True compromise? The concept is alien to the EU debate

True compromise? The concept is alien to the EU debate

1. (n0un) An agreement that is reached by each side making concessions, as in “Eventually they agreed a compromise position”
2. (verb) Cause to become vulnerable or function less effectively, as in “The EU position compromised long term sovereignty”

With volcanic levels of political oratory going on over the Brexit debate, there are calls for politicians and campaigners to employ more conciliatory tones, coupled with an old invocation that we should all embark on a quest for some great compromise. While a reduction in Krakatoan outpourings would be a welcome result, one should be cautious about the pursuit of some happy middle ground, which is no more than a Brexit Eldorado.

The concept of true compromise is alien to the EU debate: not because of now-entrenched attitudes on both sides (if I am still permitted by the language police to still use the warrish analogy), but because of the very nature itself of the system we are leaving. 

UK engagement with the EU project functioned on a dose of strategic ambiguity that had long since evaporated. At its core lies a set of internal contradictions whose parameters were recognised and impossibly toyed with as far back as Sully in the time of Henri IV. The central question has always been this: on what terms would European states relate to each other? The model could either be intergovernmental or it could be supranational; an association of separate entities, or a federal structure; a weak construct dependent on respect and good neighbourliness, or a bloc bearing institutions with the power to impose the collective will by direct force of law. If you like: are all equal, or is some power or agency on top?

The two models are inherently incompatible, and introducing the forms of the latter disrupts and negates the former. Iconically, the two approaches became embodied by the division of post-War Western Europe into the “Six” and the “Seven”; the growing regulatory and customs union of the EEC versus the evolving free trade and friendship option of EFTA. For reasons of GDP weight but also of more opaque political ambition, the UK (foolishly in my view) left EFTA to sign up to the competitor, thereby encouraging by the gravity of its own defection other states to follow.

Seeking now post-Brexit to design a compromise model magically falling somehow between the two is a non-starter. At most you can mitigate the power of the collectivised institutions by reducing the number of competences where they have a role, which in effect is what the EEA is about by attempting to restrict the arrangement to trade. But even then the borders become woolly once you watch judges increasingly redefine “fair competition” and “human rights”. The system is, as Oslo’s eurosceptics point out, legally dynamic and today provides uncertain safeguards. The May deal notably did not even supply those.

One of the fascinating and little-noted developments within EU institutions over the last decade has been a debate about how its own law making should evolve. Should the Commission seek to regulate everything or, given the sheer bulk of the acquis, ought it spend less time making the Single Market a place of identical rules and more one of equivalent principles, mutually recognising kitemarks and allowing trade in, say, toys that are ‘safe’ and white goods that ‘work’? Sadly, this has to date largely proven to have been a missed opportunity, not just internally but also by extension in developing Free Trade Agreements by slashing Non-Tariff Barriers. 

The Equivalence Model, if it had been given full and free rein, would have led to a more competitive, less burdensome, more democratic and less bureaucratic Single Market. This last aspect has seemingly been its undoing, since there are vested corporate and administrative interests in the central planning approach which would obviously lose out. 

Intriguingly, some parts of the EU institutions (such as the European Parliament’s Economic Governance Support Unit) appear to support the idea that Brexit now provides an opportunity to revisit and develop this approach, but they are at present fighting an uphill battle. It might yet be won. The points made in the “Road to Brexit” speeches by ministers 18 months ago about regulatory symmetry between the UK and the EU did make a mark, even if Team Barnier held conflicting negotiating objectives. It is certainly a timely battle to fight. We are long familiar with the bullying tenor of the Commission towards the Swiss which, when designing their EU relationship, so wisely negotiated a web of separate agreements, thus reducing the power of the Commission to permanently hover its finger over a single kill switch. Commission code for calling the agreements “unwieldy” or “complicated” is merely shorthand for saying it weakens their hand, and that they don’t like it. 

Though it may not look like it, with our referendum timing we are extraordinarily fortunate. Britain is again being given an opportunity to lead by her example. Brexit provides a crucial opening for all capitals to rethink how trade in this part of the planet should work, rather than accept a single (and flawed) format as the default standard. The European Commission, through the EU and by its orbiting EEA, was on the brink of establishing a broken ideological monopoly on the future economic form of a continent. 

The UK, if it takes an FTA route out of Brexit, breaks that mould. An independent UK allows a very visible competition to take place between ideas and economic models, the necessary precursor to a European renaissance. It creates an alternative. I would have thought the European Commission of all entities would have welcomed the breaking of a monopoly. But monopolies themselves of course never do.