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Brexit: the unsheeted dead

2016-12-18 06:14:15

Hearing our politicians interminably giving us their thoughts on Brexit, Booker writes, recalls those lines in Hamlet where Horatio speaks of the time, just before "the mighty Julius fell", when the "unsheeted dead did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets".

In his column headed: "Only one safe way out of the EU labyrinth", he tells us that, as our MPs and peers squeak and gibber in the streets and halls of Westminster, they merely parade their near-complete ignorance of how the EU works, and of everything a sensible exit from it would involve.

It is generally agreed, for instance, that, once we leave the EU, we need to continue trading with it without massive disruption. But scarcely any of them seem to know the difference between the EU’s "single market"; its "customs union"; its system of "customs co-operation"; or its "common commercial policy".

Yet, says Booker, without being aware of the crucial distinctions between each of these policies, they are doomed to circle round in a fog of total incomprehension.

The latest buzzword, as it dawns on some that extricating ourselves from the EU will be incredibly complicated, is that we may need a "transitional" arrangement, before we establish our final new relationship with it. And here we did at least hear some vaguely sensible words from Philip Hammond and David Davis last week.

As Davis put it, when questioned by an uncomprehending Commons committee, you can't have a "transitional" arrangement unless you know what it is you are transitioning to. Before you build the bridge, he pointed out, you need to have some idea of what is at the other end of it.

In fact, there is only one conceivable way to achieve the "smooth" transition that ministers speak of, avoiding the wholly unworkable alternatives proposed by the "hard Brexiteers": a one-off "free-trade deal", which would take far too long to negotiate, or reliance just on those fabled "WTO rules", which would plunge our trade into chaos. That is by rejoining the Efta, which we ourselves set up in 1959, so that we remain in the wider EEA.

This alone could enable us (a) to leave the EU and its "customs union"; (b) to continue trading "within the single market", as Theresa May insists we must, with full "customs co-operation"; (c) to escape from its "common commercial policy", which prevents us from striking our own trade deals with the outside world; and (d), under the EEA agreement, to regain some control of immigration from within the EU.

Since virtually none of our MPs seem to grasp the crucial differences between all these components in the jigsaw, we can only hope that at least Mrs May's closest advisers have by now done so. We can then use it as the transitional step to working out all the rest of what a successful exit from the EU would involve. Otherwise we really are in trouble.

Thus does Booker pick up on one of the key elements of the Brexit debate. It is not being driven by political dogma, prejudice or any of the normal influences, so much as an overwhelming and seemingly incurable ignorance.

Why that should be the case is one of those modern mysteries and, at present, seems beyond a solution. The ignorance stems not from a lack of information, or poverty of argument, but an almost wilful determination to stick to a pre-determined narrative and exclude anything which does not support it.

Those who argue for the "WTO option", for instance, reject any information as to the consequences of their choices, and never step beyond the self-imposed bounds of their own argument. Thus, the one question WTO advocates will never address, much less answer, is what happens the day after we leave?

What happens when we sends trucks full of cargo over the Channel, when all the current treaties have been terminated by us? What happens when there are no subordinate agreement, no mutual recognition, no common systems in place and no access to joint databases?

There was a time – a long time ago – when I thought that information was the antidote to ignorance. All I had to do, I thought, was to get to the right people and tell them what they needed to know – the correct information – and all would be well with the world.

Only latterly did I identify what I came to call "constructive ignorance", after "constructive dismissal", where people quite deliberately foster a state of ignorance. Largely, I surmised, they have adopted their narratives and need to protect them with a wall of ignorance. Otherwise, they crumble under the assault of facts, and their holders are faced with the inconvenience of having to rebuild them.

Thus do the "unsheeted dead" … "squeak and gibber", poisoning the debate and delaying an equitable solution to the most complex political problems since the war.

The real perversity is that, probably, the best way of ensuring a clean and certain break from the EU is to rejoin Efta and stay in the EEA. Given that this is so opposed by the "hard Brexiteers", they are making it politically difficult for Mrs May to take this route.

But, since the logic of a transitional arrangement is unarguable, they are pushing the Government into a less satisfactory arrangement – one that will most probably keep us more closely bound to the EU than we would prefer.

In this, there is a danger that, within the framework of a succession treaty, we never properly leave the EU. This could then pave the way for the "colleagues" to agree a new EU treaty which creates the "associate member" category, which special provisions for the UK to join.

One thus entirely sympathises with the view that there should be a "clean" break from the EU. But if the best way to do that, and protect UK economic interests, is the Efta/EEA route, then the most serious barrier to a successful Brexit are the "hard Brexiteers" and their "constructive ignorance".