Alex Morton was a member of David Cameron’s Downing Street Policy Unit.
Whatever you think about the rights and wrongs of the agreement signed last week, one thing has become clear. There is likely to be no rapid escape from the European Union – no single swing of the axe through the Gordian knot. This agreement was deliberately vague. And the final text is likely to contain a high degree of ambiguity in order to keep everyone on board. This vagueness is going to be crucial in the years to come.
The line that seemed to contain the most fudge was the reference to ‘regulatory alignment’. Regulatory alignment could mean at one extreme that we have to just take all EU rules with limited flexibility (essentially in line with EEA membership); or it could mean flexibility in incorporating EU rules (i.e: treating EU regulations which prescribe the means to achieve goal X as EU Directives, which merely prescribe goal X), or at the other extreme it could mean full mutual recognition of standards and qualifications – creating almost total flexibility.
Such a fudge may also be in place in the final agreement on movement of labour. With the EU wanting a favourable deal for EU workers, and the UK wanting to be able to say we have taken control over our immigration from the European Union, it is possible that we will end up with a rather fudged compromise.
We need a cadre of officials designed to resist EU federalism
The danger of such ‘constructive ambiguity’ is clear. The European Union has been the master of using it to advance its own powers over the decades. A loose cross-Governmental agreement becomes an ECJ court case, which leads to a directive, which requires further regulatory clarification. Or a request by certain large companies for greater non-binding co-ordination creates a new benchmark, which then leads to a directive and then a binding ECJ court case. The routes are varied, but the result is the same: more EU power.
So the biggest risk to Brexit is not just what we agree in the run up to March 2019. It is that, at a great cost in terms of energy and effort, we manage a temporary reset of our relationship with the European Union only to then resume steadily being absorbed into a federal Union by stealth. We should not get as exercised about how far we disengage by April 2019 as about how far we have scope to continue diverging over the coming decades.
If the UK simply finds that at every stage the rules are being interpreted to roll forward European control, this will defeat the purpose of Brexit. This was of course a large part of the reason for Conservative Euroscepticism’s growth in the first place – ‘in Europe but not run by Europe’ became an increasingly difficult line to take – and in our absence federalism will only grow (and why some federalists within Europe are fairly relaxed about Brexit).
Part of this is the fairly high calibre and – even more – high levels of devotion to the European project of those living in Brussels. Unsurprisingly, across an entire continent, there are sufficient numbers of intelligent people who are prepared to fight for the cause steadily and over time, wearing away objections, (after all, pay in Brussels is fairly good and the city pretty liveable-in). Working together also creates a strong team spirit. Their opponents are the divided and distracted squabbling governments of member states.
To hold its own, the UK needs to create a similar team to that of Brussels. It needs DExEU to continue past April 2019, and even past the transition period of 2021. Staffed by Eurosceptic ministers, it needs to create a group of officials who are as passionate about defending UK sovereignty as those in Brussels are about the creation of a federal Europe. The department should be very clear that in this case, the rules around impartiality should not apply. Your goal as an official in DExEU is to resist encroachment on the UK’s sovereignty.
These officials in turn need to have undertaken a course or study which educates people about the mechanisms of the European Union without imparting a belief in the European ideal. The idea that our universities are neutral is a fiction – when 90 per cent of those academics who voted (and almost all did) voted remain, and they largely think Brexit is a disaster. if we simply rely on existing university streams as our recruiting ground, we will find the purpose of the Department subverted. The University of Buckingham or an alternate provider should create a more neutral course for those who want to work in this place.
As Conservatives we have forgotten the power of institutions
I suspect that lots of people may feel uncomfortable with this. But we have consistently displayed a failure to grasp the power of institutions which has not just benefitted the EU, but Jeremy Corbyn as well.
The Conservatives and the centre-right in general have seen institution after institution slowly purge us and reduce our influence. Yet some Conservatives spend more time trying to underfund and punish our remaining sources of power and prestige (i.e: the Armed Forces) than trying to work out how to reverse this slow left-wing ‘march through the institutions’. Further, this march by the Left is deeply undemocratic and illiberal. We should not be seeking to purge our opponents, but to ensure that institutions reflect the society of which they are part. If we are to be able to govern, we cannot do so with elite institutions and frameworks that are controlled by the Centre-Left, and on the basis of an ever weakening group of supportive institutions.
Corbyn’s advance or the rise of a federal Europe is smoothed by an inability by many on the right to understand the power of institutions. Margaret Thatcher cemented herself through institutional changes – whether in housing tenure, share and pension ownership, or workplace arrangements. Similarly, if Brexit is to genuinely carry the day, it is not about risking a short term economic disintegration over a final agreement which will necessarily be ambiguous, but putting in place a direction of travel and institutions that can fight for it for the years to come.