Back from the cliff edge
The last-minute deal between British and European negotiators has averted disaster for now - but settles very little, argues Paul Demarty
Sinn Féin-led protest against hard border
Time can be cruel to a weekly columnist. I last wrote amid the total chaos that followed the leak of a draft agreement on the post-Brexit Irish border to the press in the 26 counties, with the result that Theresa May appeared to have snatched calamity from the jaws of victory.
Last week’s resulting front page - ‘May’s Europe negotiations end in chaos’ - has therefore not aged well, and by the time the weekend rolled around a fresh deal had been struck, to fairly universal acclaim ... at least initially. ‘It’s not over until the fat lady sings,’ goes the old cliché - in Britain today, it is not over until the avaricious bigots of the Democratic Unionist Party have extracted more concessions and imposed more humiliation on the Tory government they prop up.
The terms of this deal seem to be as follows: Britain will pay its ‘divorce bill’, and a method for calculating it is set out, albeit not a final sum. Something in the region of £50 billion is expected to be the outcome, in addition to which the UK will continue to pay into the European Union budget until 2021. UK citizens in Europe and vice versa will be permitted to stay in their new home countries, as will their children and partners in “durable relationships”, whatever they are. As for the border itself, things are even more mysterious: there will be a ‘frictionless’ border with Ireland, but Britain will still leave the customs union, and any difference in the regulatory regime between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK will be subject to the veto of the Stormont assembly.
The initial blast of euphoria - “Rejoice! We’re on our way”, went the triumphant Daily Mail front page on December 10 - has inevitably given way to the chill winds of scepticism. I say ‘inevitably’, for, if there is one thing clear about this deal, it is its unclarity. An as yet unknown sum of money will change hands; as yet unspecified legal protections will exist for citizens left the ‘wrong’ side of the border; and one stretch of that border will be ‘hard yet soft’, like a Dime bar.
We expect that the final of the three ‘agreements’ will prove most fraught with danger down the road, since it appears to commit the partners of the negotiation to implementing a straightforward logical contradiction, as if they had agreed to sign the final deal on paper cut into the shape of a circular triangle. How on earth can you have an open border (and therefore no customs posts) with the UK outside the customs union? Perhaps by some lesser, specific treaty - but how could that not involve committing either Northern Ireland or the UK as a whole to close regulatory alignment (all that ‘Brussels red tape’ the gutter press has been moaning about for decades) for the foreseeable future?
As for goods, so for labour - while a ‘frictionless Irish border’ does not preclude illegalisation of migrants, deportations, detention, harassment and so on, it does preclude physically keeping people out, which is what the more immigration-obsessed Brexit voters were presumably after. Sure, we will ‘take back control’ of our borders - except for a 300-odd mile stretch of the Emerald Isle ... Of course, physical control of the whole border is in any case a fantasy, in all but the smallest countries. Add it all up, and Brexit looks softer by the day.
Such a possibility is denied by the government, which remains on paper committed to a much cleaner break with EU membership than seems to be implied by the present course of events. David Davis rules out a Swiss or Norwegian ‘semi-official hanger-on’ status, instead calling for a ‘Canada-plus-plus’ arrangement. The reference is to the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between Canada and the EU, which is very likely to be signed soon, after more than 13 years of arduous negotiations. Given that this deal eliminates nearly all tariff barriers between Canada and the EU, guarantees visa-free travel for all EU citizens in Canada and allows companies to sue governments for playing favourites with local companies, one wonders what is so very much more overweening about a Norwegian arrangement.
For now, the government seems to be holding together. A touted cabinet showdown has mysteriously failed to materialise. Boris Johnson is otherwise engaged making a tit out of himself in negotiations with the Islamic regime in Tehran (the mullahs having told him to, ahem, go whistle). Davis himself is pretty well neutralised. ‘Spreadsheet Phil’ Hammond will be pleased at the direction of travel in the numbers on his screen. And from the diplomatic angle, it seems that what has been agreed is ultimately no more than that the two sides shall proceed to the real business of working out a trade agreement acceptable both to the various factions of Britain’s dysfunctional body politic and to the 27 remaining member-states of the EU. Whether or not the Canadian precedent is accurate as to the content of a final deal, we cannot expect that things will proceed much faster - especially given the ill-will and frustration caused by the whole situation in the first place.
It is impossible, of course, to know with any certainty people’s motivations in vast endeavours such as this. But let us propose a hypothesis anyway. We know that the British government is extremely weak at the current time, and might lack an effective parliamentary majority for any conceivable deal. The EU has chosen so far to take a hard line, but in practice the result has been endless delays, as May knows she does not have a mandate for any kind of deal - or no kind of deal either. By agreeing this fudge, the two sides essentially place the overall negotiations in the hands of the gods, who may deliver a workable government in Westminster which is capable of getting the necessary capitulations through parliament. ‘Something will come along.’
Perhaps. Things could get worse - the bourgeois press still considers a Jeremy Corbyn government to be a greater threat than even the roughest exit from Europe. There is also the question of the general political health of the capitalist world as a whole, and from that point of view things are hardly looking rosy either.
Recently, I was eating lunch with some colleagues, talking about some piece of British politics; and one such, who we will call Alan, confessed that he was starting to miss David Cameron. Alan is, so far as I can tell, a run-of-the-mill liberal with little in the way of Tory sympathies; he would hardly have been fond of Cameron when he was around. Yet like many others of his class position and political sympathies, he was horrified by the apparently mechanical progress of the country in its current state towards a break with Europe which is likely to be economically disastrous, in the name of principles inimical to the values of the ‘citizens of nowhere’. Cameron was a Tory, but at least he was a professional.
The trouble with this outlook is that it ignores the way in which a ‘professional’ Tory like Cameron might be responsible for outcomes which he despises. In the current case, there is the small matter that it was Cameron who called the referendum in the first place, and who is thus directly responsible for the current political crisis. Yet there is a more profound aspect to his guilt. Cameron got into number 10 off the back of the financial crisis a decade ago, conspiring with his chums in the media to promote the lie that Gordon Brown’s fiscal irresponsibility had somehow caused a global financial crash. What had happened, in reality, was the collapse of the neoliberal growth model in its very heartlands. In response to this problem, David Cameron’s answer was to change nothing, but rather use the crisis as an occasion for a further wave of privatisation, expropriation of municipal government and generalised attacks on the population: more of the same Thatcherite medicine.
As resentment grew, the Tories and their press backers strained every sinew to offload blame onto the usual array of enemies within (benefit scroungers) and without (immigrants, EU bureaucrats). So, when Cameron was trapped into calling his referendum, he did so, having spent the past six years undermining his own side.
But it is hardly the unique imbecility of Cameron to have brought forth this response. Europe is full of national-chauvinist governments. Japan’s Shinzo Abe is a fanatical nationalist. There is also the small matter of the current occupant of the White House. With the final defeat of the Soviet Union in 1991, capitalist triumphalists believed they had killed socialism - by which they meant any alternative whatever to the naked rule of capital. Yet the problem with their system is ultimately that it does not work, that its contradictions are primarily internal. In view of the fact that they spent extraordinary efforts burying ‘socialism’, is it any wonder that capitalist crisis should find expression in national chauvinism (and, elsewhere, religious sectarianism)?
This political crisis is far from over - so much more excitement on the Brexit front is to be expected.