Invoke Article 50 Now? Be Careful What You Wish For

30 Jul

This is a follow-up to our earlier post, where we argued that invoking Article 50 immediately, as some are demanding, is a mistake.

A majority of voters in the referendum issued a clear instruction: “leave the EU”. The problem, however, is that “leaving the EU” could mean anything from Little Englander isolationism to “Brexit in name only”, retaining EU regulation, budget contributions and freedom of movement without formal EU membership. There is no clarity on what “leave the EU” actually means because the referendum was a democratic moment, not a democratic movement. Just as Remainers offered no positive vision of the EU, so Leave campaigners failed to offer a compelling, detailed vision of a post-Brexit Britain, relying instead on fearmongering and dubious spending commitments. They have not emerged as a triumphant, coherent force leading Britain towards a clearly specified destination; instead, they promptly imploded.

This matters because, when Article 50 is invoked, someone must instruct Britain’s negotiators what to actually bargain for. This is how international negotiations work: political leaders instruct technocrats on the broad objectives and “red lines”, then leave them to work out the details. At present, the task of defining Britain’s objectives falls entirely to an unelected prime minister and a handful of Tory ministers.

If Article 50 were to be invoked tomorrow, as some demand, what would their instructions be? Given the lack of any coherent plan among Leavers, one possibility is that we blunder in with poorly defined or impossible objectives, emerging with an extremely poor deal. Otherwise, given the risk aversion and pro-EU sentiment of the British establishment, the default position is likely to be one that safeguards as much of the status quo as possible. It is also likely to be strongly influenced by powerful corporate interests like the financial sector. They understand that everything is potentially up for grabs and have already begun lobbying government to ensure their interests shape Britain’s negotiating strategy. The risk, then, is an outcome of “Brexit in name only” – which is not what a majority of Leave voters wanted.

Some nonetheless suggest that we could mobilise to influence this process once it has begun. This betrays ignorance of the Article 50 process and the realpolitik of international negotiations. Firstly, when Article 50 is invoked, a two-year clock starts ticking down: after that, Britain is out. Britain’s bargaining power will diminish with every day that passes, because of the necessity of reaching a deal before that deadline to avoid the economic chaos that would otherwise result. If the government radically changes its negotiating objectives mid-way through, that halves the time available, vastly reducing Britain’s leverage. Any government would strenuously avoid this, making massive popular mobilisation necessary to force its hand.

Secondly, unless tremendous popular pressure is brought to bear to change the negotiating format, which seems unlikely, the Brexit talks will be virtually impervious to popular control and accountability. Brexit minister David Davis will not sit around a table with his counterparts from the 27 other member-states, each representing their own publics – that is not how EU negotiations work. Instead, British technocrats – their instructions in hand – will negotiate with EU technocrats with their own instructions, in secret, with no democratic oversight. Davis could only be held to account and prevented from “fudging” the outcome if there existed a clearly defined set of objectives against which the public could judge him. Currently, no such objectives exist.

Thirdly, if Article 50 were invoked tomorrow, the EU negotiating team would likely be led by Eurocrats hostile to British interests. The EU itself is in some disarray following the vote, but a spiteful faction of committed federalists – led by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, EU parliamentarians like Guy Verhofstadt – is already demanding that Britain be “punished” to deter further defections. The Commission and the Council are currently struggling over who gets to lead the negotiations, with Juncker pre-emptorily appointing Michel Barnier as chief negotiator. But importantly, they are united in demanding that Article 50 be invoked without delay – because this empowers them. This faction wants to shore up the EU project, and it lives and dies by the EU rulebook – which states that Britain must first exit the EU, and only then may negotiate a new trade deal. If this faction dominates proceedings, Britain will find it much harder to get a good deal.

