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I was going to write about hubris and nemesis, but to be in keeping with the spirit of the age in these parts, let’s work on a more local formulation the same ideas. Pride comes before a fall.
Looking around Westminster, there’s plenty of pride. Pride from a government that has a commanding lead in the opinion polls, that lacks an meaningful opposition, that talks the talk of making Britain a global player. That no one can gainsay all of this must mean that the government is right, right?
But there’s a reason that the ancient Greeks – and many others – have proverbs about pride. It blinds one to the problems that might ultimately undo you; it gives false confidence and makes you forget the struggles you had to make to get to where you are. Even if you don’t go the full-Damocles on it, it still pays to keep reminding yourself that there are limits and dangers. We do not transcend our situations, we only forget them for a while, until they come to bite us on the backside.
This week has been particularly rich for hubris. Firstly, Philip Hammond backtracking on NICS contributions, having failed to prepare the ground properly with his party and media supporters. Secondly, Philip Hammond announcing his change of policy shortly before Prime Minister’s Questions – going against years of practice – because the frontbench felt so confident about the weakness of Jeremy Corbyn to make use of it (correctly, as it turned out).
In this evidence, Davis seemed to take a most cavalier of approaches, repeatedly indicating that his Department didn’t know or hadn’t go around to doing various impact assessments or writing of policy objectives, from EHIC to an overall plan. Given that DExEU is to be a coordinating department for government for Article 50 – according to its DG – this looks highly problematic.
To be clear, this isn’t a let’s-stop-Brexit argument, but a Brexit-is-complex-so-let’s-try-our-best-to-work-through-that-complexity argument. As any negotiator will tell you, if you fail to prepare, then you should prepare to fail (and it’s not just American negotiators who’d say that).
The persistence of the ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ line of argument might resonate with a public that looks to government to provide clear leadership. But if you don’t know what either a bad deal or no deal look like, then you can’t actually defend the line. That there is no indication of what constitutes a ‘bad deal’ from government suggests that this is rhetoric rather than substance: certainly, that the EU27 argue that no deal is obviously worse than a bad deal suggests that – at the very least – there is uncertainty about the matter.
I’ve written before about negotiating theory and Brexit and I don’t wish to rehash all those points again here, but I will note that there is a persistent error in the government’s approach to Brexit. This error is a simple one, of confusing toughness with preparation. In their defence, it’s the oldest negotiating mistake in the book: it’s about winning, rather than finding optimal solutions.
If you like, it’s an extension of the habitual British problem in the EU, of thinking that everything is zero-sum and non-connected. If you see the world as a series of battles, then you fight them as they turn up: you don’t lift your head to consider the bigger picture, and you certainly don’t think about why these points of tension have arisen in the first place. Likewise, one the reasons Theresa May is getting a tough time of things is that she suffers the damage inflicted by her predecessors as PM over the decades: ‘here come the Brits again’. Even a more obviously pro-EU figure like Tony Blair found it very hard to demonstrate his good faith (no sniggering at the back) on matters European.
The reasons for the government’s confidence are not too hard to find. Number 10 is driving forward an agenda very successfully, as no other part of government seems to offer – or want to offer – an alternative; Cabinet is largely supine in the face of a daunting project; Parliament is in oppositional disarray; and, importantly, negotiations haven’t begun, so there is no need to concede anything.
This cannot – will not – last. As May well knows, once Article 50 is triggered, the crucible of debate is no longer in London, but in Brussels. Moreover, it will be between the EU27, with the UK as a bit player: it’s hard to defend your interests if you’re not in the room.
Again, it might be that there is a cunning plan behind all this, one that will be unrolled at notification. But there is nothing to really support that view from what has happened so far.
If pride does come before a fall, the question is going to be how hard, how fast and how far will that fall be.
Speaking at another Brexit-themed talk in Antwerp this week, I found myself once again noting the matter of issue discovery.
Despite being over 8 months after the referendum, which itself was confirmed as happening in May 2015, and with years of debate beforehand, we still find ourselves in a position where new elements keep on being discovered.
Sometimes, that’s something really mundane – like Marmite price-hikes – or it’s something surprisingly big – like Gibraltar. Equally, we still find that things we thought were clear, are not: WTO schedules springs to mind as a recent example or a thing that was originally seen as very easy, then very complex and now a bit complex.
