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The Truth Rishi Sunak Dares Not Speak: Britain Still Needs the EU | Raphael Behr

Almost three years after Britain’s European divorce, the Conservative Party is not ready to face the consequences. But the prime minister wants visitation rights.

The phase of slamming doors and empty threats shouted in Brussels letterboxes is over. Rishi Sunak understands that his only hope for political survival lies in economic recovery, for which he needs a functional relationship with the EU. But the compromise in Brussels poisons the mood of Tory MPs, making political survival more difficult.

It’s an impossible riddle because the facts about Britain’s reliance on the single market offend the sacred core of Brexit. This is why Eurosceptic hardliners reacted with fury to reports that senior government officials were suggesting a “Swiss-style” deal with the EU.

Terminology is unnecessary. Even the Swiss don’t like to have a Swiss-like relationship with the EU. It’s a waste of several treaties. The main transaction is access to the single market, in exchange for which Switzerland contributes to the European budget, while accepting regulatory dictation and accepting the free movement of people – the three unforgivable curses of submission to Brussels in the Eurosceptic tradition.

Sunak’s government wants something more nebulous that could ease friction in trade, but on terms that cannot be described as a betrayal of Brexit. Keir Starmer wants the same, not out of ideological conviction, but in the belief that the safest profile for Labor in any European debate is a low profile, on the fringes of the dysfunctional Tories.

It might be politically expedient, but it makes the opposition complicit in Brexit’s most persistent and pernicious myth – denying the power imbalance between Britain and a bloc of 27 countries on its doorstep.

The deliberate ignorance or misrepresentation of the single market was the common thread of a triple error in the economic arguments for leaving the EU. First, Europe was dismissed as the dotard of the ossified and declining world economy. The real prize, then, was trade deals with more distant rising powers. Second, Britain would not lose the benefits of the single market anyway, as EU businesses would push to retain access to British consumers. Third, the cost of regulatory compliance with EU rules outweighed any benefits of membership.

Sunak cited all three in an article explaining his decision to vote in 2016. Europe’s share of the global economy was shrinking compared to other continents, he said. “Canada, South Korea and South Africa trade freely with Europe without giving up their independence. As one of the biggest customers in Europe, I see no good reason why we couldn’t reach a similar agreement. Moreover, “excessive bureaucracy” has stifled all British businesses, even those that do not export to the Continent.

It is clear from these arguments that Sunak’s understanding of the single market was limited to the repertoire of dogmatic ditties that a buoyant young Tory learns to sing if he wants to be selected as a parliamentary candidate in a safe seat. Ministerial colleagues and Treasury officials say his understanding of the issue was later enriched by the experience of serving as chancellor. By then, Brexit was a done deal.

As a notorious spreadsheet nerd, Sunak cannot ignore data showing exclusion from EU markets as a drag on Britain’s economic performance. Given that he and his chancellor used the Office for Budget Responsibility forecast as the basis for the fiscal consolidation announced in last week’s autumn statement, it is reasonable to assume that the two men also accept the conclusion. of the OBR, published the same day, according to which Brexit had “a significant negative impact on British trade”. Jeremy Hunt does not admit the link in public, preferring to blame Russia and the legacy of the pandemic for Britain’s economic woes These are factors, but the OECD also predicts that the UK will experience a longer and deeper recession than any other G7 country, none of which has chosen to sabotage its own closest business partner.

Frontal acknowledgment of this fact is taboo, so it leaks laterally from the government. Hence the rumor last weekend of a Swiss pivot in the direction of travel. But any suspicion of heresy stirs up the inquisitive zeal of the Conservative MPs, demanding a public vow of piety. “I believe in Brexit,” Sunak said on Monday, insisting that no alignment with EU rules would happen under his leadership. Indeed, “regulatory freedom” is the key that will unlock the benefits of emancipation from Brussels that autonomy in trade agreements has mysteriously failed to deliver.

This – the third fallacy – is the strongest pillar of the Eurosceptic faith, and the one to which Sunak clings the most. As a leadership candidate over the summer, he promised to review or repeal 2,400 old EU laws, carried over into UK law after Brexit, and to do so within 100 days of taking office. function. (A video promoting the engagement showed Sunak loading documents into a paper shredder to the beat of Ode to Joy.) It was a wildly implausible engagement, now reasonably abandoned. The only way to do that would be to devote most of Whitehall to full-time sifting through EU laws, or scrapping them without even trying to figure out what they do and whether they might be useful or popular.

Liz Truss’ version of the same bill is a bill already in the House of Commons, setting a December 2023 target and including a ‘sunset clause’ to automatically vaporize any EU rules that haven’t been revised in time. (There is an option to extend the deadline.) Unions and NGOs fear the incineration of social and environmental protections in an ideological wildfire. Companies say they don’t need or want a big regulatory shake-up, which only adds uncertainty and discourages investment. There are indications that the government is heeding this complaint and preparing to water down the bill.

The single-minded obsession with purging the legacy of Brussels bureaucracy threatens to stifle growth more than regulation itself, much of which existed to harmonize rules so that British goods could flow unimpeded across the continent. Replacing EU standards with UK standards is neither national liberation nor a magnet for international investment, since anyone trading in both jurisdictions would have to comply with both sets of rules. It doesn’t matter that the UK regime is theoretically more competitive (or just lax). There is no escape from the gravitational field of the single market.

The pragmatic side of the Prime Minister could push him to postpone the burning of the bureaucracy. But he doesn’t dare extinguish the dream. It’s what keeps Brexit supporters warm in the illusion as the cold winds of the economy blow harder and harder in their faces. It’s more comfort than the rest of us.

Nothing remains of the Brexit deal that Sunak himself once made. He always pretends to believe, even if his tone seems more pleading than impassioned – an affirmation of faith by someone who cannot ignore the evidence; a leader cut off from any good political option, trying not to be totally alienated from reality while living apart from the facts.


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