Category Archives: Brexit

What exactly is a “soft” Brexit?

There seems to be a lot of confusion and misunderstanding over what is meant by a “soft Brexit”. This is my attempt to shed some light on what’s meant by “soft” and “hard” in this context.

“Soft” does not mean “à la carte” – it doesn’t mean we get to pick and choose which bits of the EU to leave and which to take. It does not mean having your cake and eating it, sorry Boris. “Soft” here means “soft landing” – it means that the impact of Brexit would be softened by some means. That’s all. How could it be softened? There are a number of ways, but none of them are possible unless they are compatible with the principles which the EU27 have set out in their negotiating directives for the Article 50 process. So no watering down of the four freedoms, no cherry-picking, no getting something for nothing. In my view, the best bet for a “soft” Brexit would be to agree a transitional arrangement whereby the UK remains within the Single Market and Customs Union, paying into the EU budget, abiding by ECJ rulings, and continuing to apply the four freedoms (including freedom of movement), while it negotiates its new relationship with the EU27 which will look something like Norway’s. That is to say, being part of the Single Market in return for budget payments and accepting freedom of movement. The big downside for the UK will be not having a say in the rules which it will now have to accept. That’s “taking back control” for you…

“Hard” means rejecting a transitional deal and refusing the four freedoms, budget payments, ECJ jurisdiction, so falling out of the EU without an agreement and facing the full disruptive impact of dealing with the EU as an outsider, with only the most basic WTO rules to govern its trading relationship.

In either of these scenarios, Brexit still means Brexit, the UK still becomes a third country – EU parlance for a non-member – the difference being that in a “soft” scenario the UK and EU have agreements in place to govern their relationship to their mutual advantage, in the “hard” scenario they don’t. The “soft” scenario is much better for both parties, the “hard” scenario damaging to both, but far more damaging to the UK than to the EU. Why? Because the UK is much smaller than the EU and so more at risk from disruption, and because the EU has been busy preparing for a hard Brexit since 24 June 2016, whereas the UK… hasn’t.

Why can’t a rich country act like a rich country?

A question I am often asked by non-British friends is: when the UK is a G7 country, how can its public services be in such a shocking state? We recently received a letter from the school asking parents to make voluntary monthly financial contributions. Here is the letter I drafted to our MP on this subject, which goes some way to answering my friends’ question.

I am writing to you as my constituency MP to register my grave concern at the government’s cuts in school funding.

In April, I received the attached letter sent by the local infant school’s Chair of Governors, Head Teacher, and Business Manager. In it, they seek a voluntary contribution from each parent of between £10 and £30 a month towards the establishment of a school fund with the aim of making up a shortfall in funding of approximately £40,000. The alternative is a reduction in services with a direct negative impact on pupils.

If we can take anything for granted as citizens and taxpayers, surely it should be that the state will ensure that the nation’s five-year-olds will receive a basic education. As investments in a society’s future go, this must be one of the least controversial and most essential. And yet in the United Kingdom in 2017 we can no longer take this for granted – we see the incremental erosion of a free education for all and a transfer of responsibility from society as a whole to individual parents. It should be obvious to anyone, regardless of politics, that such a policy will lead to grave and costly problems for our society further down the road.

I am conscious of the squeeze on public finances. After many years of austerity, we seem to be no closer to closing the deficit, indeed it has increased by more than half a trillion pounds since 2010. Over the same period, we have witnessed a shocking decline in public services from schools to libraries to care for the disabled and the elderly to policing. There has been no increase in living standards to offset this, in fact wages have declined in proportion to the cost of living and there has been no alleviation of the tax burden for the vast majority of us. One has to wonder whether our government and our economy are in competent hands.

To cap it all, we now face an exit from the European Union with uncosted implications for our economy but which all serious experts seem to believe will be negative, potentially catastrophic. This comes after a deeply flawed referendum campaign challenging my confidence in our country’s democratic credentials (and making the case for greater investment in education – independent studies have shown a correlation between education levels and voting intentions in the referendum). Rather than manage the result of this disastrous referendum in a competent way to mitigate the very serious economic implications for our country’s future, the government seems determined to pursue a confrontational approach with our European friends and partners despite their relative strength and our relative weakness. We are already seeing an exodus of businesses, workers, and tax-payers. In such circumstances, how are we to believe that our already weakened public services can be funded to the level they so desperately need?

I am deeply concerned for my child’s future in this country and look to you for your assurance that you will fight, as my Member of Parliament and as a senior member of the governing party at time of writing, for a future where more emphasis is placed upon competent government in the interests of the majority with sound policies designed to grow the tax base and increase public revenues so that these can then be reinvested wisely in improving public services and safeguarding our children’s futures. A good start would be to invest in educating our children.

