Brexit negotiations after the Vote Leave coup

Now we have sight of Boris Johnson’s letter to Donald Tusk, we have a little clearer idea about where things are heading subsequent to the Vote Leave takeover of the government after Johnson’s election as Tory leader. While the press comment has – rightly – focused on the attention given in the letter to the backstop and the issue of Northern/Ireland, the key paragraph is surely the one on p. 2 which talks about the backstop being ‘inconsistent with the UK’s desired final destination for a sustainable long-term relationship with the EU’ and, specifically, this bit:

Although we will remain committed to world-class environmental, product and labour standards, the laws and regulations to deliver them will potentially diverge from those of the EU. That is the point of our exit and our ability to enable this is central to our future democracy.

There is an easy point to score here in that not one aspect of our democracy ever put Vote Leave into Downing Street – check, for instance, the 2017 General Election which delivered a hung parliament and May’s Euro elections results in the UK. Brexit remains, as it always did, a battle for control of the Tory Party in which all of us have been caught up.

It’s also very easy to criticise the tone of the letter – in something purporting to re-open negotiations, in superficial pursuit of an expressed desire that the EU might compromise, it is clear that it very much closes them down by hardening the red lines which were already the logical conclusion to May’s botched negotiation. It has, entirely predictably, already received short shrift from the EU and presumably, this was its purpose such that the EU can be portrayed as the ‘inflexible’ enemy unwilling to compromise to secure a deal. This is evidently not a serious attempt at a re-negotiation. If further evidence was required, it’s surely there in the paragraph towards the bottom of p. 2 of the letter withdrawing from the commitment set out in the agreed Joint Report to ‘full alignment’ with the single market and customs union. Negotiation cannot sensibly proceed when one side is so publicly thumbing its nose at agreed commitments previously entered into.

Even so, we should note very carefully the threat implicit in the paragraph quite above – that, unless the EU gives us the exit deal we want, the UK will move to a de-regulatory ‘paradise’, undercutting the EU on its environmental, product and labour standards and becoming a sort of Singapore in Europe, sitting on Europe’s offshore and acting as a haven for the sorts of dodgy interests that have given us Brexit in the first place. If that is the ‘UK’s final destination for a sustainable long-term relationship’ (whatever that tortuous expression actually means in practice) – well, I can’t recall being asked to vote on that; and neither, of course, is it at all sustainable to be seeking perpetually to drive down standards, including on labour, in a race to the bottom. (Of course and not only labour – it makes absolutely no sense to have divergent standards on the environment when global action is required to save the planet: but then, climate change denial is one of the reasons we have Brexit – and it won’t stop there until the rest of the international institutions trying to address themselves to climate change have also been undermined). In this respect, proposals for no state pension until 75 (‘Don’t retire, expire!’) is only the start.

If indeed it it not a serious attempt at re-negotiation, and that the real target of the letter is not Brussels but the domestic audience, then it does, perhaps, further signal a general election prior to 31 October.

We should also therefore note the language in the letter around ‘anti-democratic’ which is not just Dominic Cummings’s word du jour to boil the debate around the EU into a soundbite – it also symbolises the verbal oppression to which those who would be likely opponents of a UK-as-Singapore policy would be subject. We have seen this sort of language before and very recently (‘saboteurs’, ‘traitors’, enemies of the people’, ‘collaborators’) but it casts here a very wide range of likely opponents of government policy as opponents of democracy. Environmental organisations and activists, food welfare and safety NGOs, and trade unions alike – all would oppose the driving down of standards in their respective fields and all, it therefore seems, are likely to be seen in the process as undermining a project which the unelected (oh the irony!) Cummings (a figure held earlier this year, remember, to have been in contempt of Parliament) now chooses to describe as ‘central to our future democracy’. Trade unions have famously before been seen as ‘the enemy within’, and both unions and environmental organisations are no strangers to infiltration by state agents, but the febrile political atmosphere in which we find ourselves as a result of the 2016 referendum and ten years of austerity politics, amidst the continuing trashing of the UK’s domestic institutions, to which we can now add the fifth estate to the fourth, and indeed the first, casts an entirely new light on the phrase.

It’s beginning indeed to look a lot like fascism.

 

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The Euros and Brexit: stirring the muddied pool

I cast my vote on Thursday last week for the type of Europe I wanted to see over the next five years: socialist, re-distributive and for the many, not the few; for a fair, free and sustainable Europe. Elections of MEPs to the European Parliament should reflect the type of Europe we want to see – though, of course, these are not normal times in the UK and these elections, organised in haste and poorly with regard to European citizens excluded from the process, were not normal ones.

It would be a mistake to see these elections as reflective of how people would vote in a general election – a party with deliberately no policies other than ‘Brexit’ would not then top the poll when its candidates were compelled to say what they think about all the things they were deliberately silenced on in the run-up to last Thursday; and neither in a general election would the main parties be almost absent from campaigning, giving Farage and his odd mix of candidates such a free run. The only leaflet this household ever received was indeed the early one from the Brexit Party (and that includes the SNP whose favours were, otherwise, the only ones pinned to the lamp-posts outside our local polling station).

One of the things I note about this particular set of elections is that they have re-taught the lesson that electors cannot be taken for granted and that, if you don’t campaign, you don’t get their vote. It’s not so much that the parties that were clear on Brexit – either for or against – did better as a result than the mainstream parties who were less clear; it’s also that an absence of campaigning gives people other than the die-hards few reasons to vote for you. Here in Eilean Siar, it’s probably therefore not a surprise that both the SNP and the Brexit Party (44% and 20% of the vote, respectively) did better than they did across the rest of Scotland (38% and 15%).

One of the other things is that the parties who did well in the UK – the liberals and the greens – also did well in the rest of Europe. Elsewhere, this is likely to reflect the awareness resulting from the high publicity given to the actions of, and the surge in support for, Extinction Rebellion. There may, as a result, be good reason to assume that the European demos is alive and kicking, despite those who wish to deny its existence. It’s also likely to be the case that, right across Europe, the increased turnout (again above 50%) reflects higher participation among those aged 18-24, and that voter registration campaigns, and imaginative policies that appeal to younger people, are increasingly likely to bear fruit at the ballot box.

More generally, and because several parties had campaign platforms that were openly pro- or anti-EU, the election results do allow us to read into them some lessons for what they mean for Brexit. It is clear that the polarisation in UK politics around Brexit, with attitudes towards remain/leave counting heavier than traditional party loyalties, is continuing. We know, for example, how much of the voting electorate this time around are dead-set on leaving the EU even (or perhaps particularly) without a deal. Based on the turnout, this one in three of voters falls to around 22% of even the registered electorate who were qualified to vote. There is, therefore, no mandate for no deal and Parliament is – and will continue to be – right to reject it.

