Week in Review: Trump's survival-of-the-fittest worldview shows perils of Brexit

Many Brexiters seemed triumphant when Donald Trump gave his interview to the Sun newspaper last night. It is extraordinary that people who have defined themselves tirelessly as patriots over the last few years should be so unmoved by the sight of a foreign leader bullying a British prime minister on home territory.

It is simply unprecedented, in terms of diplomatic protocol and basic human courtesy, for a visiting head of state to attempt to behave this way when visiting the UK, or indeed at any other time. But, as ever, those who speak loudest about their love of country are the ones who can be least relied on to act upon it.

The relationship between Theresa May and the US president is utterly toxic. She is hideously obsequious around him. Even on Thursday she constantly held out her hand for him to hold, seemingly unaware of how much damage had been done to her reputation by this image the first time it happened.

She makes the same mistakes, over and over again. Her decision to offer him a state visit almost as soon as she first met him was a disaster, connecting her to him by a moral umbilical cord and setting up the dominos for what took place this week, when she ends up giving him all the honours of a state visit, including a meeting with the Queen, while he disrespects her, and by extension the country.

It’s not even clear why May does it. Having signed up to EU rules on goods, any US trade deal will be of very little breadth or depth. But still she continues - fawning over him just so he can belittle her again.

But there is one thing to be salvaged from Trump’s brazen behaviour and the fact that so many hard Brexit Tories support it: it shows what hard Brexit actually entails.

Of course, Trump wants Britain pursuing the hardest possible Brexit because signing up to US standards - especially on agricultural goods - is a precondition of a trade deal with him. That’s useful not just for US exports but as an opportunity to suck Britain into the US’ regulatory and standards orbit.

But his intention goes deeper. Trump’s actions are always against the rules-based international liberal order and in favour of international strongmen, like himself, Putin and even the lunatic homicidal man-child Jim Jong-un. In Brexit terms, that means sabotaging the democratic, continental level system for regulations practiced by Brussels.

But it does not stop there. Trump arrived in London from a Nato summit, where he had worked actively to destabilise the alliance. He attempted to demean and cajole Angela Merkel - he is always more hateful towards powerful women. First he claimed Germany was controlled by Russia and then he ended up pointing at her and stating "you, Angela" after a discussion on military spending. For much of the summit, there was a sense that the military alliance - arguably the strongest and most successful in the history of mankind, and certainly the greatest existing bulwark against Russian imperialism - would lose its leading advocate nation.

Although it is rarely mentioned, Trump is doing precisely the same thing at the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The US is withholding judges from the appellate court on a technicality, a move which slowly sucks the life-blood from the organisation and will eventually leave it unable to come to judgements on disputes.

Wherever there is a structure which holds back nation states, he tries to undermine and dismantle it. The world he aims for is one of the survival of the fittest, one in which large nations boss around smaller nations.

That is the future waiting for a medium-sized nation like Britain outside the EU, especially if it is not protected by the European eco-system of standards and regulations. There is no sovereignty and no control. We would be accepting sub-standard US goods by default, according to a treaty stitched up in some backroom by negotiators, and plunked down in front of the Commons in one package. The EU has democratic faults - although these are routinely exaggerated - but at least the rules and regulations are proposed by elected domestic leaders in the Council and then scrutinised by elected MEPs in the parliament.

Trump’s wanton rudeness may have been greeted warmly by hard Brexiters but it will hopefully send another message to those unsure of how to feel about the current state of Brexit negotiations, including the more pragmatic Brexit-supporting Tory MPs. This is the harsh world we approach on our current path. It is one in which we are routinely humiliated and bullied by larger nations. It is not tolerable and no British patriot should wish it on the country.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk and the author of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

If this is all the government has for its Brexit white paper, we're in trouble

So that's it. After two years the government has finally published a Brexit white paper. It runs to 104 pages but is full of so much muddled thinking, desperation and fantasy that they could have done it in five and saved us all a lot of time.

To jumble up the Brexit jargon, it is cakeism-minus. They have a cake, they have eaten it, some of it is still magically on the plate, and the rest is being vomited up on the floor.

At the heart of the Brexit white paper proposals - and of the whole future relationship negotiation really - is a simple question: who is in charge? The EU wants to remain the boss of how trade operates. The UK wants to have all the benefits of that trade, but also shared management rights. It won't accept the consequences of taking back control.

