May’s Brexit Promises are Improbable to Impossible
Theresa May is frequently asked how her latest under-specified proposal for Brexit is supposed to work. Each time she avoids the question. Instead, she repeats a list of promises. In her latest appeal to readers of The Sun newspaper, she reduced them to three: end free movement, sign independent free trade deals, and separate from European jurisdiction. This is a reduction from the 12 promises that she included in a letter sent to Conservative Members of Parliament on the day after her Cabinet reached a supposed consensus on Friday.
Unfortunately, every one of her promises is improbable to impossible.
First, she claims, Britain will be “leaving the EU on 29th March 2019,” but nothing practical will change through an interim period of years, which her government keeps proposing to extend. Her proposed alignment with the EU on goods and agri-foods is indefinite.
Second, she claims that we’re “ending free movement and taking back control of our borders,” but goods and agricultural products account for almost all material trade, so open borders to them are open borders to almost everything, unless you instigate technologies and practices that can differentiate. Such technologies and practices were specified in the Brexiteer proposal that she has repeatedly rebuffed (known as “maximum facilitation”). What the Cabinet officially agreed to is a “facilitated customs arrangement that would remove the need for customs checks and controls.” You can’t promise both to take back control and remove any need for controls. In a further contradiction, the next day she indicated that she might offer continued free movement for EU citizens.
Third, May promises “no more sending vast sums of money each year to the EU,” but the EU will certainly demand an annual payment in order to stay in a common market for goods and agriculture. Britain currently pays about £15 billion per year to the EU, even after rebates. Given May’s commitment to stay in various EU agencies – and even to contribute to some agencies in which Britain will not stay in like the agency for frontier control, Britain’s annual contribution will certainly be in the billions. In any case, in December she signed a commitment to transfer unknown billions just to get talks going (the mistermed “divorce bill”), which civil servants estimated then at £39 billion. This estimate should be treated as a minimum; likely it will be closer to £50 billion. That’s worth more than three years of full membership. Additionally, Britain will be paying for full membership through the indefinite transition, after which it will still be paying some billions per year for partial membership.
Fourth is her promise of “a new business friendly customs model with freedom to strike new deals around the world.” In practice, Britain can’t negotiate for itself while it is aligned with the EU on goods and agriculture. The only compatible external deal would cover only services – and that wouldn’t be free trade.
Fifth in the PM’s list is a promise that alignment in goods and agriculture “will be good for jobs.” In fact, she is keeping Britain tied to an economic area that is shrinking as a proportion of Britain’s trade. Brexiteers expected a growth of jobs once Britain has more free trade with the rest of the world. Even if you think your job would be protected by May’s plan, everybody will pay more for their goods and agriculture, because the EU protects against cheaper and better competitors.
Sixth is her “commitment to maintain high standards on consumer and employment rights and the environment.” This is just a sop to the opposition’s pretense that the EU protects things that Britain cannot protect for itself. In fact, the EU is counter-productive on environmentalism: take Malta’s exception from the ban on shooting migratory birds – the EU puts reluctant Malta’s membership above everybody’s environment. Now take an example from goods: the EU protects European manufacturers against cheaper, larger, more efficient electrical products by pretending that smaller is environmentally conscious, but smaller washing machines are used more often, with less efficiency per use, for more aggregate consumption of resources, and they wear out quicker. Thus, alignment is bad for the consumer as well as the environment.
Seventh, May’s letter promised a “Parliamentary lock on all new rules and regulations,” but her government’s own statement directly contradicts her letter: “the UK [is] making an upfront choice to commit by treaty to ongoing harmonisation with EU rules on goods.” Additionally, her prior commitment to full membership of certain agencies and areas is a commitment to their rules and regulations. The EU changes rules and regulations every day – Parliament cannot possibly vote on all of them.
Eighth, May claimed that Britain is leaving the Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy, but this is nominal. In March she committed to allow the rest of the EU to fish in Britain’s waters, which amounts to all the disadvantages of the Common Fisheries Policy without the say-so. Similarly, British farmers who want to export will need to produce to EU agricultural standards, but will lose the subsidies.
Ninth, May committed to “restoring the supremacy of British courts by ending the jurisdiction of the ECJ.” In practice, every alignment and every membership within the EU is subject to the European Court of Justice. The EU has never made an exception; and its negotiators keep reminding Britain that exceptions are impossible.
Tenth is her triumph about “no hard border between NI and Ireland or between NI and GB.” Yet the flip side is that we will continue to have a border that is partly regulated by the EU, which contradicts her second promise.
Eleventh, she promised “continued close cooperation on security to keep our people safe.” In fact, the EU laughed out her proposal to that effect during the EU summit just a week before; various EU officials and apologists accused her of blackmailing the EU’s security. They prefer to punish Brexit rather than continue the reciprocity in intelligence and extradition from which the EU benefits most.
Twelfth, she promised “an independent foreign and defence policy working closely with the EU and other allies,” but in fact May’s government has already quietly committed Britain to various parts of the EU’s little known “common security and defence policy,” which was initiated in 2017 under the alarming title of “Permanent Structured Cooperation” (PESCO).
Theresa May’s promises are so ludicrous that she sounds delusional, dishonest or ignorant. In any case, she makes Britain look ridiculous.