With 27 seats and a vote share of 32%, the Brexit Party did better than UKIP in 2014 (24 seats and 28%), before the farce of the intervening years saw most of its MEPs desert – but not so much better; and, indeed, that it did apparently improve was within the likely margins of error of a low poll and given the more or less free run it was given at the campaign by the mainstream parties. We don’t know from this that support for Brexit is increasing – and, indeed, it is likely that it is not, based on what we know about the age patterns of voters in this context and the fairly entrenched views that electors hold. It’s also well worth pointing out here that the pro-EU platforms put out by the Liberal Democrats and the Greens in the UK made their votes weigh more heavily than those of the Brexit Party and UKIP, even before we build in the greater complications posed by the similarly pro-EU support of the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales and the nuanced positions of the mainstream parties. And it’s also well worth contrasting the number of votes cast for no deal parties (5.9m) with the 6.1m people who have signed the Revoke Article 50 petition.

Farage has spoken of the results driving his wish to join the negotiations on Brexit. Well, as a career politician who has made his career while denying its own existence, he would do – but this is meaningless. There are no negotiations to join – and it’s not clear what a party committed to a ‘clean break’ Brexit based, essentially, on no deal would have to add in any case. The EU is content with the agreement it has reached (even if it has gone a lot further than some domestic politicians, like Macron, wanted) and, while it would no doubt re-open talks were the UK’s/May’s existing red lines to be relaxed, it is clear that the accommodation of a representative with such a poor record of activity in the European Parliament, and at least one of whose new intake has already talked of making life difficult in Brussels, is not going to persuade them to do so.

And neither is a new Tory leader – for party political reasons almost certainly to be a committed Brexiteer – likely to lead to the EU to consider re-opening negotiations. While it might in some respect leave the EU a little clearer than hitherto about what it is the UK actually wants, the threat of a no deal Brexit within the EU counts less than the threat to the EU single market of any bad deal which jeopardised it. And I don’t think that such a stance is negotiatory bluster: for the EU, no deal is indeed better than a bad deal. Further, as we know, there will be no free trade deal discussion in a post-no deal scenario unless the outstanding issues that have proved apparently so difficult for no-dealers so far (the border on the island of Ireland, the settlement of the UK’s remaining financial obligations and citizens’ rights) are properly dealt with first. There will be a polite reception in Brussels, as befits the arrival of a ‘world king’, but the threat of no deal is likely to lead the EU to choose not to extend beyond 31 October the extension under which we are now working.

So, the European election, in combination with the aftermath of May’s duressed resignation, has made a no deal Brexit in October much more likely. The few votes given in the election to the mainstream parties seeking to negotiate around how to get a withdrawal agreement through parliament highlights the polarised leave/remain UK in which we live – and, thus, the dangers of being caught in the middle. Of course, we do not know how those who did not turn out last Thursday would vote in a general election – and we may yet return to the two-party politics (at UK level) we last spoke of as recently as less than two years ago. But, that doesn’t seem likely as long as we rumble along without a resolution to the issue which continues substantially to divide us.

With the existential threat now facing the Tories, the time is right – in the likely absence of a general election – to press for another referendum. There is no track through parliament for a negotiated settlement and neither, on this most recent evidence of what the public thinks, is it clear that there is public appetite for one, anyway. Asking the public at this point what it wants to do now – in particular, whether it wants to remain in the EU or leave with no deal, given what we now know and given that leaving without a deal was not the argument put up by those promoting leave back in 2016 – is, therefore, the only way forwards. Such a binary question might overcome some aspects of the objections of those who do not want to be asked about their views in general, as before; and it is also likely to produce the decisive result required to allow us to put this issue to bed.

Perhaps then, after a fresh referendum based on a binary no deal/remain choice, given the failure of and apparent appetite for a negotiated settlement, we can make a focused start on bringing our polarised nation back together: a referendum and then the general election to wipe clean the post-2017 slate and facilitate a fresh start.

Bring on the Euros

So the UK government has finally capitulated and declared the inevitability of what just about all of us have known for several weeks: that the European elections, due on 23 May, must take place since there is simply not enough time for any withdrawal to be ‘ratified’ in the UK under the terms of the extension of the two-year Article 50 process  offered at the Special Council meeting last month.

Typical of the government’s style this might be – shut your eyes, put your fingers in your ears and pretend something isn’t happening until such times as reality becomes too much to bear and you have to cave in (TS Eliot was quite possibly right, by the way) – but an election is neither something to ‘regret‘ nor to object to on the grounds of cost, both of which, in their own way, seek to put a price on something which is priceless. Theresa May might regret having to hold an election given the calamitous state of the Tory Party – out of funds with donors running shy of leadership uncertainty, and consequently having to run a ‘cut-price’ campaign, and in internal ‘meltdown‘ over the state of her own leadership of it – but that is of course a different matter entirely; and, while the state of public opinion on the government’s mishandling of the Brexit negotiations is no doubt a reason for fear of May 23 by the government itself, holding people accountable is what democracies were designed for. (NB the 8% who ‘approve’ the government’s handling of the Brexit negotiations is an argument all by itself that all referendums should require super majorities – it’s twice the marginal 52:48 gap created by the 2016 referendum.) Bring it on.

Now the UK’s participation in the European elections is confirmed, and we have the increasingly real prospect of these delivering an annihilated Tory Party falling apart in office, the extended talks between Labour and the Theresa May faction of the Tories seem to have fulfilled a substantial part of their purpose. In contrast to Paul Mason, however, I wouldn’t argue that Labour should pull out of them just yet. They will surely fall apart in due course anyway under the weight of their own contradictions, with Theresa May unable to offer even a customs union on anything other than a meaningless temporary basis – itself incapable of resolving the problem of the Northern Ireland border, insufficient to deliver anything like a jobs-first Brexit and leaving the question of services entirely untouched – still less move on any other of her red lines. The talks are, quite clearly, going nowhere other than to underline that the current party of government is fractured, incapable and without a mandate.

But, that is useful purpose enough in the present situation. Furthermore, in the slightly more medium-term, were Labour to swing behind a confirmatory vote, as is my own hope, there is a clear strategic requirement for it being able to indicate to its leave-backing voters who have not already gone for the full Farage that it first did all it could to secure a deal with the government which delivered the mandate of the 2016 referendum (recognising its lies, obfuscations and fraudulent data manipulations); and that the reason for that failure lay entirely at the door of the government’s own intransigence. This is not just about triangulation; it is about driving that existing wedge in the Tory Party home and, providing that strategy continues to work as it currently appears to be doing, I’m still on board.

