were three competing models for our continent. There was COMECON, and the economics of the Soviet Bloc. Then there was the developing Customs and Regulatory Unions of the EEC. Finally, there was the light touch free trade and equivalence model of EFTA.
When the UK abandoned its creation to join the Brussels Club, it lifted the critical weight from EFTA and left it drifting in the shallows. The collapse of the Soviet Union 20 years later then crashed the EU’s remaining strategic challenger. At this point, the European Commission itself acquired, ironically and unhealthily, a sort of strategic monopoly on the continent.
The EU, like any federal or proto-federal construct, has a gravitational pull that draws powers to the centre, a feature that can be demonstrated by a cursory check of the vetoes lost to member states (100 under Tony Blair alone) or any dip into the Luxembourg Court’s case book. Meanwhile, within the treaties themselves, three ‘rubber clauses’ allowed additional activities where there was no legal authority, provided no one objected. A new passerelle (‘bridge’) clause was then inserted to extend this beyond running the Single Market.
This Lisbon Treaty innovation was only stymied by the UK’s 2011 European Union Act – whose imminent irrelevance, incidentally, the Commission has now already spotted as removing a brake, starting with tax matters. The Commission’s new drive into a single market in Defence, and with it the baggage of radically rationalising defence industries across member states, constitutes merely one new facet in its ambitions to which we will remain, unfortunately, still closely associated, with highly doubtful safeguards.
It is a monopoly, moreover, that Europe’s ‘political CEOs’ have abused. Past attitudes towards the legitimacy of power, and its enduring misapplication in pushing ever-closer union, should alert us to the inherent dangers of inserting any uncertain transitional phase at all into the Brexit deal. From the seemingly frivolous but actually indicative example of European legislators renaming their meeting place a ‘European Parliament’ without any treaty authority, to the EU whacking the UK with a Eurozone bailout bill, via the misuse of Health and Safety clauses to introduce Social Chapter material or the Commission expanding its remit by illegally funding ‘exploratory programmes’, there is serious track record in EU institutions pushing their remit beyond the realm of the reasonable let alone legal.
There is room for neither complacency nor optimism here. The failure of the Convention on the Future of Europe demonstrated that the EU cannot be reformed multilaterally. The failure of David Cameron’s renegotiations demonstrated that our relationship cannot be reformed bilaterally. The apparent amble towards a customs model now suggests that Whitehall’s approach has merely been another unambitious attempt at failed reform. We are left with accepting the acquis communautaire at face value while changing its name, in a Norway deal without the Norwegian safety switches – the establishment of the very Fax Democracy we were warned against.
As such, what is emerging looks inherently unstable. It pastes a veneer of institutional superglue for Northern Ireland, while the rest of the country is perched precariously on one leg. And, at the same time, ambition has been left in the attic. Brexit was, and still for now yet remains, an opportunity not simply for the UK to reach escape velocity, but also to inspire movements across Europe as well – whether seeking (in my view, forlornly) directional reform, or fully to regain in turn their own freedom and democratic equilibrium.
A robust Brexit deal provides a gateway route for other countries to break Europe’s current and unhealthy monopoly. To begin with, delivering clean Brexit based on bilateralism and free trade means reintroducing a competing model that will keep the EU corporately on its toes. Perhaps more critically, though, it also establishes a prefabricated mainstream alternative for countries that ultimately decide they have had enough of the route of ever-closer union – an alternative to a void that might otherwise be occupied by extremists, and by arch-protectionists, emerging into an hour of deep crisis.
This is a matter of simple national interest, but one that encompasses more than just our own nation. Sadly, despite all the sweat and toil spent on it, Whitehall’s anticipated customs arrangement fails the test.