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Brexit: The Summer of Concession

by John Brian Shannon

In the land of Brexit some has been lost while much has been gained in this, the summer of concession.

Thus far, UK Prime Minister Theresa May has passed the EU Withdrawal Bill, held a firm but fair meeting at Chequers where she stopped prevaricating and demanded a ‘For’ or ‘Against’ decision from her Cabinet on her Chequers Brexit plan — which resulted in the day-after resignations of two of her most powerful ministers and four others — and she has since met European officials where she received cool support for her super-diplomatic, uber-polite and overly soft Brexit proposal.


How Very British!

In some ways those recently resigned MP’s (who will now sit as Conservative backbenchers) might as well be sitting on the opposition side because they possess deep knowledge of May’s inner circle and have the inside scoop on how Brexit is to proceed.

Yet, it was a polite affair with Boris Johnson making a gentle resignation speech in the House of Commons while still urging the Prime Minister to pursue the kind of Brexit UK citizens want. Boris Johnson never looked so principled or gentlemanly in his life (struggling to sound almost deferential to May) and good on him for doing so. Of course emotions were high, and no doubt, he was extremely disappointed that (in his mind) the Chequers Brexit plan surrendered some amount of UK sovereignty to the EU politburo. Five stars for Boris.

David Davis, who is more of a moderate Brexiteer than Boris, tried hard to contain his deep disappointment and published a polite and informative resignation letter outlining his position. As Brexit Secretary (but Brexit-lite when compared to Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg, for example) it appears he thought he could convince May to move to a slightly more robust Brexit plan only to have his hopes dashed. If she was going to be swayed by anyone it would’ve been him. We understand his disappointment too, but that’s politics. Well done, David Davis!

The problem with forcing Cabinet members to declare support or non-support of her Chequers Brexit plan is that she has lost some of them who now sit as backbenchers and are free to hold the government to account.

Theresa May imagines herself to be an experienced operator but if they choose to make her look bad, they could. Therefore, she should not be looking for a fight with them nor should the Prime Minister default to her previous ‘slapping-down’ behaviors or she will get tossed around in a 30-month-long-storm completely of her own making. (Approx. 9 months to go until the official Brexit date of March 29, 2019 plus the 21-month implementation period, equals 30 months of potential hell for Theresa May if she handles her former Cabinet ministers harshly)

Even with all of that said, it’s better to head into the final Brexit stage with a unified team who are fully committed to her overly soft Brexit plan instead of a team that’s pursuing several different Brexit versions at once.

Now that May has asserted herself she seems to be gathering respect from all sides, resignations notwithstanding. Since Chequers, she’s twice the Prime Minister than when she first took the job. Theresa May marque une victoire!


Notes on Theresa May’s Chequers Brexit Plan

  1. The Prime Minister’s plan suggests a ‘common rule book’ with the EU so that trade in goods and agricultural products won’t be impeded by conflicting sets of rules. ‘Red tape is the eternal productivity killer and the less of it the better’ said every business person ever. Of course, adopting EU standards could make it more difficult to export UK goods to non-EU countries with their different standards, or so the argument goes. Yet, every other country seems to master this, so why not Britain?
  2. The Chequers plan suggests a common rule book on state aid for industry, and harmonized environmental and climate-change standards, social policy parity, and protection for employees and consumers.
  3. Formerly one of the PM’s “red lines” was the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) which will end after Brexit although UK courts would consider ECJ rulings and/or even consult with the ECJ in certain cases. Which seems a wise idea for any country to consider.
  4. An FCA (a Facilitated Customs Agreement) where the UK and the EU would operate as a combined customs area — which some might call a customs union of sorts — where the UK would collect tariffs on goods shipped from outside the two countries destined for Europe, and presumably the EU would do the same for Britain.
  5. A mobility framework agreement to formally end the free movement of people between the continent and the UK. Unregulated immigration from the EU caused the number of EU nationals in the UK to rise to 3.8 million in only a few years, which was a significant contributor to the Leave victory. The mobility framework would allow freedom of movement for persons — such as students that are actually enrolled in college, for retired persons that can afford to live in the UK, for workers who have a guaranteed job waiting for them in the UK and streamlined entry for tourists from any non-terrorist country. One would hope the EU would reciprocate on all of this.

The problem with the common rule book approach is that MP’s of any party may see it as a ‘BRINO’ (Brexit In Name Only) and consequently lower their level of support for Brexit — at least Theresa May’s version of Brexit. And if BRINO fears take root, Conservative MP’s could decide to vote for a different leader should a leadership contest arise.

Parliamentarians have very long memories… so the caution flag is out for Theresa until the UK crosses the Brexit finish line.