Mason (above link) is right, however, in arguing that Labour needs to campaign actively in the election; and with clear support for the Party of European Socialists manifesto (which affiliates like-minded parties from all over the EU and Norway, and forms part of the progressive Socialists and Democrats grouping in the European Parliament) and, subsequently, to engage where possible with the greens and the left. The European elections are about the future of Europe and, tempting as it is to see them as a referendum on Brexit, they are (and need to be) much more than about that. That said, it would be good to see an increase in the the low levels of turnout, historically 35-40%, this time around. The Labour manifesto will clearly embody the PES principles to which its candidates sign up, although it will clearly also be embodying existing Conference policy on Brexit. Much as I’m in sympathy with the intention of Tom Watson, and others, to gain a greater commitment to a confirmatory vote at the NEC meeting, the manifesto can do little more than articulate what is existing policy.

The difficulty here is, of course, that we cannot wait for Conference to debate a change in policy since, by then, it will be too late; if, indeed, only a clutch of European countries now want the UK to stay, then any further extension beyond 31 October is clearly already out of the question. Personally, I’m also reluctant to have my vote on 23 May depicted as a vote for a Brexit-supporting party: I will be voting on European issues and about the future of Europe, and with a view to the MEPs I help elect playing their full role in the next European Parliament to end austerity and construct a Europe for the many. With that in mind, and remembering the specificities of a European Parliament election being more than about domestic issues, let there be no talk of any vote for Labour as being a vote for a Brexit-supporting party.

With the news from at least one source (quoting a report in the Telegraph) that Theresa May is engaged in scenario planning for a three-way referendum – her deal/no deal/remain – if (and when) the talks with Labour fail and Parliament can find no other route forward, it’s clear that the time is right to keep on talking while, all the while, keeping on the pressure for that confirmatory vote.

Recycled independents

I watched with bemusement and a certain sense of déjà vu the decision of seven Labour MPs (now apparently eight) yesterday to resign from the Party and sit as independents. The echoes of the formation of the SDP back in 1981 are strong – and well explored elsewhere, most recently by Keith Flett in a thoughtful post on unintended consequences – not least with the SDP also having sought, and failed, to ‘break the mould of British politics’.

As someone who also resigned from the Party on a point of principle (the ludicrous scenario of the party of labour digging up long-lost legislation from the statute book to get around the 2000 firefighters’ dispute), though I’m not sure that anyone actually noticed back then, I understand that discontent sometimes comes to a point of no return. And, some members of the group are clearly highly uncomfortable with, and angry at, aspects of the Party’s direction and approach. Not currently being a member of the Party, however, it’s really not up to me to comment on what is someone else’s point of principle other than to say that such departures are always regrettable.

The SDP had its Limehouse Declaration, but the gang of eight appear to have very little as regards an attempt at policy direction. Braving the ‘Whoa! are you sure you want to go there?’ pop-up from my McAfee Web Adviser tool which, somewhat comically, rated the group’s website as ‘slightly risky’ when I dialled it up earlier this evening, I can see a set of fairly loose motherhood-and-apple-pie values – but, on the issue of the day, very little as regards what the group might be calling for on Brexit. 1981 still casts a long shadow on UK politics and it might be that the group is extremely hesitant to engage with policy formality in terms of anything resembling a Council for Social Democracy. The fate of (rightly) much-derided blue Labour/red Tory initiatives also has a comment to make on this. Perhaps, on the other hand, this is still coming – and it may be that the realignment of UK politics in the wake of the Change wrought by the 2016 referendum may still come about if UKUP entryism into the Tory Party represents more than just the usual relentless self-promotion; or if the current crop of cabinet ministers ever actually have to make good on their threat to resign in the face of a no-deal Brexit – and it may be with these things in mind that any attempt at a policy programme has yet to appear.

I’d suggest, however, that this group’ll be a long time waiting, splits by moderate Tories continuing to be a somewhat less likely outcome, even if Brexit does change everything, particularly given what seems to be the major driver behind the group’s decision: discontent with their own party never looks attractive to members of another, even if there are reasons for discontent over there, too.

Given that Brexit was one of the prompters of their decision to leave – all are supporters of putting the terms of the UK’s departure from the EU to the people (as, in principle, am I) – I might have expected a bit more. Or, actually, quite a bit less – since it’s not only the programme which is somewhat nebulous; the timing of their departure from the Party is also extremely puzzling.

Their departure may not make the mathematics on a people’s vote any different – but it does deprive the Parliamentary Labour Party of a strong voice on behalf of a people’s vote; and, furthermore, it may well undermine it among the Party’s loyalists who would not want to espouse policies supported by breakaway MPs. It also, for the same potential reasons, complicates the arithmetic around Yvette Cooper’s attempt to compel the Prime Minister to request more time from the EU to prevent the UK crashing out on 28 March, as it will by default unless something is done to prevent it. Furthermore, the Party’s conference programme is clear and encompasses a referendum, reiterated regularly (and most recently on Sunday) by John McDonnell, should no deal be possible or should the terms of the deal fail to protect jobs and the economy – regardless of the fall-out from Honda, among others – workers’ rights and environmental protection standards. That is, at least, still on the table and, the circumstances for resignation should that policy be ignored are clearly therefore not yet in place. The departure – on these grounds – is evidently premature.

And, furthermore, like all breakaways, it has redirected the pressure within Westminster away from the government’s farcical Brexit negotiations process and preparations; and away from the Prime Minster’s albeit incredibly half-hearted attempt at political engagement among MPs. It might, in extremis, lead to Theresa May seeking to exploit the split by calling a snap election – though it may be that she has learned from the last time. Nevertheless, with this in mind, discipline remains the key since a loss of focus will represent a loss of opportunity. Ultimately, such intense failures of policies and of personality from the Prime Minister need to be continually at the centre of attention and continually ratcheting up the pressure if there is to be a proper, decent deal on Brexit or, otherwise, a people’s vote. Any such breakaway provides a valve to relieve that pressure, with the Prime Minister thereby able to get one step closer to a crash-out which will keep the hard right in the ERG on board and a Tory Party together, if not exactly united; splits from the moderate side of the Tories being, when push comes to shove, a somewhat less likely outcome, in my view, whatever the rumours.

Whatever the gang of eight think are the chances of gaining the actual support of their Party for a people’s vote, their departure not only does not make it more likely, it actually makes it a bit less so. And, at this stage, that’s very frustrating.

Now: for a People’s Vote

So, now we know that:

(a) a sizable proportion of Tory MPs have no confidence in Theresa May as leader of their own Party; but they all have confidence in the government she leads; and that

(b) a similar proportion of Tory MPs have no faith in the practical outcome of the major, political project of our time, which has utterly consumed government for the last two years and in spite of all the other social and economic issues which desperately need to be addressed; but they all have confidence in the government itself.

