Friday, 22 September 2017

PM May's Brexit Florence Speech: A masterclass in verbosity and platitudes

PM May delivered her hugely anticipated follow up speech on the UK's general attitude towards Brexit (Lancaster House Speech) on Friday afternoon. Suffice to say it doesn't seem to have had the desired impact at home. Yes the speech was full of platitudes, some warm words for our European allies (the "strongest friend and partner" line reminds me of a couple trying to be amicable but not really meaning it and the reference to the Renaissance (I certainly do not see Brexit as any kind of progressive process) was a naff nod to the fact that Florence was one of the great flourishing centres of art and architecture and how Brexit may see a flourishing in new ideas, albeit in a different form (very optimistic). Theresa May talked about working with the EU to defend human rights in her speech but the record of the Home Office towards asylum seekers such as Samim Bigzad (Amber Rudd could be prosecuted for being in contempt of court after ignoring a High Court injunction and two further orders by judges by putting Samim on a flight from Istanbul to Kabul: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/samim-bigzad-deportation-afghanistan-asylum-seeker-amber-rudd-home-office-violate-court-order-kabul-a7959756.html) demonstrates to me a lapse attitude towards preserving the human rights of people who are not UK citizens. There was the odd bizarre overgeneralization, not least when it came to discussing British attitudes towards the EU (it really is NOT the case, especially amongst young people, that Brits do not feel at home in the EU or feel European...check the Twitter accounts and Facebook accounts of those that do). The "eyes of the world are on us" comment was at best incorrect and at worst evocative of an egotistical imperialist attitude that should have been long consigned to the dustbin of history as well as being extraordinarily ill-timed (North Korean aggression, devastation in the Caribbean due to Hurricanes Irma and Maria are far more deserving of the world's attention currently). I agree with Ian Birrell's sentiment that the speech didn't make "many ripples in Boston, let along Beijing"(https://unherd.com/the-feed-blog/reactions-theresa-mays-speech-brexit/). It was also a speech that in my opinion (and that of others including Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn) didn't really tell listeners anything that they didn't really know before. Anyone who has been paying at least a miniscule amount of attention to the Brexit debate (and let's face it, in the UK it's extremely difficult to ignore when the news broadcasts and newspapers bombard you with coverage) would be aware that PM May and the Tory party had been moving towards the idea of at least a 2 year transitional deal for a while (albeit some Brexiteers thought PM May might be convinced to remove it from official policy) and there has been appetite for an EU-UK security treaty that is "bold", including protecting "high standards of data protection and human rights". Versatility is certainly to be praised but I still cannot fathom what security policies could be brought in that could not be negotiated whilst remaining in the EU. So we had the "biggest defence budget in Europe" boast instead. Hmm.

That being said, it does appear that an air of common-sense harsh realism styleee has set in at Tory Party HQ with regards to the EU divorce bill. May has conceded that the UK will need to pay its fair share with regards to the pre-set EU budget (which lasts 7 years) - a commitment that is estimated will cost British taxpayers 20 million) and has also stated that the UK will "honour commitments (but it doesn't seem to be all commitments) we have made during the period of our (EU) membership". The EU has estimated that this could cost Brexit taxpayers another 40bn. No wonder Nigey Fartage et al are fuming; they thought we could just walk away from payment and still get some sort of free trade agreement. #EpicLOL. However, the EU negotiators have stated much higher sums for the divorce agreement in the past (anything between  50 and 100bn) so better have the defibrillators on standby just in case. 

