Blair may have a point

22.07.2017

Getting Brexit Back on Track.

David Howell. Chair, House of Lords International Relations Committee. 16.07.17

They are talking negotiations when they should be talking Reform. Tony Blair has a point.

This has really been the trouble from the start - and I mean from the period before the referendum when David Cameron bust a gut trying to get some changes going both in the EU itself and in the UK relationship.

He was fatally advised, by his own officials and by bodies like the Centre for European Reform, to avoid seeking fundamental changes (see, for example, CER 8th May 'A Five Point Plan for Cameron to win an EU Referendum. sic).

This was disastrous advice. The opposite was what was required.

Far from avoiding 'fundamentals' Cameron should have gone right to the root philosophy and root principles of the 20th century EU model .

He should have challenged from the outset the continued validity of the so-called four fundamental freedoms in the totally transformed digital age. He might have pointed out ,perhaps a little harshly, that from the beginning these principles existed  to a large extent only as aspirations.

He might perhaps have drawn  unwelcome attention to the glaring fact that  the grand principle of the free movement of people and labour was designed for a by-gone age, and that with refugees and migrants pouring into the EU on a now unimaginable scale (and we have seen nothing yet) the whole idea of open borders (along with UN doctrines on the treatment of refugees ) scream out for radical revision and refinement.

He might have added that while services and data flows are now forming the greater part of international commerce no real single market in services in fact existed, or exists, in Europe and that new approaches were need. He might have explained that in the age of digital  technology and of increasingly dispersed computer power through blockchains (NO central control) the whole momentum of activity and networking development was pulling AWAY from integration, standardization, centralization , economies of scale, harmonization and all the other 20th century EU ur-philosophies, and towards  a far more fluid and  non-integrated pattern of industry, trade and economic cooperation.

He might have added in addition that in the age of cyber attacks and hacking it is the more centralized structures and methods of the EU bureaucracy which make far the juiciest  and most vulnerable targets. Differentiation  should take over from integration as the guiding principle for survival.

In  a Politiea pamphlet in 2014 I argued for full Treaty revision (Mr.Cameron’s original ambition) on these lines and for a new framework of European co-operation, and that, without deep reform, plunging ahead into negotiation would be like negotiating with yesterday and with a past age .

No-one in Government took the slightest notice, opting instead for a shopping list of British 'demands' which duly got emasculated and in large part rejected by the Brussels diehards.

Now we learn ,as we should have perceived earlier, that all the talk of fundamental principles  has long since been nudged and nuanced to meet reality. Blair may well be right that even the high EU authorities are ready to concede that the principle of totally free movement of labour, if ever it was practical, now has to be surrendered in face of new realities  . In today's conditions, the need for almost all member states  is for selective and carefully tailored border controls in line with a wide variety of EU member states' differing  needs and in line with entirely new   conditions .

What a pity that the EU hierarchy was not pressed from the start to face this truth,  as  well as recognizing the common sense practicality of the British position on border control. 

 What a pity that this was not approached from the outset as a matter for pan-European  co-operation in a common European cause.

And what a pity that the current negotiations are once again being conducted in a spirit not of  seeking European agreement but as a deal being fought out between protagonists. 

It may indeed be too late to put the cork back in the bottle, as Tony Blair suggests, but it may not be too late to open up, in a truly profound way, the case for massive overhaul of the whole EU structure ,its misguided integrationist direction  and its  underlying outdated philosophy.

The British had, and still have,  the intellectual firepower, the experience , the technological grasp and the diplomatic skill to contribute weightily to this way forward for Europe. But they did not use it. Europhiles refused to contemplate any serious reform of the ever closer union direction and the EU's final goals. Brexiteers insisted on walking away from what they  insisted was a super-state in the making.

Both were, and remain, united in a diagnostic alliance.

But the diagnosis was wrong, is wrong and will prove increasingly wrong as the real tides of global change wash over the EU  sandcastles leftover from another age.

What the UK  should have been doing all along, and could still do, is to help shape a European regional structure supple and adaptable enough to meet today's and tomorrow's network world challenges. 

Theresa May’s call now is for a ‘deep and special relationship’ with the EU. But concern about the UK’s bilateral relationship should be balanced by just as much concern about the future of the whole European region,  as it struggles to adapt and succeed in a world of powerful and revolutionary new forces - a world  of which it forms a steadily smaller proportion.

This should be so just as much after Brexit as before . It is the missing strand in the British position and in the British leadership tone and vision. It should be re-instated  as soon as possible.

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Getting Brexit back on track

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