Yesterday’s vote was astonishing not in the defeat of Theresa May’s deal itself, which was entirely predictable, but in the manner and scale of it. A loss by 230 votes was not only a parliamentary ‘record’ for a government (to add to that which May already has – time will look on her as leader of the government in a way about as friendly as it already has of her immediate predecessor: Theresa ‘strong and stable’ May compared to David ‘chaos with Ed Miliband‘ Cameron). It also, by one reckoning, attracted the support of fewer than 50 MPs not on the ‘payroll’ (i.e. with government jobs and who are mandated to vote for something the government supports, or else resign). For a policy issue on which a three-line whip was imposed on Tory MPs, this is astonishing. And, three of those who did vote in favour were Labour MPs (alongside three more sitting as independents). And, finally, the 196 Tory votes she did get – the 202 votes in favour minus these six – were actually three fewer Tory MPs than voted for her in the first round of the Tory leadership contest in 2016.

Yet not, apparently, a matter for the resignation of May herself. Now, after the loss of the vote of confidence by 19 votes tonight (the DUP of course has 10 MPs), we know that the government cannot be compelled to resign, it’s time for a People’s Vote (yes, Brenda from Bristol, another one).

This necessarily needs to follow an application to the EU to extend the Article 50 withdrawal process specifically to encompass a further consultation with the UK public and would need a majority of MPs to vote in favour, perhaps as one of the four ‘indicative options’ for which the Exiting the EU Committee called today. (It’s also worth noting that Dominic Grieve has also submitted his Second Referendum bill.) Not a ‘re-run of the 2016 vote’, not a ‘second chance to get it right’, not ‘the elite overturning the will of the people’ though some will clearly choose to spin it in any or all of these ways – but a referendum based on the practical issues which now confront us in early 2019, not those which applied back in 2016. Divisive it may be thought to be – but this country is already deeply divided under the Tories and the likely out-turn of a Tory Brexit is a deepening of those divisions.

A People’s Vote – among other options following the failure of this evening’s vote of confidence – is Labour conference policy on Brexit, and it is also clearly the policy of others, such as the SNP, but it now appears to be the only viable one that can provide a solution to the chaos which has engulfed government. Furthermore, given that, otherwise, we will crash out of the EU on 29 March by simple operation of the law, there is no time for a war of attrition based on repeated, confidence-sapping votes of confidence, no matter how legitimate such a tactic would be in more normal circumstances. There is an absolute deadline here – which is also written in the EU Withdrawal Act – which will dump us out of the EU automatically on that date, regardless of the politics, unless we do something about it.

We don’t yet know what May will bring back to parliament on Monday – the end of the three working days she is permitted by virtue of the efforts, again, of Dominic Grieve – but the early signs of her being willing to consult within parliament do not look good from the perspective of ensuring a Brexit that parliament could support. She seems to be standing by her infamous ‘red lines’, for example on a customs union and an independent trade policy, which have trapped her as a natural consequence into making this deal – the only one that could be signed, as we know from Michel Barnier’s very clear slide – as well as by a refusal to seek an extension of the Article 50 process. To say nothing of effective environmental protections and workers’ rights, as opposed to mere forms of words. Quite what a process of consultation means when – at least earlier on today – it apparently doesn’t involve the leader of the opposition – or any other otherwise sympathetic (on this issue) Labour MPs, it seems – is anyone’s guess. But as we also know, claiming to be listening is her go-to statement in times of defeat. To anyone else, it’s more can-kicking. Objectively, she’d be better off losing certain cabinet ministers than retaining these red lines at this point in the Brexit process – and, if the cross-party talks announced tonight are to have any meaning, those red lines, and the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, will have to go. Perhaps that is the purpose of the statement due at No. 10 shortly.

It would, at almost literally any point in the last two years, have been possible to construct a Brexit deal which would have gained the support of parliament and which could have implemented the 2016 referendum vote had May chosen to consult widely and construct a Brexit policy, on the softest possible basis, which not only MPs could have supported but which also reflected the narrowness of the 2016 vote itself. Even dyed-in-the-wool remainers like myself would, if not capable of actually supporting it, at least acknowledge it as being required to implement the referendum decision. Furthermore, this is what the UK public voted for in the 2017 snap election, by taking away May’s parliamentary majority and handing her instead a minority government (though, clearly, we didn’t know we were getting the DUP). The loss of the parliamentary majority was, by the way, evidence that our democracy does work. The people voted in 2016 voted for Brexit but with a substantial element of ‘remain’; and they voted in 2017 for consensus. At this late stage, they are getting, instead, it seems, a hard Brexit to appease the hard-liners in the Tories’ own ranks; and a political approach to Brexit governed by party dogma inspired by winner-take-allism and Tory infighting.

As Keir Starmer said last week, no consultation has ever taken place (£) within parliament – at least, not until tonight and, so far, only partially. We have, in its place, May’s red lines substantially based on her own interpretation of the 2016 vote and which have led us, inexorably and ridiculously, to this point. Without those red lines, a different deal would have been possible. It could yet be, were we to call a halt to the process and seek – via a general election – a pause in the political process in which to construct a different approach to Brexit to take to the UK people in search of their support. But, at this point, with no apparent way either of compelling May to abandon her red lines, or her government to quit, and if the talks starting from tonight turn out to be as fruitless as I imagine them to be simply because of May’s own intransigence and the continuing splits within the Tory Party, a People’s Vote is the only way out of this ‘shambles’. At this eleventh hour, there is no time left to explore a new deal based on parliamentary consensus around the art of the possible – which should have been done after the 2017 election – and a series of different red lines (were May so inclined to agree, and her fundamentally split Cabinet to agree as well).

Meanwhile, the catastrophe that a ‘no deal’ Brexit would represent is still a possible outcome, given our current position, and given that it is essentially the default should nothing else be done by 29 March. Whatever May is about to announce tonight, it needs to be at the very least that she will seek an extension to the Article 50 process. Even after a People’s Vote, by the way, there would still need to be a general election not least since the existing parliament, with party manifestos drawn up and MPs elected largely on the basis of implementing the 2016 referendum mandate, would clearly at that point have little further authority.

But we have now a political impasse, and a major deadline looming; and unless these cross-party talks are able to pull a rabbit out of the hat which also unites the Cabinet and the DUP, it is only right that we look now to the people to take us out of it via the only means available now that a timely general election is, apparently, not going to happen.