What we need is a nice big list of all the things that need to be considered in Brexit.
Of course, such a list is not an easy task to undertake, for several reasons.
Firstly, there is an issue of determining what is an impact of Brexit and what is an impact of something else. Probably one has to differentiate between first- and second-order effects.
First-order effects would be those that are directly and unambiguously the result of leaving the EU. Examples here would be any part of public policy where legislation is at the EU-level (agriculture, for example), or where there is a reliance on EU principles (e.g. free movement across the Irish-Northern Irish border).
Second-order effects occur where the first-order effects change related situations. The Marmite thing is a handy example: the shift in the exchange rate following the referendum has led to higher import prices, which causes price inflation for a variety of goods and, ultimately, impacts on consumer spending and confidence, as well as patterns of industrial production. Kind-of Brexit-y, but also clearly informed by other factors of economic activity.
If the first-order effects are hard enough to pin down, then the second-order stuff is harder still. At some point, everything is Brexit.
The second big issue is that effects don’t just land on the UK government. Clearly there are effects on other EU member states, but also on British society, in ways that are beyond the control of Whitehall or Westminster. To pick a non-random example, the changes in public attitudes towards immigrants since the referendum is something that many EU nationals have noted, but the extent to which the government is willing or able to articulate a reaffirmation of the value of immigrants in society is highly debatable.
Likewise, that Brexit will have major repercussions on Ireland is seemingly beyond the scope of London’s direct concerns, even as there is a realisation that it does have a direct impact on the conduct of Article 50 negotiations.
Finally, to list is to prioritise and the British government appears congenitally unwilling to express anything prior to Article 50 notification that might denote a set of priorities. The White Paper is a list of things that strike Number 10 as important parts of Britain’s future, rather than a comprehensive list of what needs to be dealt with.
Of course, there are lists out there.
The UK government did conduct its Review of the Balance of Competences under the coalition government, completing in 2014. This sought to understand where and how the EU impacted on areas of public policy. Ultimately, that concluded that things were generally pretty good and the balance generally appropriate. However, the Review was driven by this notion of balance, rather than impact, so its utility as a checklist is limited.
The Commission has also worked through its list of points to discuss under Article 50, but this too is limited – by necessity – to matters of EU acquis, which is not as all-encompassing as one might think.
All of this matters for very obvious reasons.
As we all know, Article 50 negotiations are limited to two years, so discovering another pile of things to discuss isn’t a good way to reach an agreement within that timeframe. For a British government that hasn’t yet demonstrated that it is in control of the issues, further surprises cannot help its image and standing.
Moreover, once negotiations begin, the introduction of new elements is likely to make matters more difficult to resolve. Even on a minimal Article 50 package, there are a lot of elements, each pulling in different directions, resulting in what is likely to be a fairly small win-set. Structurally, there needs to be good sight of all the elements from the beginning if that win-set is to be realised.
Brexit is important. It matters in a way that not many other public policy decisions have mattered. To then find that we don’t even have a good sense of the range of issues that Brexit – even in the narrow sense of Article 50 negotiations – might cover should be something of concern to us all, whatever our political standpoint. Public policy works best when it is informed and considered, not when it is being made on the run.
As the clock ticks down to notification, the opportunity to get a firm footing grows ever smaller.
It is nearly a year since the launch of the official EU referendum campaigns, and so this is a good time to reflect on the impact of the process of Brexit on the gender regime in the UK. I have argued before that the sidelining of women’s voices by the official campaigns, by the media and by the mainstream research outlets was indicative of a broader marginalization of concerns about social justice and equality in the political discourse in the run-up referendum vote.
During the Referendum campaign, the only detailed discussion about women’s rights and the impact of Brexit on women coincided with International Women’s Day 2016. A far cry from a meaningful discussion about the EU as a gender actor and/or the nature of the British gender regime, the women’s campaigns only skimmed the surface of what is a complex and multifaceted issue.
Whereas Women In’s message focused on EU employment law and economic risk, Women for Britain evoked the spirit of the suffragettes and drew attention to the issue of the democratic deficit. Both campaigns failed to address the issues at the heart of these debates, which relate to access to the labour market, gender regimes, representation and identity. This was partly because understanding the impact of Europeanisation on gender equality policies at the national level requires commentators to unpack complex governance structures, and a recognition of the shortcomings of national frameworks for promoting social inclusion. Such an analysis requires nuance – something that was certainly in short supply during the Referendum campaign.
