A friend recently shared a post on Facebook. It was a lengthy quote from former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, extolling the virtues of Brexit and explaining what the UK needs to do about it all. Mister Abbott had a lot to say — most of which, if I’m blunt, was bollocks. The bulk of his suggestions consisted of little more than the UK doing what in all probability we’re going to end up having to do anyway, but trying to dress it up as though it’s somehow what we want, rather than what circumstances have made inevitable.
I should probably start by linking the post in question. It’s HERE. And I guess maybe I’ll set up a page with the text on it — HERE — just in case the original poster takes it down for any reason. Though, judging by the comments he’s had in response, I guess he’s probably pretty proud to be sharing in Mister Abbott’s Brexit-cred. So you can read the whole context if you like; and then below I’m going to answer some of the more glaring points one by one. This will be a long post, and it probably won’t meet your favour if you’re a bit of a Leave-y sort. But if that’s the case you’ve probably got pissed off with me long ago and likely won’t have found the link to this post anyway.
Anyway nobody asked for my opinion, but I’m not in the habit of letting Brexity rhetoric stand if it’s obvious nonsense. And this was. So here’s why.
“It’s pretty hard for Britain’s friends, here in Australia, to make sense of the mess that’s being made of Brexit. The referendum result was perhaps the biggest-ever vote of confidence in the United Kingdom, its past and its future.”Tony Abbott
It was an incredibly narrow result, at just 51.9% voting for Brexit. And that after a concerted campaign of deliberate disinformation, false promises, and illegal funding from covert sources, including possibly from one or more hostile states who presumably saw the potential for destabilisation of Europe, and the UK specifically, via Brexit. Even despite the expenditure of all that effort and all that money, the result was as narrow as marginal as could be imagined.
Whatever else it was, assuming we beg the question enough to call Brexit a measure of ‘confidence’ in the UK (and that’s legitimate confidence as opposed to the blind overconfidence that comes from nostalgia), the Referendum result was very far from such a vote.
“Looking at this from abroad, it’s baffling: the country that did the most to bring democracy into the modern world might yet throw away the chance to take charge of its own destiny.”
Of course the UK wants – and needs – a deal. Despite the nonchalance of Brexiters throughout this process, the simple fact is that the EU constitutes our largest, closest export market; not to mention the source of a great many of our imports. This is not only because of the forty-plus years we’ve spent integrating our trade with Europe – to our very great benefit – but the simple fact that the EU is geographically on our doorstep. Cutting ourselves out of our largest, closest market and desperately chasing around after deals with more distant partners would be irrational in the extreme.
Moreover, the talk of ‘destiny’ and ‘democracy’ here is nothing more than flannel. Whether Britain remains in or leaves the EU it will be a democracy. Throughout its membership of the EU Britain has remained firmly in control of its own destiny, negotiating its own terms of membership, gaining rebates, opt-outs and special conditions in numerous areas. Britain has continually carved out an exceptional place for itself within the EU, much to the annoyance of other members. But by leaving we render ourselves liable to following the EU’s rules – because whatever Tony here might believe, we’re not going to be able to cut out all trade with the EU or with states already compliant to some extent with the EU. Leaving represents the surrender of our influence and control, not somehow “taking back” what we’d never lost.
“When David Cameron tried to renegotiate Britain’s EU membership, he was sent packing”
No he wasn’t. Although it’s long been an article of faith that Cameron got nothing but a flea in his ear when he went asking more concessions from Europe, he actually obtained much of what he wanted. Admittedly not all — but that’s what negotiation is: it’s about finding compromises and solutions that everyone can accept. Going in with demands and threatening to walk away if you don’t get everything your own way is not the way a realistic and mature negotiator approaches things.
Still, the Brexity narrative has, from the start, been that Cameron was told to sling his hook; that nobody listened; that Britain was treated with contempt. It isn’t the case. He was listened to, and the EU gave ground to keep their most demanding member state happy. They just couldn’t give him everything.
“And since then, Brussels has made no real concessions to Theresa May because it judges (rightly, it seems) that she’s desperate for whatever deal she can get.”