Queue-jumping: a few points in response

After returning yesterday evening from my trip out experiencing the atypical calm of a Hebridean autumn day, opening my Twitter account brought me denunciations of Theresa May’s reference to citizens from other EU countries coming to the UK as ‘queue jumping’. (And so, from calm to rage.) Quite rightly, too – it was offensive, shameful phrasing at which we can only wonder the reaction had this been said in Brussels, or Paris, or Madrid about British citizens taking advantage of free movement to make their lives in other countries – and no more ignorable for being just the latest in a long line of similar statements from Theresa May. I couldn’t pass up the chance to comment; and all the more so since the No. 10 spokesperson has apparently been trying to deny she said it: a pointlessly fallacious exercise (seemingly about semantics) when video exists of precisely what she said, and helpfully sub-titled, too. Either way, May was yesterday blowing a dog-whistle.

Firstly, the quote itself:

‘Once we’ve left the EU, we will be fully in control of who comes here. It will no longer be the case that EU nationals, regardless of the skills or experience they have to offer, can jump the queue ahead of engineers from Sydney, or software developers from Delhi.’

That is Brexit – right there. A complete misunderstanding of what EU rules and regulations allow us to do as a member; an obsession with queues and with others not following British (and British-influenced) queuing pecularities; and a hark back to the times when our closest links were not with those who with whom we have been building relationships over the last forty five years but with the countries of Empire.

The UK is not currently a part of the Schengen Agreement, so it still has borders at which it can routinely check the credentials of all who enter; and EU law means that those looking to stay beyond three months must be able to support themselves (and have comprehensive sickness insurance). The UK cannot enforce the three-month rule since it has no municipal procedure for registering citizens as do others in the EU (e.g. Belgium) and, while some might argue that this is a good thing from the perspective of the individual freedom of the citizen, it is, nevertheless, a public policy choice which prevents the UK from operating the rules of free movement as the EU actually envisages.

EU nationals working in this country to build their lives and this country are also skilled workers – some might even be engineers or software developers – and many of them were actually invited here by government departments to practise their skills and their professions. Several pieces of evidence – e.g. from the NHS – suggests that public services in particular may struggle in the light of the now-declining numbers of people coming into the UK for work from other EU countries. Furthermore, May’s reference has a presumption that freedom of movement for EU nationals is largely composed of people who have skill sets lower than those of engineers and software developers. Evidence on the skills mix is complicated but it is the case that ex-EU migrants are much more likely to be over-qualified for the jobs they are doing. And none of this is to ignore that care workers are required by the UK’s labour market – and increasingly so as our ‘domestic’ population ages.

The ending of free movement is of course a two-way street. In ending free movement for others to come here from the EU we are ending the free movement of UK nationals overseas, too. It is a truism to think that most ex-UK migrants have retired to Spain – the majority (some 80%) are of working age and, like most ex-EU nationals in this country, are likely actually to be in work. Regardless of the life situation of ex-UK migrants, they have all exercised entirely valid treaty rights and to castigate them, too, by implication, as queue jumpers is a disgracefully reactionary response.

The Migration Advisory Committee recently concluded that – to pick one of its several conclusions – ‘It remains the case that the majority of studies find no or little impact of immigration [i.e. from EEA countries] on the employment and unemployment outcomes of the UK-born workforce’ (para 1.30, p. 29). It is impossible to argue that importing engineers from Sydney would improve or deteriorate this position – but the logical end-point of seeing ex-EU nationals as ‘queue jumpers’ in the future is that the engineer from Sydney is likely to be preferred to the one from Germany. After all, pushing ‘queue jumpers’ back down the queue is the correct procedural etiquette. May’s quote is, in this context, insidious.

And finally, there is, of course, no such ‘queue’ of migrants waiting for jobs to emerge before coming to the UK – nor any such ‘priority’ being somehow given as a result to EU nationals. What there is, is an entirely arbitrary (and entirely baseless) ‘target’ of getting net migration (from all places elsewhere) down to below 100,000 annually first introduced by David Cameron in 2011 and then enthusiastically adopted by Theresa May. This immigration cap – declared recently by Alan Manning, chair of the Migration Advisory Commission, to be a ‘political target’ rather than actual immigration policy – is what is driving the notion that an engineer from Sydney can’t get into the country whereas Pawel the apprentice plumber fresh out of vocational school has no problem in doing so. It is a choice – we can have both depending on the requirements of our labour market, but it suits the government’s agenda to pretend that we can’t.

And therein lies the main issue – this relentless banging on about the problems of EU immigration is how the government is lining up to sell its ‘deal’. Theresa May – economically a remainer but socially and culturally a leaver – has form on this: it is what she knows and we all know that this is the only place where she is comfortable. It is an extension of the ‘hostile environment’ that she instituted when at the Home Office. We can expect more – much more – of this in the coming days and weeks now that the ERG’s loaded rifle has been revealed to be firing no more than blanks: it is May’s only chance of bringing the parliamentary arithmetic into a position that supports her approach.

[Edit: the exchange between journalists and the No. 10 spokesperson has now been published. It is not a meeting of minds – and, as regards the substance? Perhaps we can put it down to Theresa May being, again, very clear. Very clear.]

Brexit and government (in)competence

While we wait for the ‘will it, won’t it’ Cabinet to get the final details of the draft agreement still being hammered out in Brussels – the latest being that Wednesday night is the latest possible date to convene a November summit at EU level – I continue to be astonished by the admission of Brexit Secretary, Dominic Raab, last week that he ‘hadn’t quite understood‘ the importance of the Dover-Calais route for the trade of goods between the UK and Continental Europe. Not only the words of the admission, but also the style of it – Raab shows himself quite clearly to be a man scrabbling about in the dark for the words to describe something that he thinks may be Really Quite Important – is frankly astounding regardless of any consideration of his job as a minister.

It clearly ought to come as no surprise that the most important trade route is actually the shortest – and it takes neither professorial expertise in particle physics to work that out nor even a rudimentary understanding of the importance both to manufacturing companies and food freshness and quality of just-in-time deliveries. But the issue is really one of the extent to which Raab – another committed Brexiteer – has got to grips with his brief. Whatever the political involvement of ministers in the discussions – and I suspect it’s not a lot since the civil service sherpas will be doing most of the spadework – had he really missed his own Prime Minister asking people not to be alarmed about government plans for food and medicines stockpiling? (Don’t panic! Don’t panic!)? Simply failed to spot the import of the physical practicalities of trade links in his own post-lunch/graveyard slot appearance before the Exiting the EU Select Committee when he spoke about stockpiling? Simply missed out on the controversy about turning the M26 into a lorry park? Not in the office that day when his own Department published its technical notices? Or had he simply bought into John Redwood’s (extraordinary) explanation that it would be alright on the night since everything could come through Rotterdam to avoid those pesky French (of course, it can’t since Rotterdam is also in the single market).