 

#Itoldyouso

I was right. It gives me no pleasure.

Rather than offer my own advice this time around, I will just point you in the direction of Tim Garton-Ash.

I disagree with Garton-Ash on a couple of points. This is not an election like no other. The 2015 election was like this but with knobs on. Also, I’m not persuaded that a small majority for May is the worst of all possible outcomes. She is clearly a poor choice for leading the country through Brexit and if she were to be ousted for having made such a mess of the whole thing we might find ourselves with a more competent leader, which would be no bad thing, even if this were someone like Amber Rudd. (The risk of course is that we’d get someone EVEN WORSE.)

Full English Brexit

In Brussels, deals get done over dinner. But why not breakfast? The European Quarter in Brussels badly needs a greasy spoon. Here’s a concept menu for my imaginary new café on Rue Franklin which will be called The Full English.

Update: loved these contributions from Twitter…

 

29 March 2017

Today the hammer falls and I feel sick. The decision to pull the UK out of the EU, and also the way in which the UK government has gone about it, leave me in a state of constant grief and anger. I am very bitter. I find myself with many of the symptoms of depression, but I’m aware of it and trying to tackle it. Writing this blog post is one of the ways.

I’m sure some people find it hard to comprehend how a political event like this could have such a profound effect on me personally. I’m quite sure that very many of the people who voted to leave last June took the decision very lightly without really giving it any much thought at all, or acting on the spur of the moment. Well, let me try to explain.

I’m both British and German, and I grew up in 1970s England. TV, comics, books, everything still seemed obsessed with the war. My parents and grandparents all had war stories, from opposing sides. At the same time, we thought we’d die in a nuclear holocaust when the Cold War went hot. (We really did.) My holidays were spent driving down to southern Germany and spending time with my family there. Europe, and Europe’s divisions, meant something very concrete and real to me, with heavy emotional significance. As I grew up and became politically aware, so European integration became an issue, the issue, that meant most to me. And, as a student, I watched Thatcher’s reign disintegrate over the issue. I joined the Young European Movement, I went to federalist conferences, I idolised Jacques Delors and dreamed of working for the EU one day. And I did it. I passed the famous ‘concours’. In 1995, I realised my dream and came to work for the European Commission in Brussels.

Like all dreams, it didn’t live up to its billing. It’s a job. I could rant for a week on ways in which things could be improved. But this is also, still, a vocation, and I believe in it as much as I ever did. I have no doubt at all that the people of Europe need to come together if they want to be more secure, and have a better quality of life. Effective government at the European level seems to me to be more important than ever, as I look around the world. So this monstrous idiocy on the part of the country where I grew up leaves me reeling. I still can’t really believe it, I don’t want to believe it. All this energy which should and could have been spent on making things better and instead it’s being used to destroy.

So here comes the uplifting closing section of this post. Here is what I’m telling myself. I know it’s true, and so it ought to help me deal with it.

The UK is leaving, but the EU is still here. This isn’t the end. Life for most of my colleagues continues more or less without interruption – I’m struck by how, for most people around me, Brexit is just another issue which is happening to other people, like Syria, or drought. Yes, there are implications for the EU, and we need to work up policy solutions, but already the UK is seen as something outside which is in big trouble of its own making but it’s not our problem any more, we just need to find ways to defend our interests. I don’t think they are being complacent, but they are being realistic, and they have a sense of perspective which I don’t. Brexit carries considerable risk for the EU but it also brings opportunities. We have a job to do to minimise the risk and maximise the opportunities. Meanwhile I have a cause that will occupy me in my home country for the rest of my political life. Theresa May wants the country to unite behind her as she rips the UK out of the EU. Not as I live and breathe will she ever get that wish. Never. No way.

A quick recap

So this is where we find ourselves:

1. This Conservative government currently has a majority of 16.

2. Investigations are underway in 20 Tory seats into alleged electoral fraud.

3. Without those seats, this government would not have had a majority to trigger the referendum (about which see point 7).

4. The Tories’ manifesto in 2015 said “Yes to the Single Market”. It also said they wouldn’t raise National Insurance Contributions. Breaking one promise could bankrupt thousands of businesses and put millions out of work. Breaking the other promise might raise a bit of much-needed extra revenue. They want to break both, but have u-turned on only one. Can you guess which?

5. Both the official and the unofficial Leave campaigns are being investigated for breaking electoral law. Oh and by the way both Leave campaigns lied incessantly, as a matter of recorded fact.