Conversely, by delaying Article 50, May buys time to court the leaders of member-states, many of whom are more pragmatic. They recognise their own economic interests are best served by pragmatism and parallel deals, not spite and strict rule adherence. Britain’s best hope for a good deal is that these political leaders are persuaded to instruct the EU negotiating team to follow these national interests, not their own priorities. Inter-state consultations also allow Britain to develop a more realistic approach and find ways to leverage divisions among member-states to its own advantage.

Delaying Article 50 categorically does not mean that citizens should simply get back in their box, and leave matters to the experts. On the contrary, it is essential to harness and expand the democratic moment. The sense of energy and potential generated by the referendum needs to be channelled into developing concrete demands for the Brexit negotiations and insisting that political leaders represent our interests. This is not a step back from a democratic demand, but a step forward to make more, and more concrete, demands.

This is difficult precisely because of what the EU has always represented and entrenched: the longstanding crisis of representative democracy. Ideally, political leaders would now engage the public in concrete discussions of what they want post-Brexit Britain to look like, through grassroots organisations, civic associations, mass meetings and so on. Ideally, parties would turn these demands into concrete platforms and allow the public to vote on them, with a general election determining who leads the Brexit talks and on what terms. This only seems unlikely because representative institutions have crumbled over the last three decades. Parties have detached from their social bases and retreated into the state. Political elites develop policy platforms not by consulting the people they supposedly represent, but through consulting one another, not least through the EU.

This decay is not something easily reversed – but it is essential to try. Citizens should be demanding that parties return to their basic function of representing social groups’ interests. They should also be using every social, political, civic and economic organisation at their disposal to make concrete demands of the government. Universities, hi-tech businesses and the City of London are already doing this – citizens must follow suit.

A good example of a concrete popular demand was the petition demanding that EU nationals in Britain would have their residency rights protected. Despite anti-immigration sentiment, according to opinion polls, 84% of the public back this position, and this has quickly forced the government to include this as a negotiating principle.

This process of organising, formulating demands and insisting that the government represent our interests cannot be avoided if the people are to have any influence over the Brexit negotiations. It would be necessary if Article 50 were invoked tomorrow, or next year, and there is no reason think it would be any easier under either scenario. A short delay in invoking it buys time for the uphill struggle of organising. It prevents the initiative passing immediately to the technocrats on either side, who would likely define objectives conservatively and operate with minimal popular oversight. The only way to hold the British government accountable for the outcome is for the public to do everything it can to shape the UK’s negotiating objectives, then hold their feet firmly to the fire.

This post is based on remarks by Lee Jones at the Invoke Democracy Now meeting in Brixton on 28 June.

6 Responses to “Invoke Article 50 Now? Be Careful What You Wish For”

  1. Blissex July 31, 2016 at 12:51 pm #

    The difficulty here is «Britain’s leverage». The only example of that leverage that you mention is «find ways to leverage divisions among member-states to its own advantage».

    But that is the game that the british government has pursued relentlessly while a member of the EU, when it had an ability to vote on EU decisions. But a leaving government has no such leverage. Plus the EU27 states are very sure that negotiations can only begin after article 50 has been invoked, because they know very well that the game of the british government is now as it has always been to foster divisions and underline the EU.

    If no negotiations are held, the consequences of exit are:

    #1 No right of residence or benefits for EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU.
    #2 WTO rules for goods trade.
    #3 No “passport” right for UK financial services in the EU.
    #4 No EU budget contribution from the UK.

    As to #1:

    * It is inconceivable that the UK will remove residence rights and benefits from EU citizens already in the UK: because they make a lot of money for the UK employers, who are all tory voters and fund donors, and it would be very impolitic to deny benefits like NHS to people who pay their NI contributions.
    * It is inconceivable that UK residents in the EU will lose their residence rights in the EU27, as they spend money there, but they would probably lose rights to benefits such as free healthcare, as they are mostly retirees that paid their contributions while working in the UK, and cost a lot of money to their host countries (Spain and France) being middle aged and older. Since they are mostly tory voters the UK would have to offer a contribution to restore their right to free health care in the EU.