Here's the positives from the speech that I took on board:
  • PM May's tone was at least conciliatory and that did seem to make a positive impact on Michel Barnier, who called the speech "constructive"
  • There was a suggestion from PM May that the UK would continue to heed EU regulations and directives, continue accepting decisions from the European Court of Justice and allow freedom of movement of EU citizens during the transitional period. However, EU citizens would be forced to register post-Brexit (i.e. from the 19th March 2019 onwards)
  • PM May reiterated a wish for tariff-free trade to continue with the EU post-Brexit somehow
  • Suzanne Evans has argued that PM May is deliberately keeping the UK tied to the EU till the next general election when there will be "a clear opportunity for the referendum result to be reversed" (https://unherd.com/the-feed-blog/reactions-theresa-mays-speech-brexit/). If only Corbyn would back staying in the Single Market and Customs Union and then move towards a firm Remain position. That'd be glorious but currently unlikely.
Here's the negatives from the speech that I noticed:
  • The Tories still want to take us completely out of the Single Market and Customs Union after the 2 year transitional deal has ended; PM May has ruled out a European Economic Area solution a la Norway. I agree with the SNP's Brexit Minister Michael Russell that PM May needs to change the Tory position on Brexit further and "commit to a long-term future in the Single Market and Customs Union, not just a transitional arrangement"
  • PM May has ruled out undertaking a trade deal like the one that was negotiated between the EU and Canada because she believes it'd take too long to implement
  • We'll have no input into the European laws passed during the transition period but will have to accept them regardless
  • It appears that the Department For Exiting the EU hasn't planned for the worst-case scenario (where we leave the EU without a free trade agreement or security treaties or membership of EURATOM or Europol and relying on World Trade Organisation rules and some kind of goodwill); this may be because Sir Jeremy Haywood believes that PM May's threat that "no deal is better than a bad deal" is vacuous and would never pass muster with the electorate (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/09/21/civil-servants-highlighting-brexit-concerns-official-emails/). Other civil servants aren't so relaxed, having written emails detailing their concerns over the Brexit to guard themselves against critique should a Brexit negotiation inquiry take place in the future 
  • PM May still hasn't taken the decision to unilaterally guarantee the rights of ALL EU citizens currently living in the UK to stay in the UK- if she did it would generate further goodwill in the negotiations and encourage the EU negotiation team to agree to do the same- EU citizens are not bargaining chips. However, there appears to have been some progress. PM May agrees that EU citizens should be able to enforce their rights with the rights written directly into the withdrawal treaty as it would be fully incorporated into UK law taking into account ECJ judgements "with a view to ensuring consistent interpretation" but Barnier still wants the ECJ to be the "ultimate legal guarantor of the agreement",and PM May is probably unlikely to accept that post Brexit
  • Negotiations on Northern Ireland were not referred to in-depth in the speech other than a vague reference to "no physical infrastructure at the border"
  • PM May was far from creative in her speech; she didn't offer a single new creative idea on the free trade agreement or on how we can organise co-operation between the UK and EU on international crime and terrorism. 
As you can see, the negatives from the speech outway the positives for me. It's sad that the Tories seem to believe that the UK cannot be a truly great global trading nation whilst remaining part of the EU. I agree with Clare Moody, Labour MEP for South West England and Gibraltar who says that "we are already a global trading nation because of our membership of the single market- not in spite of it." PM May's speech didn't offer any substantive detail on how different the free trade agreements with countries such as Canada would be compared with the EU agreed deal, other than stating it would be "creative". Moody is right to point out that "Japanese car manufacturers built their factories in the UK because of the ability to trade with Europe, and that is at risk because of potential tariff and nontariff barriers" (http://www.politics.co.uk/comment-analysis/2017/09/21/may-s-florence-speech-can-t-hide-her-brexit-indecision).  Moody is also right to argue that the Government needs to consider what specific plans will need to be put in place regarding customs arrangements: "five thousand new staff at our borders, new agencies for customs and immigration, new IT systems (and all the government problems that entails) as well as the road capacity to deal with parked lorries on the way to Dover and the Channel Tunnel". We have no idea how much it will cost to put such custom arrangements in place; the Government hasn't even guestimated the cost yet. 

 A "status-quo" transitional deal isn't as good as deciding to permanently stay in the Single Market and Customs Union. Then again, it may not be possible to do both without staying in the EU anyways, unless the UK accepted a Norway-type deal, which would result in the UK having no say over EU legislation. Perhaps I need to adopt the slightly more optimistic tone of Ian Dunt, who states in his analysis of the Florence Speech that a lengthy transitional period may allow Remainers the chance to "change the debate" so that a clear majority of voters vote to rejoin the EU in a future referendum (as we will be legally out by March 2019) but even then the EU may not allow us back in as full members without joining the Eurozone and Schengen agreement, which will be strongly resisted by Tory and UKIP Brexiteers alike (http://www.politics.co.uk/blogs/2017/09/22/florence-speech-may-kicks-the-brexit-can-two-years-down-the). 