6. We had a referendum in 1975 on whether to join the EU. The UK chose to join, by 67% to 32%. The people had spoken.

7. But for 40 years a group of europhobic extremists refused to accept “the will of the people” and campaigned constantly for the UK to leave the EU. In 2016, they finally got their way. The 2016 referendum was all about appeasing the far right fringe of the Conservative Party, afraid they’d lose activists to UKIP. This is no way to make serious decisions about the future of the country.

8. Leave won by 51.9% over 48.1% on a 72% turnout – so only 37% of the electorate voted to Leave. Young people, overseas British voters, non-British UK resident taxpayers were disenfranchised and could not vote, despite the enormous implications for these groups.

9. Leading Leave campaigners said “this would be far from over” if Remain won by 52% over 48%. The same campaigners, having contested the last referendum’s result for forty years, call us traitors for refusing to accept this – I’m searching for the right word here – “shitshow” and try to silence us.

10. Modern democracies typically demand a two-thirds super majority as a necessary and sufficient condition for significant constitutional change.

11. This government (see point 3 for its legitimacy) says “no deal is preferable to a bad deal” but says it has not costed the impact of “no deal”.

12. The government (see point 3) refuses to give the British Parliament a vote on the final Brexit deal. (Note that the oh-so-undemocratic European Parliament will get a say on the final Brexit deal. But not the UK’s parliaments, national or regional.)

13. The government (see point 3) refuses a second referendum to let the people decide on whether to accept the final deal.

Still think the UK is a model of democratic good governance?

Why I will be campaigning for Scottish independence

My British half is, as far as I know, purely English. But I am rooting for the Scots to vote for independence in their next referendum. It would be good for Scotland. It would be good for Europe. And it would be good for Britain.

I consider myself a patriot. My patriotism is not some arbitrary attachment to a flag, or to a piece of earth, or to a person descended from a Dark Ages robber baron; my patriotism is a love of community, society, and an attachment to a set of values. To me, patriotism is multilayered and fuzzy at the edges. I have a romantic fondness for the England of Arthur Ransome and E. Nesbit, I feel a connection to Marylebone Station and Tottenham Green Lanes, I’m moved by the music of Bach and Boccherini and the architecture of Durham and Rouen and Ulm. These emotional responses give me roots in my culture and they bring a sense of security and continuity which is an important component of human wellbeing. They are the foundations and load-bearing walls which support the practical, rational manifestation of my patriotism: my public service, my campaigning for our values, my politics. There is no inconsistency in my loving England, and Britain, and Germany, and Europe; and in my feeling contempt for the British parliament after what it did on the evening of 13 March 2017. On the contrary, anyone who loves our society and its values must necessarily feel rage at how these have been challenged and weakened by the very people whose job it is to protect them.

Scotland would be better off outside the UK but in the EU. Scots are not represented by Westminster nor have they been for a long time. I don’t see how Scotland’s interests can be adequately represented by Westminster without a fundamental reform of how British government works. After the 2014 referendum, the Scots were promised meaningful devolution. This has not happened and it is obvious to me that it won’t happen, because exceptionalist Westminster cannot understand the concept of meaningful devolution. The very existence of the West Lothian Question proves this, as I’ve argued. To have meaningful self-governance within a meaningfully federated governance structure, Scotland must leave the UK and remain in or rejoin the EU.

Europe would be better off with an independent Scotland. Scotland is European, and belongs in the family. (So does the rest of the UK, of course.) Scottish independence within the EU would be a demonstration of belief in Europe, in our values, in multilateralism, and a rejection of the binary zero-sum nationalism advocated by Putin-backed populist movements in England, France, the Netherlands, etc.

The United Kingdom would be better off if Scotland chose independence. British society is irredeemably broken. We might argue how we arrived at this juncture, but to me this is self-evident. Westminster’s exceptionalism means continued centralisation of power in national government at the expense of effective subsidiarity whether that means Brussels, the regions, or local government. And national government has shown itself to be unfit and captured by toxic special interests. Brexit is the proof. A ruling party captured by zealots for whom no lie was too much, any means justified the end, the end being a corruption of patriotism resulting in its polar opposite: the impoverishment of the country, its decline in status and influence, the undermining of its security, and the destruction of its citizens’ quality of life. Time and again we have seen that Westminster will not reform itself. Only a seismic shock can deliver change, and it’s hard to see what such a seismic shock could be short of civil discord unless it’s the actual break-up of the United Kingdom. A velvet divorce might be the greatest gift Scotland could give to English patriots.