It is a cause for worry when the minister with political responsibility and accountability for the state of negotiations is apparently so out of sorts with a geographical map. As well as for the effectiveness of that ‘meaningful vote’ in parliament when MPs will have increasingly little time to digest the content of the withdrawal agreement – clearly part of the government’s strategy to persuade parliament to back a deal (any deal) rather than engage in the chaos of withdrawal with none.

The discussions on avoiding a post-Brexit hard border in Northern Ireland continue to confound everyone (here’s a clue: it can’t be done while keeping both the 10 DUP MPs (hard Brexiteers in their own right – remember that covertly-funded Metro ad?) and the 50 or so extremists in the ERG happy about the terms of the withdrawal – even if the text of the agreement is now ‘almost ready‘ (this might or might not indicate that is is now more than 95% done). Andrea Leadsom was entirely wrong to talk at the weekend about the need to ‘hold our nerve‘ – this is not a case of taking a negotiation to the brink since this is not a normal negotiation: there are red lines, and implications of red lines, that can point only to one end – and that is a deal that Theresa May cannot sell to her own base. These are not problems of the EU’s making – they are entirely domestic in origin and stem completely from UK government failure to recognise the flaws in its own strategy. Ultimately, this point of reckoning has been coming ever since Theresa May chose to ally with the DUP to save her political skin.

The response to a Brexit deal that cannot pass through parliament – presuming that all Labour MPs hold their nerve on this – has to be a general election. This will have evident consequences for the due date of withdrawal. Keeping the UK at least aligned to the customs union and the EU single market (NB: I would absolutely prefer to remain in the EU) is the only way of preventing extremist Brexiteers from achieving their goal of a deregulated economy based on competition and with clear consequences for public services (much less, in a much-shrunken state with much greater financial implications for the individual) and the NHS (conceded completely to the market) – to say nothing of workers’ rights being swept away. Whatever the confusion over what people did vote for back in 2016, I’d be pretty sure this was not it.

Meanwhile, was it not a complete surprise that the UK was so noticeably absent from the Paris commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the Armistice? More than sixty heads of state and government – and, wearing shirt no. 12, er, David Lidington. The choice to make a biblical reading at Westminster Abbey rather than attend the commemoration in Paris sent a very clear, and absolutely shameful, signal. Nevertheless, in reminding everyone that a post-Brexit UK would really rather stay at home it was, instead, a strong pointer to what a travesty ‘Global Britain’ actually is.

Truly, this has been a government of all the talents.

Pay, productivity and high performance: time to get a MAC?

I’ve resisted blogging about Brexit for quite some time, largely because the amount of lunacy out there is simply astonishing. Brexit remains, in my view, a policy outcome intended in the first place to settle internecine war within the Tory Party but which it is clearly failing to do – and, indeed, which it is turning out to be completely ill-equipped to do.

In such circumstances, while there remains an awful lot of stuff going on that policy needs to settle, there’s little for policy-makers to do but watch on in horror as this the Brexit sh*t show meanders to a conclusion. I’ve watched on in horror as public positions have solidified around the hardest of Brexits in the attempt to appease the Tory Party’s Brexiteers and as the policy debate has shifted further rightwards to the point where Brexit has not become a far-right project – it was always this, from the days before the referendum was called – but an excuse for the public outbursts (and worse) of illiberal, angry boors.

The UK leaving the EU is still the most likely conclusion – though you never know, and that’s no reason not to try – but making sense of what things will be like afterwards is an essential task facing policy-makers. (Were our public debate to mend itself more meaningfully to actual debate rather than false slogans on buses, this is of course the sort of thing that would have happened prior to the referendum. Nevertheless.)

One of the policy organisations trying to get on with life after likely Brexit is the Migration Advisory Committee, the government’s advisory body on issues – largely but not exclusively to do with the labour market – concerning the impact of migration. The MAC has been charged recently with coming up with a report on what effects migration has had on the UK’s economy and society, which it did last month in the background of a focus on its (almost certainly false) equation of wages with skill levels, and its recommendation to impose a £30,000 minimum salary requirement on labour immigration visas.

Last week, Professor Alan Manning, Chair of the MAC, appeared before the House of Lords Home Affairs sub-committee to discuss the findings. One of the issues raised was the (very) lukewarm recommendation to engage with a seasonal workers’ scheme for agriculture – though not for care – on the grounds that the sector was absolutely dependent on EU workers and there were no prospects of what we might call ‘domestic re-supply’ taking their place (I’m deliberately avoiding repeating the nauseating terminology of ‘settled workers’). You can watch the appearance here (relevant bit at c. 11:15.50) or else read the BBC’s report which contains a full quote of the statement behind this post.

The reason for the lukewarm nature of the recommendation is the low levels of productivity (stemming from low wages) in the agriculture sector, against the background of the government’s desire (in its ‘Plan for Britain’) to turn the UK (I think this is what it means) into a high productivity, high wage economy; and the view expressed by Professor Manning in his appearance, but which isn’t at all a conclusion of the report, that low-skilled migration has been ‘fiscally negative’. (Indeed, the report specifically says that there is no evidence that low-skilled migration has any negative impact on productivity, innovation or training – though it does say that high-skilled migration is (entirely unsurprisingly) ‘better’ in all these areas.)

Now, I’m very much in favour of the principle of a high wage, high productivity economy – except in that, like a lot of things this government does, having a plan is all very well but what is also required is that someone must actually do something to achieve it (it’s not going to be happen by wishing on a unicorn). Furthermore, an essential part of any plan must be the proper taking care of the local economic, employment and social impacts none of which can be left to the market, and this is somewhat missing from recent government pronouncements. (Had we taken greater care over the last forty years of those things that cannot be left to the market, we might well not be in this mess.)