Summary

Although progress on Brexit seems agonizingly slow Theresa May is an accomplished bureaucrat who realizes she can move forward only as fast as the other participants in the race, and if she moves too fast her government may lose support in Parliament, in the public space, and in Brussels (where she has precious little support to begin with and doesn’t want to suddenly find she has even less) and if she moves too slow, even worse may happen to Britain and to her political career.

Therefore, the race she’s really in is an OJ Simpson-style slow vehicle police chase to the official Brexit date with every camera rolling and catching every step and misstep.

Not very exciting to be sure, but if she gets a reasonable Brexit all should be forgiven.

At worst, the next British Prime Minister will have a firm foundation upon which to Build a Better Britain. Let us hope!


  • View or download (PDF) the Chequers cabinet meeting Statement from HM Government here.
  • Iain Mansfield: May’s new plan isn’t perfect, but it’s practicable. However, it can only work if treated as her bottom line. (ConservativeHome.com)

Brexiteers Davis and Johnson Abandon May’s ‘Soft Brexit’ Ship

by John Brian Shannon

Over the past 24-hours two senior officials in Theresa May’s government have resigned due to differences in what kind of Brexit each seeks.

And frankly, it’ll be a blessing. Far less paint will be peeled off the walls each week at 10 Downing Street if you catch my meaning.

Even though both David Davis and Boris Johnson were and are strong proponents of Brexit (which Prime Minister Theresa May also claims to be) governing the country becomes an impossible task when three people fight each other daily to steer the ship of state.

Every Prime Minister must tolerate some division within the party caucus to be sure. Less so, but still important is to allow a variety of views within Cabinet so that it doesn’t become a sterile place where ideas go to die. But there comes a point when too much division becomes the main issue — instead of the people’s business being the main issue.

Which is why it’s important Theresa May stuck to her guns and didn’t make any last-minute deals (of a kind that a lesser PM might have made) to keep the crew together. Not that Davis and Johnson are going anywhere as they’ll remain Conservative Party backbenchers.

Certainly, Margaret Thatcher would’ve told Davis and Johnson to ‘go fish’ some time ago and probably would have physically evicted them from the room. 😉 (You never knew with Maggie!)


Whether You Agree with Davis and Johnson or Not, this Streamlines Whatever Brexit Modality Theresa May Pursues

While some would like the strongest possible Brexit — Britain’s future will be better with a Brexit agreement that doesn’t ruin relations with the EU, one that includes some kind of reasonable free trade deal, one that allows the UK and the EU to cooperate on a wide range of issues such as, but not limited to; A common rulebook where and when feasible, the Galileo project, the ECJ (where UK courts would include, but not be limited or bound by ECJ rulings and opinions) NATO, and agreeable relations or even membership with other important European institutions.

Theresa May’s sole goal (it seems) is to get a deal with the EU. Which is a noble goal in itself.

The flip side of that is when the agreement Theresa May intends to present is so diluted that her Cabinet walks out the door. Yet, the Prime Minister may still be proven right by events yet to unfold.

It’s obvious to all but the most politically tone-deaf that no matter what agreement is presented to the EU mandarins, it is likely to be swiftly rejected. Including Theresa May’s super-diplomatic, uber-polite and overly soft Brexit proposals.

Theresa May Soft Brexit

UK Prime Minister Theresa May sees off two Cabinet officials within 24-hours allowing her to get the team she needs for a Soft Brexit deal. Image courtesy GOV.uk


But if That’s the Case, Why Try at All?

As an experienced bureaucrat slogging it out in the Home Office for a decade Theresa May knows something that hardcore Brexiteers don’t. And that is, those who get ‘stuck with the bill’ wind up paying many times over.

Let’s look at three scenarios, and let’s see who gets stuck with the bill:

  1. Hard Brexit faction presents an uncompromising Brexit deal to the EU: The European Union declines the deal offered and the blame is on Britain ‘for being so unreasonable’ and from that point on… every single thing that ever goes wrong in Europe, the World, and the Solar System… will be the fault of *those* unreasonable Brexiteers. And it’s not that EU people are evil, it’s just human nature to feel that way when jilted.
  2. Soft Brexit faction presents a soft agreement for signing in Brussels which is accepted by the EU: It’s seen as a ‘Win-Win’ for both sides. But the EU ‘wins’ by a slight margin and when you’ve effectively ‘dumped your partner’ sometimes it’s a good thing to let them ‘win’ a little bit. The worst that can happen in such a case is that the next UK Prime Minister will try to improve the deal and may or may not succeed in that endeavor. Likely, as time rolls on, both sides will arrive at a better agreement and both can claim credit with their respective voters for any future agreements. Not a bad scenario at all.
  3. Soft Brexit faction presents a soft agreement for signing in Brussels which *isn’t* accepted by the EU: At that point, the British can walk away from the table knowing in their hearts and with the whole world as a witness that they ‘tried their best’ to accommodate the concerns of the people in Brussels but they just couldn’t strike a deal. (A sort of ‘no fault’ divorce) And Brexit proceeds on a WTO-style basis with a flurry of à la carte agreements signed following March 29, 2019 allowing EU cars to be sold in the UK and UK airlines to operate over continental Europe, for two examples.

