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No Brexit is the only way to stop the pain

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Geraint Talfan Davies

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of Wales for Europe and author of Unfinished Business: Journal of an Embattled European.

The advice I get from many quarters these days is that the country is tired of Brexit, and for that reason – plus Parliamentary arithmetic and the Labour leadership’s collusion – some kind of deal will pass and there will be no referendum. Have crazier things happened? I doubt it. 

Theresa May’s capacity for prevarication – either an expression of high cunning, a sign of weakness or a personality defect – seemingly knows no bounds, whatever the consequences for industry or the glazed electorate. The wait for a meaningful vote goes on. The cliff edge nears. Meantime we will have to endure a few more days of Mrs May and Jeremy Corbyn dancing around each other.

But this is no time to tread water as we wait for our Prime Minister to emerge from her fractured talks with some form of words that she believes will satisfy both the crazies of the ERG and a busload of biddable Labour MPs – few if any, I believe, in Welsh constituencies.

The cynicism of her teasing promise to “examine opportunities to provide further financial support to communities that feel left behind” is breathtaking, given that it is these communities that have been hardest hit by her own government’s policies and will be the hardest hit by any Brexit. 

But exasperation is rarely a prelude to a good decision. So, if you need to fill your time productively while waiting for the promised Parliamentary high noon, I have some advice.

If you are making a decision you are going to have to live with for the rest of your life, better to get out the wet towel, clean your reading glasses and read the fine print – particularly the print that the salesman or saleslady would rather you ignore before you sign on the dotted line.

In this particular case, the print runs to 27 pages, catchily titled the Political Declaration. I can guarantee that there will be very few withdrawals of this paperback from your local library – if, of course, that library still exists. It is also rather strange to be recommending to you a slim volume where every page is filled with phrases that define the indeterminate – tell-tale vapour trails that signal whole squadrons of flying pigs.

When you are next offered a deal for a television or a washing machine, I would suggest that you do not sign if you spot any of the following:

“The Parties agree to consider addressing … will explore the possibility … will explore options … should consider cooperation … should consider further arrangements … will use their best endeavours … should establish a dialogue … will consider aligning with … a spectrum of different outcomes…subject to relevant exceptions….should develop appropriate arrangements … appropriate …  appropriate … appropriate.”

I confess I cannot recall the last time I bought an ‘appropriate’ television with an ‘appropriate’ number of channels. But perhaps I missed something.

The deficiencies of the Political Declaration – whose content, by the way, is not binding on the parties – are explored in rather more detail in a document, whose primary author is a former Head of the Home Civil Service, Lord Kerslake. It is titled, No Clarity, No Closure: Why this Brexit deal will settle nothing.

There will be some who will dismiss the exercise because it was done for the People’s Vote campaign, but here is a hard-headed view from someone who has operated at the highest level of government.

His concern is that “Britain is divided, directionless and hurtling towards a legal deadline, with no idea where we will end up after we cross.” More than that, it gives the lie to any notion that leaving on 29 March will put an end to the debate. On the contrary, it would be – if it happens – but the start of a new and very long phase.

It was extraordinary that on Any Questions last week, a Brexiter politician could say that our deal with the EU is 95 per cent done, when all the Withdrawal Agreement does is to clear the ground to allow negotiations on our future to start. It was another flying porky.  More than two years on, absolutely nothing about our future relationship with the EU is resolved. 

Kerslake’s report is a sad litany of the contradictory objectives, loose ends and blind spots that characterise the Political Declaration, as well as cataloguing repeated failures to assess the UK’s bargaining power objectively.

For instance, what will we do when the EU demands access to British waters for EU fishermen as the price of ending a backstop, especially when British fishermen export 80% of our fish catch to the EU? Kerslake is saying to the UK’s fishermen, be careful what you wish for.

He would warn our farmers, too, not to be surprised if, in any negotiations, the primary aim of EU farmers will be to increase their own market share.

And in the field of services, where the UK currently enjoys a comfortable surplus in trade with the EU, the EU’s service industries will have exactly the same objective as its farmers? Meanwhile, as Lord Kerslake points out, our own service industries will be bound to seek salvation either by relocating or by creating subsidiaries abroad thus removing service exports from the UK’s balance sheet. 

Likewise, we are none the wiser whether we are aiming for a deal similar to Canada or to Norway, or whether we are going to end up in a customs union or rely on some unknown technological solutions to solve the Northern Ireland border question.

As for trade with the world, keep three numbers in mind: the 27 EU countries who will hold the cards, the 65 countries with which the EU already has trade deals and the 163 members of the World Trade Organisation with which the UK would have to agree ‘schedules’ in order to secure independent membership. This is one measure of the mountain of unfinished business this country faces.

On the issues that constituted Mrs May’s redlines, it is still all up for grabs – the Northern Ireland border still unresolved, a vague wish-list on immigration, vague on workers rights and, despite having a woman Prime Minister, totally silent on gender equality or discrimination.

And even if we manage to pick a few cherries, there is no hint of what we will have to pay for them. In the real world, retail are prices are usually higher than wholesale.

And all this will take far more time than the current timetable allows. A ‘transition’ period of two years, maybe three years at best feels very optimistic when the recent deal with Japan took 5 years, the deal with Canada 7 years, and the extradition deal with Norway and Iceland took 13 years.

This is the reality of a being a third-party country to the EU: an important partner maybe, but one that will nevertheless be required to sit outside the door, not around the table. It will be a long and uncomfortable sojourn on that lonely seat, as we count the cost in lost opportunities and reduced influence.

There is a better way, but it will need a hard-headed and informed decision by the British people. No Brexit is the only way to stop the pain, and move on to face our real problems.