To me, the choice Scots face is clear: they could stay in a dysfunctional United Kingdom ruled from Westminster, unable to rein in a contemptuous and entitled elite who have proven themselves guilty of serious and serial misgovernment; or they could emulate Europe’s other smaller countries which have thrived as independent states within the EU, enjoying higher standards of living and a better quality of life. For Scots, it’s what you’d call a no-brainer. But it should be welcomed by the rest of us, the citizens of the United Kingdom they’d be leaving behind. Because we like the Scots and want the best for them; and because it gives us a chance to mend what is broken in our own system.

Knitting pattern: the fairisle euroberet!

Calling all members of the Bresistance! Show your love for Europe with this unisex fairisle euroberet! May be worn Citizen Smith-style, Che Guevara-style, or René-off-of-Allo-Allo-style – however you wear it, it’s guaranteed to troll a kipper.

 

Disclaimer: this is my first attempt to write up a pattern, and it won’t lead you by the nose. I am assuming some experience with stranded colourwork and basic increasing/decreasing on the part of the reader, and that you will be comfortable adapting the pattern on the fly to suit your needs and address any errors. My beret (pictured at top and below) was improvised, and so is this pattern. If you don’t recognise an abbreviation, you probably won’t want to knit this pattern (but if you’re curious please search them on youtube where there are hundreds of great tutorials).

The beauty of a beret, knit from the top down, is that you don’t have to be too fussy about sizing. The only bit you have to get right is the very final four rows of ribbing which have to fit the head you’re knitting for. If you get to the end of the pattern and you find you’re still a bit too big, just add another decrease round or two.

The beret is knit in the round from the top down (beginning with an i-cord). Start using DPNs and transfer to circular needles as appropriate (once I’d complete the i-cord I transferred to a single set of long circular needles and used the magic loop method throughout). At the top and the bottom of the star section, there are long floats of up to 15 stitches, I recommend trapping the floating yarn every five stitches using a twist. Be careful to avoid making your floats too tight or the fabric will pucker.

Yarn: DK weight (I used Cascade 220 Superwash 821 Daffodil, Cascade 220 Superwash 1925 Cobalt Heather, Cascade 220 Superwash 1951 Sapphire Heather)

Gauge: 24 stitches x 24 rows per 10cm

Needles: 3.5mm circular, 3.5mm DPNs

1. With 3.5mm DPN, CO six stitches in light blue yarn

2. Knit an i-cord of around 2cm or 3cm

3. Arrange stitches evenly on 3 DPNs (2 stitches on each) or transfer to long 3.5mm circular needles (to knit in the round using the magic loop method). Next row is Row 1.

4. Row 1: k6, PM.

5. Row 2: kfb* x 6 (12 stitches total), SM

6. Now, knit rows 3-50 following the pattern with row 3 at the top (click on the thumbnail below). Each row in the pattern is repeated twelve times to complete a single round. SM (slip your marker) at the end of each round. At its maximum breadth, you will have 192 stitches per row.

On increase rows, M marks the increase. Use any increase you like – I used kfb, m1l and m1r. For the decrease rows, a backslash / marks decrease stitches (I used k2tog).

Chances are your head is smaller than mine, in which case you might want to repeat row 50 once or even twice until you arrive at a size that fits you more comfortably.

7. To finish, knit five rows in k1 p1 rib

8. Cast off in rib using an elastic bind-off (eg http://slipslipknit.com/?page_id=92). Weave in ends.

 

Also published on Ravelry.

Muddled mindsets

There is a good piece by Philip Stephens in today’s FT (£/€) arguing that differences in the way the UK sees the EU, compared to the way the other EU 27 see it, means that a “disorderly brexit” is more likely. This very much corresponds with my 25 years of experience in government on both sides of the Channel. But I think it goes beyond a mere difference in mindsets. Yes, I have long observed, and noted, that the UK approaches its foreign relations with a transactional attitude, on a case-by-case basis, always asking “what’s in it for us?” in very narrow terms. By this I mean that the calculation is quite deliberately and often explicitly made in terms of immediate trade-offs – winning a defence contract, or some other political victory that can be triumphed in the House of Commons and the tabloids. The calculation does not tend to give sufficient weight to the country’s longer term, strategic interest – for example the investment in goodwill which is hard to quantify but which is nonetheless very real. This is the mindset which led to a succession of EU ‘wins’ from Fontainebleu to Maastricht, Lisbon, and finally Cameron’s “reform” package. But all these wins had costs in terms of goodwill and influence, costs which were visible to many of us but downplayed or even actively denied by those who claimed the victory for themselves. And this speaks to a second aspect of this mindset: the UK’s confrontational, zero-sum approach to foreign relations in which there must always be winners and losers. Perhaps this is an echo of Britain’s winner-takes-all politics. Certainly, it’s something of a cliché that the Parliament in Westminster seats government and opposition literally against each other at sword’s length, while continental legislatures generally sit in a hemicycle configuration, facilitating a kaleidoscope of coalitions.

