Cast your mind back two years and more. Leaving the EU was said to be a parlous ‘leap in the dark’. More dramatically, doing so without a tight deal binding us to Brussels was like ‘stepping off a cliff edge’. It was not just any old coastal prominence mark you: we were facing a veritable plummeting from the very Cliffs of Moher.
As the moment approaches though, the reality is proving otherwise, precisely as advocates of Brexit have long predicted.
The rocky metaphor turns out to be much closer to the case of Boxgrove. Nowadays it’s a niche and anonymous destination for the nerdy tourist, famed as the site where the partial remains of the eponymous hominid were uncovered. A half million years ago, our ancestor would have been seeking shell fish and shelter on a coastal plain, overshadowed by 200 foot sea cliffs. But the modern visitor can stroll casually down a gentle incline rather than abseil down to greet him. Time has removed the crags.
Away from the metaphors and deeper in the practicalities of Brexit, the business of prepping for a “strongly mitigated no deal” – a cliff edge without the cliff edge – has been quietly going on for a long time. On the UK side, most recently there has been the revelation that ninety percent of potential tariffs are simply not going to be imposed by the UK. Forget the mooted shortages and price hikes in fresh fruit, threatening to turn us into a nation of scurvy types; only selected strategic tariffs will be set in place; transitional buffers that can help exposed industries reorient to domestic markets, or encourage foreign protectionist competitors to open up more. The concept of the UK running out of random tidbits has always been one of the more outrageous propositions from the Hard Remain apologists, since the UK is itself in control of what it chooses to let in and how it manages border controls. As the latest Cabinet Office paper notes, the prime risk behind any shelves being empty around Brexit Day is actually panic buying – incidentally driven by the irresponsibility of the very people pushing Project Fear.
But what of the prospect of the EU27 not playing ball? On this, it is important to note that the Commission distinguishes between two sets of preparations. “Preparedness measures” are actions that have to happen regardless of whether or what type of deal happens. “Contingency measures” are those designed to mitigate the absence of any Withdrawal Agreement being in force on that day. These latter therefore form deals to cover No Deal. They are intended to be transitional and temporary, since the principle is that a subsequent treaty will emerge to regularise matters. They are divided between those set out at EU level, and elements that can be done by member states themselves.
Thus even the Republic of Ireland, which has made a point of deliberately not “spending negotiating chits” or deploy Game Theory Win-Win principles to the talks, has published its own Contingency Action Plan. It has emphasised its work on port and airport infrastructure, staffing, and (though does not highlight it) hints at the prospect of mitigation effects contained in rushed-through legislation in 42 areas. Elsewhere and less obliquely, for example, both the operators of Calais port and its regional head of government have indicated that they have contingency plans to keep vehicles moving and trade flowing on the continental side of the ferry link.
Then there is the Commission. Its contingency plans operate on the reasonable proviso that the UK reciprocates in kind. This provides continuity over a familiar range of Project Fear horror stories – social security benefits, radioactive components for scanners, central clearing of derivatives, allowing planes to fly to and from the UK, continuing access for UK road hauliers, provisions on the time limits for customs declarations, certification for dual-use imports, and the like. The list is still growing. Within the last couple of days, the European Insurance and Occupational Pensions Authority (EIOPA – a ‘Euroquango’) and the EEA’s National Competent Authorities (NCAs) have signed two Memoranda of Understanding, on supervisory cooperation, enforcement and information exchange, and on information exchange and mutual assistance in insurance regulation and supervision. And this despite the Commission calculating at present the UK will fold rather than go the No Deal route.
This is not to say that a No Deal scenario is not without its issues. Mitigation effects are not universal, and they are designed to be derogations while a deal is subsequently reached. More importantly, I would suggest, management plans across Whitehall Departments will all carry a range of decision points of very varying type and scale. The need to keep rather than scrap the three Severn Class Fisheries Protections vessels fell in mid-2018, and was very sagaciously met at the time by the Defence Secretary. That will allow for effective policing of the UK’s waters. Other decision points by contrast will only fall a week or less before 29th March, for instance over determining work rosters for the 30th. Then there are those that lie in between. The longer though the decision is left and Government drifts into No Deal rather than embracing it, the more disruption it will unnecessarily cause – a principle indeed that ought to have been recognised and applied months ago.
Nonetheless, what these examples demonstrate is the fiction of Project Fear as it has been sold. We should approach our options with less trepidation. No Deal has its speedbumps, and some indeed will buffet the undercarriage. But we should see a Strongly Mitigated No Deal for what it is, and not the Hieronymus Bosch setting as painted by those wishing to stay in a Customs and Regulatory Union.
In the final analysis, the Project Fear cliff-edge scenario turns out in the end to be less Boxgrove Man, and more like Piltdown.