In different ways, both campaigns drew on deeply gendered messages that highlighted the marginal position of women as a constituency in this debate. In so doing, both campaigns crystallised, rather than challenged, gender hierarchies, juxtaposing economic concerns, identity, and sovereignty to social justice and equality.
The outcome of the EU Referendum is a critical juncture for UK social policy and women’s (employment) rights in particular. Whereas the EU has long sought to project an image of a gender actor and a positive force for the rights of women workers in Europe, little was said about the potential impact of Brexit on women’s rights in the UK. The divisive nature of the political discourse during the EU referendum campaign and the marginalization of women’s voices for most of the campaign served to crystallize political binaries.
As political discourse concentrates on safeguarding the “national interest”, issues such as security, migration, and monetary policy take centre-stage, while equality, human rights and social policy become relegated to the bottom of the policy agenda. Nonetheless, the way the government will negotiate the UK’s exit from the EU is fundamental to women’s rights in the UK, as economic, fiscal and trade policies are deeply gendered. The response to the incoming shock resulting from Brexit is also likely to be gendered. As with the 2008 crisis, failure to carry out an analysis that is sensitive to gender structures will result in policies that have an asymmetrical impact on different demographic groups.
The focus of the public debate during the EU referendum campaign and the government’s opening position on the Brexit negotiations highlight an overarching blindness to how widely the European acquis has become embedded within the British social model. Exiting the EU carries a substantial risk that the interests of traditionally marginal groups (including women), which have hitherto been covered by EU legislation, will now need to be safeguarded in new UK law. Concerns have been raised about how the implementation of a highly de-regulatory agenda (i.e. removing “red tape”) impact on women’s access to the labour market, and ultimately on equality of outcomes.
Political and policy blindness to gender at critical junctures (like the 2008 financial crisis) has been demonstrated in the failure to include key indicators or carry out gender impact assessment. The marginalisation of women’s organizations further compounds this problem by limiting policy-makers’ exposure to “uncomfortable” analyses.
The Women and Equalities Committee has launched an enquiry looking at the measures required to ensure a strong equality framework after the UK exits the EU. The committee published its first report on this issue on 28 February 2017. The report and the evidence presented thus far as part of the enquiry highlight the embedded nature of European legislation in the UK. Specifically, it calls on the government to take steps to ensure the principle of equality is safeguarded throughout the process of exiting the EU. Moreover, evidence based policy and scrutiny of government action for its impact on protected categories are put forward as baseline requirements for safeguarding the equality framework beyond EU membership.
Organised civil society has a key role to play now, as it mobilises to hold the government accountable and keep the issue of equality on the political agenda. Right after the results of the referendum were in, the Fawcett Society launched a challenge, #FaceHerFuture, calling on the government to protect the equality framework and guarantee women’s rights after Brexit. The challenge specifically asks key actors to ensure that gender equality is one of the government’s considerations during the forthcoming negotiations. This campaign is supported by a review of current legislation. This action will provide important evidence as to the impact of Brexit on different demographic groups. It is the beginning of a detailed assessment of the European footprint in the British equality framework. Understanding how the process of exiting the EU will shape the UK gender regime will be a long term project. However, the government’s focus on de-regulation and trade
The Women’s Equality Party has also mobilised on this issue following the outcome of the referendum. Alongside the Greens, the WEP tabled an amendment to the Government’s Brexit Bill, demanding that women’s employment rights be safeguarded during and after this process. Organised civil society is clearly starting to organise on this issue and is finding some support in Parliament, especially in the Women and Equality Committee. This marks the beginning of a counter discourse on Brexit and its impact on women.
This push to ensure gender equality is particularly important at the moment. The government’s silence on the issue of equality in the context of on-going parliamentary debates and EU level negotiations highlights an enduring bias in the way political institutions engage with women as citizens and subjects of policy. This silence has been normalized by the failure of most academic voices to include women’s perspectives, beyond inclusion as a variable in on-going analysis of Brexit. Ultimately, this “omission” further alienates women as political and economic actors, as well as citizens. Beyond the fundamental question about representation of diverse interests at this critical juncture, failing to include a gender sensitive analysis will miss what might be lost or achieved at the time of Brexit.
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Originally published on the UK in a Changing Europe Website