17 August 2017

Don’t believe the Brexit hysteria


Parliament is in recess, everyone is on holiday and there’s a shortage of news stories. Idle hands make the Devil’s headlines.

So we should not be too surprised to find some of the vacuum being filled with even more hyperbolic hyperventilation over Brexit than usual.

If you are fed on a diet of Remain-supporting columns – or even worse, follow Brexit’s critics on Twitter – you are treated to a most peculiar narrative.

It involves a team of dunderhead civil servants pondering Brexit over dusty tomes by candlelight, hopelessly out of touch with the complexities of modern trading arrangements. Their peace is disturbed by a cabinet duelling on a scale worthy of a Dumas novel.

This might make for a gripping tale. But it is pure phantasmagoria. Not only is it an injustice to the immense labours quietly being done by hundreds of civil servants, it is a dangerous fallacy that is spreading cheap-seat hysteria.

The fact that the Remainer attacks are only getting more personal is probably a sign that they realise they are on the losing side. Like a team that is 6-1 down on the pitch, they are turning to playing the man rather than the ball.

All the hysteria is masking the reality, and getting in the way of a serious debate over issues of some complexity and considerable importance.

Perhaps we should expect no less. EU rules are ubiquitous and the implications of our membership little understood. Yet that in itself speaks loudly of the nature of the EU’s constitutional dry rot.

So much of how the EU operates – socially, economically, administratively, and pseudo-democratically – has been hidden from the eyes of the public, indeed from the eyes of most MPs. It is precisely that huge mass of hidden architecture and the undemocratic way in which it operates which has driven Eurosceptics within and around Parliament for so very long.

In a sense, the Maastricht debate is still with us. But the coin has been flipped. Those now droning on about the complexities of a given aspect of the EU are the same people who accused Sir William Cash of being a “bore”. They are using the very same arguments about the extent and complexity of EU integration as its earlier critics. What they miss, of course, is their ironic vindication of the case against the EU.

The circuitry of the EU’s governance is extensive and complicated. And so of course it will take a huge amount of work to sort it out. Of course there will be specific areas of difficulty. And of course there are areas where the end result cannot yet be predicted, because a particular aspect has multiple solutions and the one chosen will depend on both sides agreeing on filigree specifics.

As for the EU’s collective attitude to Brexit, it is still defined by a sense of denial that the UK will ever leave. That, in large part, is down to institutional arrogance, tempered with a seasoning of imagined Hobson’s Choice. It was long reinforced in meetings with their British counterparts (whether civil servants or ministers, or even PMs) playing the role of managers of decline. So it is no surprise if the Commission’s planners, movers, shakers and rattlers have been disorientated by the unexpected loss of the referendum.

It took 28 months for the Commission to recover its balance from the rebuff of the EU Constitution, and come up with the Lisbon alternative. It got to that solution after a massive exercise in stalling and ostentatious consulting (coupled with judicious ignoring), and even then its conclusion was overwhelmingly based on the existing draft constitution. The EU’s own outwards stance – if so many institutions can have one view  – now resembles the psychiatrist’s trick: so what do you think?

Meanwhile, the work goes on behind the scenes. Because that’s what Whitehall does, and that’s also what the EU does. The relationship between Brussels and its nation states is largely out of sight. It resurfaces briefly at the European Parliament, for what that’s worth; there is also a brief blowhole moment at the time a law is rubber stamped by a national parliament. For the rest of the time, it is comitology, diplochat, corridor talk, lobby fodder turf, and favours. For the rest of us, it is report and rumour.

If the sheer scale of the acquis is such today that it is a huge task to review it all as part of Brexit, then perhaps that is a sign that the behemoth should have been better scrutinised when it first came in. Rather than, for example, taking a committee’s proceedings private to avoid public embarrassment.

But regulations were going through at such speed that a momentary distraction for any MP seeking to challenge one might see it slip through while he was engaged elsewhere. And even if he did object, there was nothing he could do about it other than register a protest for the record.

I don’t seem to recall those making such a flap now speaking up about the complexity of the EU then. But then, hysteria is devoid of reason.

Dr Lee Rotherham is director of The Red Cell, a Brexit think tank