    As to #2:

    * The UK has a large current account deficit so it might seem to have some leverage, but while 60% of UK trade is with the EU27, only 8% of EU27 trade is with the UK, so it does not matter.
    * Plus WTO rules involve 10% tariffs on cars, the pound has already fallen by 10%; plus many EU27 car manufacturers would love to see less imports of USA/Japan branded cars from the UK.
    * Plus average WTO tariffs on good are already in the 2-5% range, so the existing devaluation of the pound has already

    As to #3 it would be insane for the EU27 to let a non-EU27 state be the financial centre of the EU27 economy, so that’s non-negotiable.

    As to #4 that’s the only really negotiable item, and how large it should be depends on #1 and very secondarily on #2. And it is not very negotiable, because the last things most EU27 governments currently want is to increase their contributions to the EU budget.

    The most likely outcomes are an EFTA-style deal («“Brexit in name only”») or as D Davis said, just WTO rules, going out of the common makert and free trading area entirely.

    So the question for the british governments is how much EU budget contribution are they prepared to pay in exchange for these:

    * Free healthcare for UK citizens in the EU.
    * Lower tariffs on goods trade than the WTO ones.

    That’s not much to discuss either way.

  2. Blissex July 31, 2016 at 1:11 pm #

    «Parties have detached from their social bases and retreated into the state. Political elites develop policy platforms not by consulting the people they supposedly represent, but through consulting one another,»

    That’s a thesis I have seen mentioned a few times that it is quite a mis-description: parties have gone from representing their voters to representing their core lobbies, that is in essence their fund donors. They don’t consult «one another», but their national (or not) core lobbies.

    The way policy is done is by being drafted by core lobbies, and the role of parties is both to advise them whether it is going to result in getting a majority in parliament, and to spin the less popular policies to the voters.

    Put another way the role of parties is to let their core lobbies know when the policies they want enacted are just too unpopular, and persuade the voters to swallow those that are not so popular, or just obfuscate them so the voters don’t complain.

    Parties have become advertising/PR agencies for their core lobbies, not retreated into the state.

  3. Blissex July 31, 2016 at 1:45 pm #

    As to «Britain’s leverage» there is the wider issue of what the EU was for.

    The EU was from the very first treaty, overtly and clearly, primarily and fundamentally a (slow) cultural project (similarly the Euro). The various communities and unions and free trade areas have been just means to that end. That’s why De Gaulle vetoed the membership of the UK in the EU, because he did not think that the UK *elites* wanted to be part of that cultural project. As W Churchill wrote in 1930: «We are with Europe, but not of it. We are linked but not comprised. We are interested and associated, but not absorbed» (a very “Imperial Britain” mindset).

    The attitude of the rest of the EU to the UK since they joined has been to put up with the UK government’s constant undermining and obstruction for the sake of the long term cultural project, under the assumption that the British Isles are big and important and culturally fundamentally european since roman times and earlier, and the UK government’s attitude was just the tail end of the “Imperial Britain” mindset.

    So the largest part of «Britain’s leverage» depended very much on the willingness of the EU27 governments to pay a price to keep the UK if not at the core of the project, at least involved in it, in a “two speeds” arrangement, where the lower speed area outside the Euro zone was in effect EFTA with voting rights, hoping for better times.

    The fundamental importance of the cultural project was well understood it seems by the whole UK in the 1974 referendum, and in the 2016 one by the northern irish and scottish voters. Maybe it was understood and rejected by the english voters in 2016, or maybe it was not understood or it was underestimated by the english voters, and thus rejected for purely tactical (“the current moment”) reasons.

    But the deed is done, and the EU27 governments no longer have much reason to try and keep the UK government motivated to play along by giving the UK long-term motivated “special deals”, because the UK government and voters decided to leave behind the cultural project, probably for a couple of generations, and to sail into the Far East.

    So the “we really want to keep the UK in the EU” leverage is gone.

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