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Brexit: the hacking of Redwood

2016-09-04 00:48:47

It is instructive to see someone purporting to be Mr John Redwood setting out a distinctive contribution to the Brexit debate on the Redwood blog. Entitled, rather optimistically, an "action plan for Brexit", this Mr Redwood would have the UK Government send an "Article 50" letter explaining we are leaving "using our own constitutional arrangements as per previous Article, which will be an Act of Parliament".

Assuming that this is the real Mr Redwood, and his site has not been hacked by a malicious troll, one hopes he has carefully read Article 50. But, assuming he has, we are having some difficulty understanding why he wants our Government explain to the European Council that "we are leaving".

Although open to a certain amount of ambiguity, that would seem to imply a degree of immediacy. Yet Article 50 is quite subtle. It does not require a notification that we are leaving. It requires of us to give notice of our intention to leave.

The effect of that notification, according to the terms of the Article, will be to require the Union "to negotiate and conclude an agreement with the UK, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union". It also has the effect of suspending our withdrawal for two years, or until such time as an agreement is concluded.

The real Mr Redwood could not conceivably be unaware that this legal framework cannot be circumvented. Our Government is not at liberty to change the terms of the Article 50, which means that the UK continues to be a member of the European Union until the withdrawal process is concluded.

Against that background, the UK government has set in train a process which will lead to this nation withdrawing from the EU. This occurs automatically at the end of two years (or longer if an extension of time is agreed).

Without very specific agreements to avert them, at the point of departure, very substantial changes will take effect. Not least that the UK will become, in technical terms, a "third country". This places it outside the Customs Union and the Single Market. MFN tariffs will automatically take effect, and the multiple, complex provisions governing the access of goods and services to EU Member State markets will apply to UK exporters.

It is thus incumbent on the UK to secure an agreement which avoids tariffs on its exported goods, and gives UK goods more preferential access to Member State markets than would otherwise be the case.

One is not quite clear, therefore, why Mr Redwood should be suggesting that the UK should offer talks on trade and tariffs. This is the expected outcome of an Article 50 notification.

Still less is it clear why Mr Redwood would have the UK say that, "if they [the Union] wish to change anything", we are happy "to offer them no change to current arrangements". In other words, says Mr Redwood, "we stay in the Single Market as now, without the freedom of movement and the contributions".

From this, it would appear that Mr Redwood has not entirely grasped the consequences of an Article 50 notification and the train of events that is set in place. Once we leave the EU, changes occur automatically, unless we conclude agreements which avert them. We may be in a position to offer a "no change" scenario, but the Union is not obliged to accept that offer. If it declines to do so and we do not negotiate a settlement, those changes take effect regardless.

Arguably, there is an exceedingly high probability that the Union will reject any such "offer", refusing to allow the UK the right to trade on privileged terms with EU Member States "without freedom of movement and the contributions". 

For some reason though, this Mr Redwood seems to believe that the advantage then accrues to the UK. He asserts that we will have, in effect, made a statement that when it comes to trading, "we are happy with the status quo". He does not seem to realise that the "status quo" is our membership of the European Union. It is destroyed by the delivery of our formal Article 50 notification.

Therefore, it is not altogether easy to agree with the Redwood assertion that the Union "are the ones with a problem" if they wish to change the status quo. Someone perhaps needs to explain to Mr Redwood what is meant by the term status quo.

Should Mr Redwood's understanding thereby be improved, he may himself realise without further prompting that these is a logical flaw in his claim that the action [or inaction] he proposes, "reverses the presumption of many commentators that the UK needs to negotiate with the rest of the EU, and is the supplicant".

By definition, he currently asserts, "we cannot negotiate with them over taking back control". You are not, he says, "taking back control of your laws, money and borders if you need to negotiate this with other EU countries". By offering to keep all rules, laws and trade arrangements relevant to trade and investment we have no need to negotiate, he asserts, "unless they wish to impose new barriers on us".

Even without assistance, the lacuna should be readily apparent to someone of Mr Redwood's avowed intellect. On the one hand, he is saying that we offer "to keep all rules, laws and trade arrangements relevant to trade and investment" but, on the other, he wants to stop "freedom of movement and the contributions". As far as the EU is concerned, these are part of the rules, etc., relevant to trade and investment.

This notwithstanding, one then wonders whether the Mr Redwood has a fully comprehensive understanding of the meaning of the word "negotiate". Having made his improbable offer, he apparently believes we have no need to negotiate. Perhaps he does not appreciate that the process of negotiation requires an offer to be made, a response to be delivered, and then talks to resolve the differences between the two positions.

Seen in that context, one is a little uncertain about what precisely this "Mr Redwood" has in mind when he says:
So we make them the generous offer of no change so they can continue to sell us so much more than we sell them, and see if they can reach agreement on barriers amongst themselves which we would then need to talk to them about.
In the ordinary course of events, should the UK make its "generous offer of no change" which, in fact, embodies very substantial changes the Union will respond in the negative, leaving the UK to come up with a revised offer. What we do if that is not forthcoming, this "Mr Redwood" does not specify.

One scenario he does postulate, however, is that the Union might "be able to agree tariffs or other barriers". One senses that Mr Redwood doesn't quite understand that tariffs and other barriers will apply automatically, as a direct consequence of the UK's own action. It requires no further action on the part of the Union.

Mr Redwood also seems to have slight problems in understanding how the tariff system works. He argues that Union tariffs will need to be WTO compliant, and indeed they will. But he then seems to be under the impression that the levy of tariffs on our goods is the necessary trigger which "would allow us to impose tariffs on things like food and cars".

It is quite remarkable that such clever man as Mr Redwood does not seem to realise that the decision to impose tariffs once the UK has organised its schedule of commitments, or sought a waiver is unilateral. Nevertheless, one hopes he realises that any tariffs applied to the EU must also be applied to all other WTO trading partners.

On the basis that the UK will be required to apply any tariffs it imposes to all its trading partners which could be very damaging - Mr Redwood might like to rethink his assertion that the Union business "sell more to us and [would be] very keen to avoid tariffs".

Likewise, Mr Redwood might like to rethink the idea of cancelling EU contributions and incorporating the money in UK budgets, at least until the end of the current MFF period, or until he has satisfied himself that such an action would not be in breach of treaty obligations.

One would also hope that, before any announcement on work permits and similar immigration controls, Mr Redwood will be counselling that the UK Government should ensure that this is properly negotiated, to ensure that British citizens including expats are not unduly disadvantaged.

That is undoubtedly what he has in mind when he argues that we should launch a Repeal Bill for 1972 Act "with confirmation of EU laws as UK laws into Parliament", including "an early passage of new migration controls, and the cancellation of EU contributions".

Sadly though, Mr Redwood, in his "action plan for Brexit", does leave room for the casual reader to suspect that he hasn't completely thought through his arguments. After all, if we took him literally, the UK would not only be in breach of treaty provisions, but also withdrawing from the EU without an exit settlement, placing us in serious economic jeopardy.

It cannot be the case that anyone would want us to take such a disastrous course of action. One can only surmise that this isn't the real Mr Redwood after all and that his site has been hacked. No real person, much less a senior MP and former Cabinet minister, could write an "action plan" quite this stupid.