And so she is. But this isn’t down to Brussels, and never has been. Remember that May was the only candidate to grab for power when Cameron fled Downing Street: everyone else, including the prominent Tory Brexiters like Gove and Johnson, who had
with their lies and misrepresentations swayed just enough of the country just enough to secure a razor-thin Leave victory… All ran a mile when the top job became vacant. All of them could see what May either couldn’t see or wouldn’t acknowledge: that the premiership post-referendum was a poisoned chalice.
But May threw herself into it. She hastily, and unnecessarily, triggered Article 50, without planning or preparation of any kind, trusting that we could figure something out in two years. Then she dug into that small timeframe by calling a completely unnecessary general election, which cost her dear by removing the majority she’d previously held. All of which put the UK at a negotiating disadvantage immediately; and she compounded that disadvantage by then setting unrealistic and conflicting ‘red lines’, informing Brussels that she would never consider backing down from them. And it is these red lines – May’s own voluntarily adopted red lines – that have made a more favourable deal impossible.
“The EU’s palpable desire to punish Britain for leaving…”
…doesn’t exist, and never has. They don’t want to punish us. They don’t care enough. They’re just tired of us, and understandably so. Brexit is our obsession, not theirs. They want us in, or they want us out, but either way they want us to stop screwing around and get on with it. If we’re in we’re in. If we’re not, then they just want us to go. As above, we’ve decided the terms on which we’re going to engage, and we accept the consequences of our own decisions. We’ve known the rules all along – it’s only May’s belief, backed up by starry-eyed Brexit acolytes, that we can somehow persuade the EU to break its own rules and make all manner of concessions so we can have self-contradictory terms. It’s never been a real prospect.
“But even after two years of fearmongering and vacillation, it’s not too late for robust leadership to deliver the Brexit that people voted for.”
Nobody knew what the Brexit was that they were voting for. It’s taken two years for it to become clearer what Brexit will mean for the UK,and even now we’re far from having enough information for voters to make an informed decision on a constitutional matter of such magnitude. The promises made by Brexit ringleaders to secure that tiny majority in the 2016 Referendum, such as the extra money promised for the NHS, they abandoned almost at once. Brexit has always meant different things to different people. For some it was about trade. Some wanted that NHS funding. Some wanted to boost Britain’s tiny fishing industry. And some — I’d venture to say many, in fact — just wanted to kick out at Johnny Foreigner. Brexit, in truth, never really meant anything specific. It just meant ‘leave’. But nobody was told exactly how we’d do that, because nobody ever really knew.
“Freed from EU rules, Britain would automatically revert to world trade, using rules agreed by the World Trade Organization. It works pretty well for Australia. So why on earth would it not work just as well for the world’s fifth-largest economy?”
Mister Abbott neglects to mention that while Australia is indeed a member of the WTO, it’s also a participant in ANZCERTA, SAFTA, AUSFTA, TAFTA, ACl-FTA, ASEAN/AANZFTA, MAFTA, KAFTA, JAEPA and ChAFTA. So although I’m sure the WTO rules work very well for Australia, in the limited situations in which it might have to use them, these numerous other free trade agreements no doubt work even better still. And it’s this detailed, negotiated trade framework that somehow convinces Mister Abbott that Britain will be just fine with nothing like it. Mister Abbott’s country, like every other country on Earth, has worked to establish additional agreements over and above WTO — but he can confidently assure us that ours, alone in the world, will be just fine with the very bare bones.
“[The UK] can say, right now, that it will not impose any tariff or quota on European produce and would recognise all EU product standards.”
In other words, the UK would defer entirely to the standards that the EU sets, whatever they may be, without any voice in the bodies that determine those standards. The very position that Mister Abbott decries as Britain ‘surrendering’ he now advocates as our solution to trade.
“That means no border controls for goods coming from Europe to Britain.”
Just as we have no border controls for goods coming in right now – but right now we have a say in what standards the EU sets, and so what standards those goods coming into the UK need to meet. Any way you slice it, in terms of “taking back control” — a key concept in the Brexit campaign — Mister Abbott’s suggestion disadvantages us.