Theresa May has belatedly recognised the contradiction and accepted  a "common rulebook" which "would underpin the free trade area for goods". In reality, it is not a "common" rulebook at all. It is a European rulebook, which the UK will follow.

They go out of their way to pretend otherwise. The myth that this is some kind of partnership of equals features throughout the document, with constant references to how these plans would "reassure the UK and the EU that goods in circulation in their respective markets meet the necessary regulatory requirements". It's all nonsense. What this amounts to is that we are accepting that the EU retains its boss status when it comes to goods.

May hasn't signed up to the "common rulebook" on services, even though we're a services-based economy and this is the trade we're most reliant on. But even here, the pretend language of equality is smeared all over the document.

Take something called 'equivalence'. This is a mechanism the EU uses sometimes to say that bit of a non-EU country's economy is up to roughly the same standards as its own and they can therefore lower barriers to trade. It has one with the US, for example, on the use of clearing houses in derivatives trading.

The trouble with equivalence is that it is completely unreliable. At any time the EU can decide it's going to take it away and then, within weeks, the whole thing evaporates. That is not an acceptable status quo for a large modern economy. The white paper acknowledges this, saying the existing equivalence regimes "are not sufficient to deal with a third country whose financial markets are as deeply interconnected with the EU's". So they propose a "bilateral mechanism"  to discuss changes in the rules, with an expansion of "existing autonomous frameworks for equivalence".

In other words: cakeism. Autonomy and equivalence at the same time, mixed up in some magic new recipe they have not bothered to describe. Without any trade knowledge, you'd know that doesn't make any sense just by looking at the words. But the paper does not seem to have made any real progress in thinking through how these incompatible demands would operate in practice. It's not even really clear what they hope to achieve by it. The government acknowledges it can't have full passporting rights for financial firms, but doesn't state eactly what kind of rights it thinks can be secured.

It then tries to smuggle some other bits of the single market into the agreement. This is what the EU calls cherry-picking. It is a very fair description.

In aviation, where the UK has become a continental leader on the basis of the EU's liberal regime, it wants to maintain "reciprocal liberalised access" - or, in other words, to keep things exactly as they are right now. In energy, it holds open the possibility of staying in the internal energy market "to preserve existing efficient trading practices". And in nuclear industries, it wants a "close association" with Euratom, the regulator it foolishly left when it sent the Article 50 letter.

The pretence of an equal relationship reaches unprecedented levels when it comes to the section on arbitration - the description of a joint body for settling disputes. They try to pretend that this will be a new global political force, with the prime minister meeting EU figures biannually to "coordinate responses to new global crises". But the real business of the thing will happen at the technical joint committees underneath, which will discuss the new rules coming in and how they'll be implemented.

"The UK and the EU would notify each other through the joint committee of any proposed and adopted legislative proposals," the paper insists. But in truth this relationship will be one-way, as it is for countries like Switzerland or Norway, which also take on EU rules. Sure, they can wriggle around a bit on a technical level at the point of implementation. But no-one pretends this is an equal relationship.

Another section of this joint committee structure would deal with issues on equivalency. In both cases it sets up a complex process for what to do if a rule goes against the agreement, although it pretends this is also equal, and that there would be "a decision between the UK and the EU about whether the relevant rule change should be added to the agreement".

In reality it won't work this way. The EU will pass the rules and the UK will sign up to them. If they do not, there is an initial discussion, then a joint committee ruling on whether it's in the scope of the agreement, then a consultation, then "rebalancing measures" - a fine, in other words - and then finally, if all else fails, that part of the agreement would be "suspended".

Norway also has this power, under part 102 of the EEA agreement. It never uses it. The consequences are too stark. And that's because this is not an equal partnership - the EU simply has a bigger market than you. The attempt to ignore this fundamental truth is at the heart of most of the delusions in the paper.

Sprinkled about the document are occasional admissions of what the UK is signing up to. "While the UK would not have a vote on relevant rule changes," it says, "its experts should be consulted." That is a very significant step down from the days when we actually formed the rules ourselves. It also seeks to stay in several EU agencies, on things like aviation, chemicals and medicines, but "without voting rights".

Where problems arise, the authors of the report either refuse to acknowledge them or are unaware that they exist.

The EU's existing free trade agreements with countries like Canada, for instance, are protected by a Most Favoured Nation clause. This means that wherever they offer someone else a superior deal, they have to update it to make it just as good.

