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To Align or Diverge? Why the Silence over this Brexit Question is Dangerous

Paul Niland considers why the UK Government appears not to want to publicly discuss the UK’s future relationship with EU – despite it being the biggest political change of our times.

To Align or Diverge?
Why the Silence over this Brexit Question is Dangerous

Paul Niland considers why the UK Government appears not to want to publicly discuss the UK’s future relationship with EU – despite it being the biggest political change of our times.

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Next week, the EU and UK begin discussing their future relationship. Perhaps this is why the Prime Minister has been absent from the public eye of late and he has been working hard in preparation for the role he has to play in securing a deal that reflects the wish list at the foundation of this entire Brexit journey.

The signs are, it’s not going to be pretty.

The Government appears to be asserting that the concept of the UK’s right to full regulatory freedom and divergence is a matter of principle: having left the EU last month, it is now a completely independent state and it will behave like one. But, aside from this rhetoric, what kind of deal is possible to achieve in reality?

The UK has stark choices ahead.

One is to remain closely aligned with EU laws, regulations and standards (the ‘level playing field’), in which case there’s potentially a path towards agreeing some kind of arrangement and UK businesses can continue to operate with minimal inconvenience albeit without the trading freedoms that were the facts of life of EU membership. Going down such a path would ironically mean that the UK becomes what was always at the fabricated heart of the alleged problems of the EU: Britain as a rule-taker who has no say in the rules it must follow. However, to ensure relatively unhindered trade with the countries on the UK’s doorstep – and to minimise the damage of Brexit – this seems to be the only sensible route.

A second option would be for absolute divergence, with the UK creating its own trade barriers. This would arguably result in significant economic adversity for generations.

This was always the great Brexit conundrum: having successfully managed to kick the can down the motorway, then down an A road, a B road, a village track, and a little bit further along a bridle path, there is now nowhere to go. This is the dead end. A decision must be made but, curiously, the discussion about this fact is absent from the public sphere.

The present tub-thumping about sovereignty and independence is a distraction from the matters that have everything to do with what the UK is really going to look like at the end of the Brexit transition period. The common thinking amongst most credible observers is that those responsible for selling Brexit still have no clear idea of what it looks like. So, they have to continue to dissemble and to deceive.

The Government must, as a matter of urgency, begin to draw a road map of what the desired outcome actually is – not ‘in principle’, but in practice. Through Brexit, the UK has secured for itself the right to diverge as much as it wants, but now it must decide how much it wants to diverge and what the costs and benefits of divergence would be. Ideally, this would be a public discussion, one informed by expert opinions rather than one camouflaged by spin doctors.

There can be no meaningful trade negotiation with the EU unless the degree of alignment or divergence is clear. No deal can be struck without understanding this fundamental point because the very nature of the outcome of the negotiations – the deal and all aspects of it – depends on knowing this.

The current discussion about chlorinated chicken is basically a red herring. The idea of it seems pretty unpleasant and it makes for suitably alarmist headlines, but the reason behind the US’ need to chlorinate its chickens is a far more fundamental issue – and the roosters are about to come home. Standards of food production in the US are far below the kinds of standards agreed to by EU member states, which is why the US needs to chlorinate chickens in order to make them safer for human consumption. The issue that is not being confronted is this key question of the standards that the UK will adhere to in the future.

Instead, the Government and the Brexit-pushers in the press seem to be most engaged in trying to work out the ways in which the EU can be blamed if a deal is not achieved. O, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.

Paul Niland is an Irish writer and political commentator based in Kyiv, and the founder of Lifeline Ukraine.

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