Startlingly, Professor Manning said in his appearance that the loss of seasonal produce markets ‘wouldn’t be the end of the earth for the country as a whole’ and that giving agriculture ‘privileged access to labour’ wasn’t a way to achieve a high-productivity economy. I think this is both arrant and shockingly complacent:

1. agriculture is a market that is rigged by the big retailers. The demand for lower prices by the big supermarkets, the natural effect of the cut-throat competition facing them, is what will continue to keep wages in the sector down. At the same time, falling prices won’t provide the conditions for farmers to invest in automation to raise productivity, even if the incentive might be there to do so. The same rigged market is, by the way, also present in the care sector: it’s called austerity and the resultant cash strapping of the local authorities who fund care. The government can end austerity – but, in the context of agriculture, it also needs to do something to tackle the power of big retailers to force farm prices downwards

2. it is ridiculous to suggest that the appropriate policy response to the loss of soft fruits and asparagus is to import them instead. There is the issue of quality, with large areas of Scotland, e.g. The Carse stretching along the side of Tay from Perth to Dundee, having natural advantages for the growing of premium quality soft fruits. More than that, however, one of the focuses of the environmental debate is, quite rightly, reducing the food miles involved in the transport of our food from source to plate. It makes no environmental sense to import soft fruits that can be grown, and successfully, in the UK – and there is the issue of the use of preservatives to extend lifetimes, too. Yet, green issues and concerns are apparently absent from considerations in this debate

3. agriculture constitutes less than 1% of UK GDP. It is extremely facile to think that low productivity in agriculture is somehow holding the UK back from becoming a high productivity economy. Even more so when we are specifically speaking about low productivity in one tiny (see Table 2.2 under previous link) sector within the agriculture industry

4. Brexit is already likely to lead to up to 25% of farms in England going to the wall – and probably more in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland if there is knock-on effect on budget subsidies to the devolved administrations. If this was an EU country, there would be consultation, a social plan and a desire to provide re-training programmes to provide a degree of support and re-orientation for those involved. But, this is the UK, and a country which is heading out of the EU

5. MAC suggests a (higher) minimum wage in agriculture will be required to provide upwards pressure on wages in the event that a seasonal workers’ scheme is introduced so as to raise productivity and in view of this ‘privileged access to labour’. I’m in favour of a higher living wage across the UK but I’m not sure that a minimum wage in the already distorted agriculture market, in isolation from a higher living wage particularly elsewhere in the food supply chain, will act in the way it thinks

6. to gain a high productivity economy, we would need, firstly, a more advanced manufacturing industry as a launchpad for a high skills, high technology revolution. However, Professor Minford, the economist that Brexiteers most like to listen to, was already prior to the referendum predicting (and indeed welcoming) the elimination of what little manufacturing industry we have left; although his post-referendum analysis is somewhat less apocalyptic predicting UK manufacturing profits ‘possibly higher than pre-Brexit levels’. (He’ll probably be right about something one day, at least on an infinite monkey basis.) Secondly, all workplaces, regardless of industry sector, need to be adopting much more of the sorts of high performance practices that create productivity and to which trade union general secretaries, for example, have pointed, and repeatedly. But, as EEF’s budget submission this week highlighted, there is precious little evidence of that. (The EEF submission also highlights that foreign-owned workplaces are more productive than ‘domestic’ ones. Funny that.)

Ultimately, if we’re to have a high productivity economy, we need our policy-makers to pay less attention to what is happening in agriculture and more to proselytising about high performance workplaces and putting clear incentives in place to encourage the adoption of high performance practices. Meanwhile, we know that a lot of people in primary industry areas such as agriculture voted for Brexit. But, funnily enough, I never saw ‘Vote Brexit: lose primary sector jobs and pay higher food prices’ on the side of a bus, either.

Integration of the western Balkans – Sofia 2018

Just back from Sofia, where I was attending a symposium for the 20th Anniversary of the SEER Journal, which I founded along with my good friend and colleague, Peter Scherrer, and which I still help to edit alongside Bela Galgoczi, Senior Researcher at the European Trade Union Institute (and who has capably edited the Journal for three-quarters of its life). If Peter and I were the parents then Sofia was the maternity hospital, so Sofia as a location for the 20th Anniversary symposium was well-chosen – and those invited, including some who contributed articles to the very first number, as well as the SEER’s welfare guardians (its Editorial Board, and researchers and leaders of trade unions from the western Balkans) – meant that the birthday celebrations were attended by many friends and supporters.

Back in 1998, we reckoned we could pull together enough interesting material to fill one volume, so to be still going 19 years later, 70 regular issues and nearly 800 articles on from our first number, plus several special issues and two paperbacks, including in the language of the ‘western Balkans’ as well as in German and in French, represents a pretty good achievement for which we are very grateful to our sponsors: in the first place the Hans-Bockler-Stiftung, and latterly the ETUI, as well as Nomos Verlag, our publishers. Pleasingly, we have also now completed a full 76cms of SEER – the internal width of one of my bookshelves. Vol. 21 will start bookshelf no. 2.

Our keynote was given by Christophe Solioz, whose formal symposium paper ‘Europe from the post-Wall era to post-crisis future’ can be found in .pdf form on his website and which we’ll be carrying in edited form in a future issue. Other colleagues, including KNSB President, Plamen Dimitrov, and Luben Tomev, the Director of ITUSR, KNSB’s research institute, also brought welcome comradely greetings.

For me, apart from looking back over our history, I also focused a few remarks on the impact of Brexit on EU integration, especially as regards the potential loss of budget finance within the EU’s post-Brexit multi-annual financial framework for projects like integration of the western Balkans post-Brexit (e.g. here); as well as on the shadowy figures behind Brexit and the increasing organisation of extremist nationalists amidst not only the current ‘rogue’ regimes in Hungary and Poland, as well as in Austria where they form part of the government, with key ministries, but also given the tensions within Bosnia and Herzegovina concerning the increasing militarisation of Republika Srpska and the explicit support being given by the government of Croatia – a member of the EU, let’s not forget – to nationalists in the Croat-dominant cantons in the south. It is no surprise that extremist nationalists – some having been ejected from Hungary – see the western Balkans as fertile territory (here and also here).

Here’s Cde. Scherrer and myself at the symposium:

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(Thanks to Bruno S. Sergi for the photo.)

The book that Peter is presenting me with, by the way, is Paul Strand’s Tir A’Mhurain: a typically thoughtful gift being not only about South Uist – The Land of the Bent Grass (or marram) – but also a book which has a complex and quite astonishing political history, according to the introduction by Fraser MacDonald (linking to his Twitter since his blog is, unfortunately, quite literally unreadable) in The Guardian to this, 50th anniversary, collection of photos documenting life in South Uist at the time of the installation of the MoD rocket range. Indeed, many islanders were fearful that the range would bring immense changes to their lives and so a documentation of exactly what that was, both in photographs and in text, is extraordinarily useful. I was aware of the book – a regular visitor to bookshops in Scotland, I could not possibly be unaware of it – but I had no knowledge of its fascinating origins. Following up, it is interesting to note that prints of some of Strand’s photos – authorised in their production by Strand himself, and thus as rare as hen’s teeth – have quite recently been bought by Scotland’s National Portrait Gallery.