Well, after 40 years of trying, it seems that the square peg would not go into the round hole. The UK will step away from the EU and plough its own furrow. Viva la différence. But first we have to get past the Article 50 negotiations; and then we have to carve out a new UK-EU relationship. Years of difficult and very important negotiations lie ahead. As I said in my previous post, to negotiate successfully requires empathy and intelligence. Understanding the way your negotiating partner thinks is crucial to a successful outcome. And here we move beyond a mere difference in mindsets.

Philip Stephens

My observation over many years has been that not only does the UK (by which I mean Westminster and Whitehall) have a short-term, transactional approach to the EU, it thinks everyone else does, or should. It seems incapable of understanding that its partners’ different mindset might be a conscious political choice made in good faith and for sensible reasons. We see it in Whitehall’s reflexive focus on lobbying Paris and Berlin rather than Brussels and Strasbourg. We see it in the fixation on German cars and Italian prosecco. It is reflected in the “have your cake and eat it” attitude whereby Leave politicians in the UK seem unable to accept that EU politicians mean it when they say there will be no cherry-picking, that the UK cannot have a bespoke arrangement which allows it to benefit from the rights of EU membership without shouldering the responsibilities. The intelligence is there: the UK’s highly regarded diplomats are experts in communicating differences back to London in beautifully written telegrams. And yet this intelligence falls on resolutely deaf ears. The Leave ayatollahs don’t want to hear it. They shoot the messenger who dares to challenge their world view.

Philip Stephens

This is Westminster exceptionalism taken to a logical extreme. At the time of the Scottish referendum, I wrote about it and expressed a hope that devolution would in time introduce people to the reality and obvious benefits of federal, tiered government, undermining the Westminster exceptionalism that poisons the UK’s politics and public life. Perhaps it will, one day, but it will come too late for this generation and the next who will live in a Britain outside the EU, and much, much poorer for it.

Brexit: a negotiator’s observations

Over the course of my EU career I have negotiated many things, from trade quotas to international treaties. Here are a few comments and observations on preparations for Brexit negotiations.

  • Goodwill forms an essential part of one’s negotiating capital. Where one side feels goodwill towards the other, that party is more likely to accept trade-offs for the sake of an agreement which helps his partner keep his stakeholders happy. In a successful negotiation, both sides come away feeling happy with the outcome.
  • A confrontational, zero-sum situation, where winning is impossible without the other side losing, is less likely to lead to a good outcome for either side. You negotiate better with partners, not with opponents.
  • The best outcomes are achieved where both sides understand the other’s motivations and objectives, and have some empathy. “Help us help you” should be the motto of both sides in a negotiation. Try to put emotions to one side and be realistic about the other side’s objectives and motivation. To do that, you must get out of your echo chamber.
  • Avoid doing anything which will erode goodwill. For example, if your negotiating partner is most comfortable working in his own language, ask yourself “how can we help him work in his own language without putting ourselves in a weaker position?” Don’t run to the newspapers declaring that you will force him to work in your language rather than his – and especially don’t do that where you can’t deliver on that threat.
  • Negotiators always have to keep an eye ahead and an eye behind: watch and understand your negotiating partner and watch and understand your own stakeholders. Be careful to get the balance right. Don’t be so focused on managing your own stakeholders that you take your eye off the people with whom you will actually be negotiating.
  • Talking down your negotiating partner, adopting confrontational language, making demonstrably unrealistic or false assertions about your negotiating strengths, in order to build support among your stakeholders, is a very risky strategy. Your negotiating partner is watching, and will adapt his negotiating strategy and tactics accordingly.
  • If you do decide to go down the route of confrontation, do so from a position of strength. Bullying isn’t nice but it can be a valid strategy when you face intransigence. But only if you genuinely hold the right cards. The UK’s problem is (a) it does not hold a strong hand, (b) it is currently behaving in an intransigent way itself, (c) it therefore risks being the one who ends up being bullied.
  • Know your negotiating partner. If your partner is a Brussels institution with decades of experience negotiating complex agreements with multiple partners and simultaneously managing multiple stakeholders, confrontation probably isn’t going to be the best strategy. And don’t stick your head in the sand. You have to work with those negotiators – don’t invest all your effort in lobbying Berlin and Paris when Brussels is where you should be focusing most of your attention.

(Disclaimer: I am not involved on either side of this negotiation except as an interested observer.)