A section of the white paper on mutual recognition of professional qualifications skirts over this without addressing it. "The UK's arrangements with the EU should not be constrained by existing EU FTA [free trade agreement] precedents," it says. Do they recognise that this is precisely the problem? Anything offered to the UK must be offered to Canada, South Korea and others too. If they know this, they do not mention it, let alone grapple with it.

Once we get to the sections on the customs partnership, the white paper meanders into the most tedious form of sci-fi possible. Long sections describe the "tariff revenue formula" for how the UK would impose the EU's tariff requirements at its border, then work out where products were going on the continent, either as a "finished good" or "at the point at which the good is substantially transformed into a UK product". Good luck with that.

"Where the good’s destination is later identified to be a lower tariff jurisdiction," the paper says, "it would be eligible for a repayment from the UK government equal to the difference between the two tariffs." The sheer logistical complexity of this operation is beyond comprehension. The demand it makes of companies is similarly not worth thinking about. And even if it wasn't, why would the EU trust a foreign power operating completely outside of its legal jurisdiction to take control of its tariff collection? What exactly do they gain for all the lost revenue and lack of control it would entail? It is never explained.

But not content with applying one bonkers customs system, the paper then goes ahead and invents another. It takes the so-called max-fac model favoured by Brexiters, in which imaginary technical solutions are found to customs controls, and applies them to the rest of the world.

Quite quickly this descends into badly-written cyberpunk. "This could include exploring how machine learning and artificial intelligence could allow traders to automate the collection and submission of data required for customs declarations," it says at one point, as if the civil servant writing it got bored and just thought they'd chuck in as much crazy nonsense as possible.

"There will need to be a phased approach to implementation of this model," it states at the end. Yes, indeed there will. One that lasts from now until whatever point in the future they invent this stuff.

As a starting negotiating position, the Chequers statement was a real step forward. But to write it all down in a white paper as if it were a finalised model is fanciful and embarrassing.

If a paper like this was going to be published, they should have done so just before they triggered Article 50. That was the right time for it. It is the kind of thing you would expect to read as an opening position statement. But it is not acceptable for this to be height of their thinking now, with just weeks of negotiating time left.

It skirts over issues it needs to address instead of grappling with them. It pretends to be describing a relationship of equals when it is really acknowledging that the EU will make the rules. And it is criminally vague and deluded on matters which at this stage should be dealt with in specific and detailed terms.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk and the author of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

War-gaming the Brexit chaos: What the hell happens now?

We've been waiting for the Brexit crunch-point for some time - that moment when dream meets reality - and this week it finally arrived. So what the hell happens now?

Everything in this article is almost certainly wrong. This is just my best shot at laying out the most likely eventualities. It's a list of the known-knowns and the known-unknowns, but ultimately it's the unknown-unknowns which'll creep into your house in the dead of night and set fire to your bed. Still, it's worth doing - probably.

The major variable is the European Research Group (ERG), that hardcore rump of hard Brexiters in the Tory party who will die in a ditch for the project. The viability of their attempts to stop Theresa May’s Chequers compromise arrangement will define the next few months.

Other positions right now are relatively solid. We know Labour’s position now about as clearly as they’re going to make it - customs union membership and something which is near-as-dammit to single market membership, with some tinkering. We certainly know the EU's position, which is that the Irish border issue must be satisfied for there to be a deal and that any trading arrangement after that must be either single market and customs union membership, or a plain old free trade trade agreement with the Irish backstop plugged in the side.

It is impossible to state the true ERG numbers, because they are now internally divided. They are splitting on similar lines to how Remain split after the referendum - on principles and tactics. Some prioritise the survival of the Tory party above Brexit, some are prepared to accept a sub-optimal Brexit deal and then want to try to unravel it after we've formally left. But the ones that are pertinent, who'll define this whole thing, are those in the die-hard camp, the ones that consider this an existential, almost Biblical, battle and will prioritise a full-blooded Brexit above any other consideration. They are now going to war against their own party leadership.

The main issue with the die-hard ERG variable is whether they have the numbers. If their ranks stay at this level - about 50 MPs - they do not. But let's imagine that this is wrong and there are more than we suspect, or that the next few weeks sees them harden other Tory MPs against compromise.

The most likely outcome is that May will capitulate and shift to their position. She would jettison the idea of a single market on goods, outlined at Chequers, and any kind of customs partnership. That would then mean she couldn't offer the EU anything on the Irish backstop, unless she puts a border in the Irish Sea, which she isn't going to do. And that means it's no-deal.

