Friday 6th July will go down in the history books as the day we finally got to know what “Brexit means Brexit” actually means, if you know what I mean. This is the day when Theresa May told the UK and the world at large, her “collective position for the future of our negotiations.”
Two years and two weeks after having voted to leave a Union they knew nothing about, the UK voters have finally been told what they didn’t know in the first place – the meaning of the word “Brexit”. If you think about it, knowledge forms the basis of our existence. Not knowing how to walk, for example, is synonymous with not being able to walk. The same can be applied to the referendum vote – not knowing how to “Brexit” certainly means that you cannot vote for it. And yet, the UK voters did, however small the winning margin was.
Remember the age-old advertisements for washing powder, promising a powder that would wash whiter than white? Theresa May has just advertised a new form of customs union, that is more united than ever before – a new improved formula. The present customs union is being replaced by a brand new “Facilitated Customs Arrangement”. It’s an absurd situation because, in reality, the existing customs union is one of the few things that actually works in the EU. With the present proposals, not only will the UK have to abide by EU rules under the jurisdiction of the evil European Court of Justice, for a big chunk of its economy, but will have absolutely no control over who writes up the trade rules in the “common trade book”, alluded to by Theresa May.
In inventing a new kind of washing powder, to replace the old one, Theresa May has caused a few high-profile personalities to shrink in the wash. None more so than David Davis and Boris Johnson.
David Davis, the man who arrived in Brussels at the beginning of the negotiations with nothing more than a train ticket and a city guide, was convinced that a trade deal with the EU would be, “the easiest in human history“. He has now found out that it takes years for countries to agree on the right shape for bananas, but just a couple of minutes for a Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, to resign.
I will certainly miss Boris Johnson, the man who told the EU to, “go whistle”. His only real objective was to become prime minister, and the quickest way to succeed, was to announce his allegiance to the growing army of Brexiteers. After their victory, he could walk straight into 10 Downing Street, and close the gates behind him. Bending and turning in all directions, constantly bashing the EU and all that it stands for, he did not even have the political decency to propose a feasible plan for Brexit. In so doing, Boris Johnson forgot basic principles of Euclidean geometry, one of which describes that the shortest route between two political positions is a straight line consisting of honesty and integrity. He has not much of one, and even less of the other.
But in spite of my profound disagreements with, and opposition to, the Brexiteers, I do confess that they have a point. What is the philosophical finality of Brexit, if the Brexit we are getting is not actually Brexit? The short answer is that we just don’t know. The main point is that the UK is leaving, and that is all that matters. “Let’s do it anyway,” seems to be the message, “and we’ll see what happens.” You must feel sympathy for the furious Brexiteers, when they shout out aloud, “the people voted to leave, so let’s just bloody well get on with it.” It all sounds rather like the catch phrase in the popular TV quiz, Mastermind, when Magnus Magnusson, running out of time to ask the final question, would calmly say, “I’ve started so I’ll finish.” Brexit must be finished, no matter what, because it is started.
The truth of the matter is that Theresa May could not have expected the full cohesion of her cabinet to last more than 48 hours, after coming up with a Brexit plan that is as much non-sensical as it is short-sighted.
A salient point, amongst others, that is totally ignored, concerns the customs union. The customs union is separate from the single market, the latter being synonymous with free movement of people – something that the English are allergic to. In the customs union, member states agree to abolish restrictions on mutual trade, and to set up a common system of tariffs and import quotas that apply to non-members. This is known as the “common external tariff”. For a post-Brexit UK, being a member of the customs union would have a significant disadvantage, in that the UK would not be allowed to negotiate its own trade deals with third countries. This explains the cherry picking, that accompanies being a member of the “Facilitated Customs Arrangement”. The UK would be inside and outside the customs union, at the same time, profiting handsomely from both worlds. If that isn’t cherry-picking, I don’t know what is.
The new customs arrangement is supposed to solve the Irish border issue. Theresa May actually wants to label products to differentiate between those destined for UK and EU markets, as if a couple of stickers on a packet of Corn Flakes would convince Brussels that the product is for British consumption, and won’t end up in my continental breakfast. If you don’t care where the parcels you receive at home come from, you can leave the front door wide open. If you are careful, though, you will only accept parcels that you are expecting and checked, and open the front door only to the carrier. A hard border is the only solution to the Irish problem, and we haven’t even mentioned Gibraltar.
It is quite clear that David Davis has fallen of his perch, and has hit the ground with a thump. He has returned to the harsh realities of the EU, and wanting to leave it. Maybe he really did think that a hard Brexit was possible, that the EU needed the UK more than the UK needed the EU, and that a trade deal with a 27-member-state block really was as easy as one-two-three. Let us give him the benefit of the doubt, and say that he believed what he was doing, and doing what he believed in.
For Boris Johnson, things are different, and I have that sneaky feeling that we haven’t heard the last of him – or at least the Conservatives haven’t. Here is a man who wanted to use Brexit to gain control of a political party, and hasn’t given up just yet. Michael Gove, the former justice secretary, although denying having stabbed Boris Johnson in the back, effectively curtailed his ambitions, when announcing his own candidature for the leadership of the Conservative party.
Johnson’s legacy at the foreign office is close to being void of content. He will be remembered for having praised Donald Trump, a president who doesn’t believe in global warming, puts America first, and doesn’t mind tearing up a contract here and there.
Donald Trump’s approach to politics has been something that has gripped the imagination of people around the world. He has engaged people in politics in a way that we haven’t seen for a long time, with his tweets and all the rest of it.
Theresa May paid tribute to both David Davis and Boris Johnson. In particular, she underlined, “the passion that the former foreign secretary demonstrated in promoting… a global Britain to the world as we leave the European Union.” Judging by the number of laughs in the Commons, dear old Johnson is a popular figure.
In his letter of resignation, he alludes to the fact that the EU’s inertia is responsible for the dangers encountered by cyclists, particularly in London.
If a country cannot pass a law to save the lives of female cyclists – when that proposal is supported at every level of UK government – then I don’t see how that country can truly be called independent.
According to Boris Johnson, the only viable way to protect cyclists is to lower juggernaut cabin windows so that the drivers have a better visibility. Such a measure, of course, needs to be approved by Brussels, as juggernauts travel from one member state to the other.
Indeed we seem to have gone backwards since the last Chequers meeting in February, when I described my frustrations, as mayor of London, in trying to protect cyclists from juggernauts. We had wanted to lower the cabin windows to improve visibility; and even though such designs were already on the market, and even though there had been a horrific spate of deaths, mainly female cyclists, we were told that we had to wait for the EU to legislate on the matter.
The Netherlands has a one of the world’s most dense road networks, and yet, with the exception of motorways and expressways, most roads are equipped with well-defined cycle lanes, and a quarter of al Dutch roads have dedicated cycle lanes that are physically separated from the vehicle lanes. This has not been done following EU directives, but is part of the Dutch culture.
The letter is another example of how Brexiteers deform the truth about the causes of the UK’s failing infra-structure, by firmly putting the blame on EU directives. On June 23rd, 2016, the Leave voters believed the story that the EU was a big bad monster, ready to gobble up the last bastion of the free world. They voted to get rid of it, ignoring the fact that, not so long before the referendum, Boris Johnson supported the very same monster they were urged to get rid of. Two years after the vote, the big bad monster is Theresa May, and he wants to get rid of her, too.
Time to get on your bike, Boris!