“If Europe knows what’s in its own best interests, it would fully reciprocate in order to maintain entirely free trade and full mutual recognition of standards right across Europe.”
And indeed it would have no reason not to, since – as above – the UK would have undertaken to adhere by default to all European standards. Or, to put it another way, to abide by EU rules without being in a position to have any control over those rules.
“Next, the UK should declare that Europeans already living here should have the right to remain permanently — and, of course, become British citizens if they wish. This should be a unilateral offer.”
Indeed it should, and should be made regardless of any other outcome. But this is something ‘Remainers’ have been advocating for since before the Referendum – yet May and her accomplices have been highly resistant, on the basis that it betrays their ideology of the ‘Will of the People’ to end free movement.
“You don’t need Michel Barnier’s permission. If Europe knows what’s best for itself, it would likewise allow Britons to stay where they are.”
As, again, it most certainly would do; and may yet in any event.
“Third, there should continue to be free movement of people from Europe into Britain — but with a few conditions. Only for work, not welfare. And with a foreign worker’s tax on the employer, to make sure anyone coming in would not be displacing British workers.”
Mister Abbott plays up the ‘benefit tourist’ canard that has formed the (false) rationalisation for May’s ideological ‘red line’ on free movement. He, like the worthless, toxic nationalist tabloids of the UK, ignores the actual data that shows that on average EU citizens coming to Britain have contributed far more to our economy than they have taken out. He, like those tabloids, has also ignored the existing EU rules placing a limit of three months on people moving to Britain from Europe: if they can’t make themselves financially independent within three months, the host country can remove them. This is the existing rule, and has been in force across the EU for years. The myth of ‘uncontrolled immigration’ has been tremendously useful to Brexiters since it plays directly to the emotions – but it’s quickly dispelled by the facts.
“Fourth, no ‘divorce bill’ whatsoever should be paid to Brussels. The UK government would assume the EU’s property and liabilities in Britain, and the EU would assume Britain’s share of these in Europe.”
Difficult to arrange, since the so-called ‘divorce bill’ represents the calculated liabilities of the UK for financial commitments it’s made while a member of the EU. The simple fact is that Britain owes money. How much can be debated, of course, but it undoubtedly owes. If it defaults on that debt then it can kiss goodbye to its chances of obtaining favourable terms in all these new global trade deals. Who wants to do business with a defaulter? Who would trust us to stick to our word?
“Finally, there’s no need on Britain’s part for a hard border with Ireland. Britain wouldn’t be imposing tariffs on European goods, so there’s no money to collect.”
Well, no – because under Mister Abbott’s masterplan here, we’ll be complying with all EU rules and standards in order to maintain that frictionless border. Yes, it would work – but it would represent membership of the Customs Union and the Single Market, and compliance with all the relevant regulations, without any ability to influence or change those regulations. Only, according to his scheme, the entire UK has to comply with those rules to ensure that frictionless trade — while as it stands, May and her collaborators are trying to square the circle of keeping the UK, and particularly Northern Ireland, both in and out of the EU Customs Union at the same time.
“Some changes may be needed but technology allows for smart borders”
Unfortunately it doesn’t. This has been made clear from the continual failure of UK Brexiters trumpeting the technological solution to demonstrate exactly what that technological solution would actually be.
Also: “some changes may be needed”? Well, what changes? Come on, Mister Abbott: you’re solving all our problems here, aren’t you? Don’t just hand-wave the issues away. What changes will be needed?
“As a former prime minister of Australia and a lifelong friend of your country, I would say this: Britain has nothing to lose except the shackles that the EU imposes on it.”
You have nothing to lose but your chains!
And all the other shit we stand to lose, obviously. But it’s interesting to see that, as Mister Abbott is someone advocating Brexit – albeit apparently without even a basic interested citizen’s understanding of the issues involved – his intervention is of course entirely welcome. Whereas any equally qualified foreign figure – say, a then-incumbent president of the USA, for example – expressing a view opposing Brexit is interfering unjustly and should mind their own foreign business, what do they know anyway they’re just trying to keep Britain down it’s Project Fear… The double standard is quite impressive.