We timed the symposium to coincide with the summit for trade union leaders from the region organised by the Bulgarian trade unions KNSB and ‘Podkrepa’, and in conjunction with the ETUC and Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, with the intention of drawing up a statement to go to Thursday’s EU-Balkans summit, also being held in Sofia under the Bulgarian Presidency of the EU for which integration of the region with the EU has been a priority. You can read the trade union summit declaration here at the ETUC website (in English) or here at the KNSB website, if your Bulgarian is good enough (along with the following two entries for 9 May further down the page). Like a lot of these things, the words of the statement need to be turned into a practical, workable agenda for action – noting that wage convergence is an achievable target, in the context of the region’s productivity reserve, as well as a principle – but these things are not easy to co-ordinate and produce, and it is good to see the many trade unions of the region come together in support of a common goal.

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Hands clasped in friendship and in solidarity outside the headquarters of KNSB, in one of the perhaps lesser-photographed examples of this style of architecture still prevalent around Sofia (though its history is actually a lot more modern, dating from 2004, I think).

I’ve argued before that what we need is a bold vision of integration from the EU, not more warm words, progress reports and initiatives. Not least in the face of the problems that the western Balkans faces outlined above, the need for concrete proposals, investment and a clear prospect of integration continues to be clear – as does the path of continued destabilisation where these things continue to be lacking. Thursday’s summit needs to deliver on an agenda targeted towards solid progress on accession, a prime requirement for which is that the EU lifts its head from its own problems – of the divisions of the sort which marked drafting discussions over the summit declaration – towards a contemplation of the problems to which inaction will surely lead.

These are troubling times but the SEER Journal will, in its next period, strive to carry on providing a platform for discussion on the western Balkans’s path to the EU. In the meantime – happy birthday, zhiveli and, of course: solidarnost!

Book Review: Adults in the Room

It is impossible for the reader not to approach the closing chapters of Yanis Varoufakis‘s memoir of his six months as Greece’s Finance Minister with anything other than increasing sadness: sadness at the sapping of the revolutionary zeal of the minority Syriza government, worn down and demoralised by the weight of pressure and expectations which its election had created, and internally divided as a result of dealing with petty party politics as well as a shameful lack of mutual trust and discipline; and sadness at the evident disappointment with which Varoufakis, an indefatigable character who bounces back from one ‘no’ to the next, convinced of the unarguability of his econometric analysis and understanding of the data it reveals, begins to relate the events and the breakdowns in human relations and in Syriza’s collective narrative which culminated in his departure from the (party) political stage.

As I reviewed previously, this is a compelling narrative containing a lucid amount of detail of Varoufakis’s attempts to represent Syriza on the international stage and in pursuit of a good agreement with Greece’s creditors re-negotiating the debt and ending self-defeating austerity, drawn both from his diary and from recordings made of key moments and meetings. Never actually a member of Syriza – an ‘outsider’ to the party’s ‘insiders’ – he may have been guilty of a certain amount of naivety, and certainly a political naivety, which contributed to his downfall but his grasp of detail (a certain amount of financial economics is required of the reader) and his ability to build an apparently cohesive and diverse international support network, containing some rather surprising members (some of whom may, of course, have had agendas of their own), commands respect for the deliverability of his ideas, at least in terms of their potential.

As a person, it is difficult not to warm to him and, as someone who has also carried in his pocket a letter of resignation into important meetings on more than one occasion (never yet deployed, by the way), I also felt an affinity. His desire to represent the voters who elected him – he polled higher than any other figure in the 2015 Greek election, perhaps as a function of the size of his Greater Athens constituency and also his high profile within Greece – is clear but there are, as a result, some doubts over his ability to compromise. Varoufakis would of course not be the first politician to founder on the EU’s ability to say ‘non’ (or, better said here, ‘nein’). In these circumstances, however, a lack of agreement is not only unsurprising (and which also, at the same time, raises questions about the ability of the creditors themselves to compromise on something other than their ‘programme’) but the counter-view – that Greece was also suffering as a result of this continuing impasse – clearly has merit. Inevitably (this is his own memoir), his view of the process may not necessarily be a fully-rounded one (the true history of this clearly requires an examination of the views of other participants in the process) but it is, nevertheless, one that is firmly dug in.

For Europe itself, Varoufakis’s book raises a recognition of how the democratic deficit which is present in the powerful Eurogroup, the informal body which exists to co-ordinate financial policies within the Eurozone yet which has no presence within the EU’s treaties, and where a large part of the events related in Adults in the Room plays out as a result of its de facto role as the Commission’s representative on the troika, can be ended. Such informality gives dominant characters like Wolfgang Schäuble, the ‘architect of austerity‘, a platform but without democratic accountability or legitimacy. It was at the Eurogroup where the EU’s policy of containing the potential damage to the Eurozone played out, and where a solution for Greece was purposively denied so as not to provoke similar demands from deeply indebted others across southern Europe, thus protecting the position of the Euro. The remoteness of that from the concerns of ordinary voters surely has to be addressed not so much in the sense that ECFIN – the formal Finance Council including all Finance Ministers, not just those in the Eurozone, and which has a foundation in the treaties – is any the closer to such concerns but in the sense that the Eurogroup not only contains an element of power without responsibility arising from its informality but also that it introduces confusion around the locus of authoritative decision-making and inevitably creates a layer of insulation around its leading authority figures. It is difficult to escape the view as a result that greater political union must also accompany economic and monetary union.

The problems raised by the Eurogroup are heightened by the power of group dynamics and peer pressure: repeatedly, Varoufakis confronts his peers and persuades them of the merits of his approach and of the logical inconsistencies of their own models only for them, back in plenary session, to fold under the heat lamps of more powerful figures and the realities of geo-political relationships. ‘Twas ever thus – but the absence of democratic legitimacy on the stages on which most of the book is set, and which have driven Varoufakis’s career subsequently (he is currently setting up his own Europe-wide political movement, including in Greece), do need to be addressed and, if Adults in the Room provides an account which convinces reformers of what needs to be done in this direction, then it will have served us, the people of Europe, as well as Varoufakis sought to fulfil his mandate on the part of the people of Greece.

We will clearly never know whether Varoufakis’s original plan on taking office would have worked had the conditions for its implementation been reached earlier than June 2015 (although there is a certain amount of evidence that direct action might have forced compromise on at least the EU side of the troika). But, for a negotiator, there is plenty in here to suggest that the broad lessons of what was in essence a failed negotiation: of using popular revolutionary zeal to drive real change in relationships with a powerful negotiatory partner, having a genuine strategy in support, and otherwise not to let time and bureaucracy first create and then embed the spectre of inertia, continue to be both time-honoured and genuine. Ultimately, constructive disobedience, without a strategy which is independent of the actions of a negotiating partner which is prepared to take its time over delivering the conditions on which that strategy is predicated, is no strategy at all. Even if it does, ultimately, leave one free to resume life as an outsider.