Would this mean that no-deal actually happens? No. There is a large majority against no-deal in the Commons. MPs would have six months or so to try to stop it. Their problem is that last month's failed rebellion means there are no arrangements in place for a meaningful vote to do so.

What MPs need are amendments. These would allow them to make demands in the event of no-deal. They could demand the government extend Article 50, or go back to the negotiating table, or call another referendum, or something else.

At the moment the government position is that any motion it puts to the Commons in the event of no-deal would be neutral and therefore unamendable. MPs would be trapped, forced to watch us roll grimly towards the cliff edge with no power to stop it.

However, there are three ways they could get around this. The first is if the government brings back a deal-no-deal (I know, bear with me). This is actually quite likely if talks break down. Even without a trading arrangement, you'd still want some kind of bare-bones package, even if it's just a basic aviation treaty and tourist visa agreement. This could be amended.

The second is using other legislation. Even under no-deal, the government will have to push through all sorts of other bits of law to prepare itself, giving UK bodies powers to do things which had previously been done by Europe. These could also be amended.

Finally, if all else fails, they could hope that the Speaker does something very controversial. He could say that the neutral motion the government puts forward on no-deal actually can be amended - not on the basis of its wording but its intention. This would be extraordinary, but probably within the rules.

Amid all of this, there would presumably be an ongoing Tory leadership battle. May would almost certainly have to resign if she failed to secure a deal. This would see Tory MPs whittle down the candidates to two of their colleagues and then send the choice out to the membership, which is very Brexity. The replacement would probably be Jacob Rees-Mogg or someone of his type.

That kind of leader would probably try to force through no-deal Brexit. But their problem is the same one May would have - there's no majority for it. Ultimately the face of the leader doesn't change much - what matters are the mechanisms available to stop the government.

What happens next is anyone's guess. I suspect that a general election is a more realistic outcome than another referendum. Things may become so stuck, with so little support for any approach, that a public vote is the only way to break the stalemate. This would end up acting as an impromptu soft Brexit vs no-deal referendum. I also suspect that a general election would be one of the few reasons that the EU is prepared to offer a limited six-month extension of Article 50.

Now let's look at the flip side. What if, as we currently suspect, the ERG does not have the numbers?

In this scenario they'll likely continue doing what they're doing now: a guerrilla war. They have essentially swapped roles with Remainers and become the saboteurs. They will use a drip-feed of resignations and letters to the 1922 Committee to try to destabilise May and attack the government through amendments.

Their aim is two-fold: to destroy the Chequers proposal and, failing that, to prevent any further concessions to Europe. In truth they add up to the same thing, because unless there are further concessions, talks will break down.

If May capitulates to the ERG, we are back in no-deal territory. But what happens if she doesn't? After all, May seemed to have turned over a new leaf after Chequers. She made firm demands for Cabinet collective responsibility and took real steps towards a viable compromise proposal. Plus the pressures on her from the other side are immense. Businesses like Jaguar Land Rover and Airbus are making it clear what no-deal would entail in terms of jobs and investment.

The ERG presume that Labour will vote with them to damage and then bring down the government. You can see that from their Labour-friendly amendments to existing legislation, like the trade and customs bill, which are like mermaids calling to sailors as they float past. When it comes to the vote on the Brexit deal, they think this will happen again: Labour must vote against, so they easily have the numbers to defeat the government and trigger no-deal.

But things aren't necessarily that simple. Their war could have the opposite effect. If May can't get the necessary votes with them, she may have to see if she can get them with the opposition. The fact she was prepared to brief Labour MPs on the Chequers agreement suggests she is already considering this. The ERG guerrilla tactics could force her, by parliamentary arithmetic, to actually soften her position.

This would involve some or all the following things: customs union membership, a single market in services as well as goods, a liberal immigration regime for EU nationals, and some kind of one-step-removed EU legal system, like the Efta court. Most of the constituent parts of this compromise are already there, in embryonic form, in the Chequers agreement.

This seems to lead to soft Brexit. There would probably be a no-confidence vote in her leadership from the Tory benches, but this could actually bolster her authority. They have the 48 MPs needed to trigger this, but from there it goes out to the parliamentary party as a whole. And there they don't have the numbers. So this could leave her in a stronger position to force through a deal.

Like I say, this is probably all wrong, but the systems, structures and incentives seem to me broadly correct. It doesn't really pay to be optimistic about things nowadays. But for what it's worth, I think the ever-softer Brexit scenario currently looks perfectly likely.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk and the author of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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