What's interesting is that there appears to be signs in the polling that the majority of Brits are starting to turn against Brexit. A survey carried out by BMG Research for The Independent, with 1,447 adults (but "weighted to reflect the profile of GB adults") found that 52% (the same figure as the EU referendum result) backed staying in the EU, with 48% still in favour of leaving the EU. It's still not a conclusive result but there has been a shift of 2% towards Remain since the survey was last conducted in July 2017. If the poll is taken in 2 months time and it demonstrates another shift in the direction of Remain, this will give more credence to calls from the Lib Dems and the Greens for a referendum on the terms of the deal. Then you have to wonder whether Labour will finally harden their Brexit position and join calls for such a referendum in the future, with Corbyn then having to take a gamble on voters in hugely Leave-leaning constituencies such as Kingston upon Hull East and Doncaster North (Ed Miliband's constituency) to put aside their grievances against the EU to vote for popular anti-austerity policies. At the moment, it remains to be seen whether such a gamble would pay off (35% of Labour voters in the June 2017 general election had voted Leave in the 2016 EU referendum according to George Eaton: https://www.newstatesman.com/2017/09/how-will-labour-manage-its-brexit-divisions) but it is important to note that in the 2017 general election YouGov poll survey (https://yougov.co.uk/news/2017/07/11/why-people-voted-labour-or-conservative-2017-gener/), there was no mention of the Brexit process alone as being a key reason why voters chose Labour (28% of 645 voters voted Labour based on the manifesto/policies which of course include Brexit) whereas supporting the Brexit process was the key reason why voters went for the Conservatives (21% of 521 Tory voters polled). Jeremy Corbyn currently enjoys a higher public satisfaction rating with the UK electorate than PM May (the Ipsos Mori poll conducted between the 15th and 18th September 2017 found that Corbyn had a 43% favourable rating compared with a 46% unfavourable rating whilst PM May had a 37% favourable rating compared with a 54% unfavourable rating). 66% of respondents to the Ipsos Mori poll said that PM May is out of touch with British voters, compared to 32% who said Jeremy Corbyn is out of touch. Those figures may increase as dissatisfaction with PM May's domestic policy agenda combined with her Brexit policy approach convince voters to abandon the Tories and look for a suitable alternative party (which might benefit Labour in the long-term). 

Therefore I'll be watching the Labour conference in Brighton with much interest this year to see whether there are any indications in a liberal change in Labour's Brexit policy. I'm not naive enough to firmly believe that Labour delegates would overwhelmingly vote for a referendum on the terms of the deal or for continued membership of the Single Market and/or the Customs Union. There will be "a parallel motion brought by Young Labour at the Conference which will commit Labour to supporting continued freedom of movement" post Brexit, which would be binding if passed (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/sep/21/labour-leadership-under-pressure-to-support-free-movement-after-brexit). This motion is being put forward after a report, put together by Another Europe Is Possible , concluded that the right to freedom of movement should be maintained alongside "better protections for workers' rights" (they call this "free movement-plus") in order to prevent EU workers from being exploited post Brexit. There could be risks with alternative systems where migrant workers given a time-limited work visa may end up having to stay with a particular employer regardless of working conditions for fear of being told to leave the UK if they decide to resign from their job based on poor working conditions: "the ability to move between different jobs is a fundamental right that makes a free labourer less exploitable than someone being forced to work against their will". The report does however suggest using existing EU regulations to stop new arrivals from job seeking indefinitely and bring in "new safeguards such as a ban on "foreign only" recruitment" and more inspections in sectors where there are a high level of unskilled jobs such as the agricultural sector. Sounds reasonable to me but probably not to hardline Brexiteers within the Labour party. Let's see how such a motion fares this coming week. 

Brexitshambles may be continuing to dominate our politics for some time to come with PM May and her motley crew in charge. But staunch Remainers must continue to oppose a Hard Brexit at all costs, ensuring that workers' rights are protected (and enhanced wherever possible) for ALL workers in the UK whilst at the same time trying to move the general debate forward towards a referendum on the terms of the Brexit Tory deal that is being negotiated in Brussels. PM May's speech has made it perfectly clear that the Tories will not listen primarily to the concerns of EU workers and their families, nor the concerns of those small and medium sized business owners who rely on importing and exporting from the EU and may worried what trading conditions may be like outside the Single Market and Customs Union. PM May may have aimed to offer clarity and certainty in her speech today but apart from the positive, constructive tone, a few buzzwords, the odd sensationalist comment and the odd shock or two for Brexiteers on the divorce bill and EU citizens rights jurisdictions, there was little substantive policy announcements on future trade agreement plans with the EU, the Irish border or on the security treaty. Perhaps the touted Brexit creativity stage is yet to come or perhaps we're entering a new tautological stage, moving from "Brexit is Brexit" to "CreativeBrexit Is CreativeBrexit". Time will tell.