Oxford for Europe
 A Stranger's Eye
​by Peter Burke, Chair, Oxford for Europe.
10th March 2019
If only we could see ourselves as others see us

It is often only through a stranger’s eye that we see the truth. It was fascinating talking to journalists from Finland and Ukraine, who came to film our most recent Cornmarket stall. Finland joined the EU in 1995, much more recently than the UK, but its people are comfortable and cooperative members of the organisation. In Finland, in common with all other European countries, public support for EU membership has risen since the UK referendum showed what a decision to leave really means. And then there is Ukraine, which at one time was a potential accession state, and where the attractions of EU membership were so great that the government of the day was prepared to take – as we now know - huge risks to achieve it. To the journalists from both countries, who were able to speak much more openly than their BBC colleagues are ever allowed to do, it was incomprehensible that any country should make a decision arbitrarily to leave the largest and most successful trading bloc in the world.

On the question of A Stranger’s Eye, how many of our readers would not trade the Daily Telegraph or Express for the Irish Times any day? Fintan O’Toole, week after week, has his finger on the pulse. His comments on English love of eccentricity deserve a look.  He says:
"Not only is the English eccentric not an endangered species, he is flourishing right at the top of the food chain. Brexit can be thought of as an experiment in political re-wilding: instead of bringing back wolves or bears or lynx, it has reintroduced the English eccentric to the ecosystem of power."

Led by Donkeys - look closely
And this week Cliff Taylor is rightly withering about the hilarious but hapless Geoffrey Cox and his crumbling codpiece:

'As the negotiators fly from London to Brussels they are being sent on a mission impossible to achieve an ill-defined and contradictory set of objectives. To ensure “ Brexit means Brexit”. To negotiate the oxymoron that would be a “time-limited backstop”.
They met EU officials ready to help – to an extent – but baffled by the lack of engagement about the details of what are really technical and tricky issues.
The UK attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, is the latest to be called into action, a lawyer sent to do a politician’s work, with a goal of ensuring the UK is not “trapped in the backstop”.

Here is the latest pejorative phrase which immediately turns the complicated effort to marry Brexit with the avoidance of a hard Irish border into an imposition from which the UK wants to be able to escape.
It ignores the big concession last year from the EU which agreed to allow all of the UK to remain in a basic customs union with the EU after Brexit if required to avoid a hard Irish border.
You could present this as allowing the UK to have favourable access to EU markets after Brexit. Many other countries would be delighted to get this kind of arrangement. At very least it would provide the UK with a useful card in future trade talks with the EU.
But, no, it is a “trap”which the evil EU must not be allowed to spring.'

For many Tory MPs the Withdrawal Agreement would be acceptable but for the backstop. John Howell, MP for Henley, is typical of many. He states his ‘preference for the Deal that is on the table with a change to the Irish Backstop’. As an Irish person I say categorically that the backstop is very far from being the worst part. In fact it is essential to ensure that Mrs May’s oft repeated promise of no hard border in Ireland is actually delivered, and that the Good Friday Agreement, a binding international treaty, unlike the 2016 referendum, is honoured. It is also an effective way of ensuring that the UK is within the customs union indefinitely, because the only way that the backstop will end is when technology is found which can overcome the inherent problems of the Irish border, and that, according to those who know, will take forever. The Swedish ambassador in Oxford last week disclosed that the average wait for lorries at the Swedish Norwegian border, a technologically highly enabled crossing, averages 13 minutes. Imagine that at Dundalk, or indeed at Dover. Remaining within the customs union could prevent this, so would be no bad thing and would allow British industry to continue to trade without friction as before.
​​As Richard Corbett, a Labour MEP, points out, there are far worse things about the withdrawal agreement than the backstop: crucially it introduces a Blind Brexit, opening up a period of negotiations about trade, and even worse services, in which the UK will be the junior partner, and individual EU countries will wring out concessions ranging from fishing rights to sovereignty over Gibralter. These negotiations will make the ones currently going on appear like a piece of cake. Why would anybody want to embark on such a path? The message surely must be, not should we tolerate the backstop, but rather should we tolerate Brexit at all?

One of the things we often hear at our stalls is that the UK managed before outside EU and would have been fine had it not joined. This is both untrue and irrelevant. The world has changed since the 1970s. We have spent the last 40+ years building up an economy, including our service and manufacturing industries, and our cultural, educational, scientific and health infrastructures, which is inextricably enmeshed with that of our EU 27 colleagues. Neither article 50 or the Withdrawal Agreement can put that into reverse. Brexit is a highly complex process of undoing those links to mutual disadvantage, and has rightly been compared to removing an egg from an omelette . And this was in the words of Pascal Lamy, the former director-general of the much vaunted World Trade Organisation, in which our Brexiteer friends place so much faith. Crazy or what?
Who knows what the coming week will bring? The pundits can only guess. On Tuesday many of us from Oxford For Europe will be standing in Parliament Square to witness, in all probability, another resounding defeat for the withdrawal agreement.. On Wednesday the likeliest thing we will see is an overwhelming rejection of a No-Deal outcome, unless the insanity of the ERG proves in some way to be infectious, or Mrs. May once again reneges on her promises and pulls the vote. On Thursday, in all likelihood, Parliament will approve an extension of article 50. In fact, given our lack of technical, never mind emotional, preparedness for Brexit, an extension now seems unavoidable. The question is only how long. Legal opinion appears to be that six weeks would be easy but pointless, three months might be possible without totally disrupting the European parliamentary timetable, and anything longer would require the UK to elect some MEPs. That should not of itself be a bar. I would suggest that the optimal delay would be about 50 years. That is, after all, not a long time. It is precisely the same length of time which our dear friend Mr Rees Mogg said it would take for the benefits of Brexit to come through. And who am I to argue with a man whose probity and wisdom are so truly legendary?

Stop Press: Today Jeremy Hunt , the same Foreign Secretary who forgot whether his wife was Chinese or Japanese, said:

"We have an opportunity now to leave on 29 March or shortly thereafter and it is very important we grasp that opportunity because there is wind in the sails of people trying to stop Brexit. If you want to stop Brexit you only need to do three things - kill this deal, get an extension and then have a second referendum. Within three weeks people could have two of those three things and quite possibly the third one could be on the way through the Labour Party. We're in very perilous waters…. There is a risk and a possibility that we end up losing Brexit if we get the votes wrong in the next couple of weeks."
David Davis had a view on this outcome:
“What happens is the British people who voted for this and a large number of Remainers who didn’t vote for it but still think it should be carried through because they believe in democracy will see a Government walking away from a question they themselves put to the people. Now that will absolutely undermine belief in democracy in this country and certainly belief in the established political parties” – as if all the evidence of sharp practice on the Leave side had simply never happened or didn’t matter. As if the evidence had not changed in over 2 years.  And as if he himself had never said: "If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy." 

So Brexit may not happen after all. Oh dear.

Oxford for Europe