In scenario #1: Britain and the Hard Brexiteers get stuck with the bill for about the next century. Maybe longer. ‘Those intransigent Brits! A bloody difficult people they are!’

In scenario #2: Britain gets stuck with the larger part of the bill and in the following years must work incrementally towards the final Brexit arrangements they were originally seeking. ‘Damn, Theresa, couldn’t you do any better? Oh well, we got a Brexit of sorts, you’re forgiven.’

In scenario #3: The EU gets stuck with the bill and the world decrying EU intransigence. And Theresa May *probably* gets re-elected in a landslide.


Summary

[Theresa May as Admiral Holdo, David Davis and Boris Johnson as Poe Dameron et al.]

The present Brexit moment is similar to those frantic scenes in Star Wars: The Last Jedi where Poe Dameron and his compadres tried and failed to stage a coup against Vice-Admiral Holdo (who didn’t have the best slate of options from which to choose, and consequently didn’t have the best plan, but in the end it was the only plan that could have worked) and essentially the people on good side of the Force got the result they wanted.

The lesson from this story is that when the chips are down and you *must* bring home a win *always* go with the plan that is *guaranteed to work*.

Which in the real world often isn’t the most glorious, most exciting, nor the most popular plan. Unfortunately.

But when a plan works, it’s a win. And beautiful or ugly, if the plan works that’s all that matters.

May the Force be with You, Theresa May!

 

UK Foreign Policy: What About Iran?

by John Brian Shannon

Not since the 1979 Iranian revolution have so many people participated in large-scale protests against the government.

Indeed, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari has yesterday declared the defeat of “sedition” in the country, referring to recent anti-government protests. Yet many Iranians believe that more and larger public demonstrations are on the horizon.

In the United States, President Donald Trump regularly tweets against the Iranian regime and America’s foreign policy seems increasingly to be an anti-Iranian-regime policy. However, let’s hope the Americans are done with regime change — for the simple reason that it doesn’t work.

Yet much good could still be accomplished if Western nations were to adopt the right policies for the region (with a focus on long-term interest) and not sleepwalk into another catastrophic and costly intervention.

When policymakers are looking at the symptoms of a problem, it’s sometimes difficult to remember what the underlying conditions were that led to the present situation. It’s problematic to Iran’s religious leaders and the Iranian government, it’s gut-wrenching to the citizens of Iran, and other countries in the region are looking-on with concern. No one, not even the Iranian leadership wants this situation to continue — the trick is, as always, trying to find ways to resolve it without making it worse.


History

For much of the 20th century, Iran was ruled by a Royal Family (the late Shah, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi) that was mainly ‘good’ for the country although it could be argued it was autocratic (as monarchies tend to be) consequently the government spent its time attending to the specific decrees of the Shah and not much else.

The religious aspect in the country was made up of mainly Shia Muslims, however pre-revolutionary Iran had significant populations of Jewish, Christian, and other faiths — and they all got along just fine.

Prior to the Iranian revolution of 1979 the largest population of Jews living outside Israel and the U.S.A. was in… wait for it… Iran.

Iran’s problems began in the early 1950’s when foreign interference began to change the nature of the country. Although Western companies were then able to make higher profits (but not as high as promised) the 1950’s era regime change guided by Westerners has been negative for everyone in the region, especially the Iranian people.

As with most things in life it’s all about balance, not how fast you can run. And so it is with countries; Each country has its own particular model, and if the model works, voilà! you have a working country.

Until the Western intervention of the 1950’s Iran was a functioning and peaceful country (some might even say a ‘sleepy’ country) where citizens of any belief system could live happy and fulfilling lives.


How Countries Should Work

Since the introduction of democracy by the ancient Greeks over 2500 years ago, the most successful democracies have shared power in the following manner; 30% of the total power was held by a monarchy or a government, 30% by a religious establishment, and 30% by academia (or a military, in the case of militaristic nations) and the remaining 10% was held by citizen groups.

This power sharing model works to share power among several groups, and just by virtue of the existence of such power centres — each serves as a check and a balance on the others.

Only in recent years have monarchies and religions slipped from their typical 30% (each) power ranking in many countries, with governments, militaries, and corporations greedily absorbing those gains.

Whether that ratio is held by a combination of monarchy or government / religion or corporate culture / academia or military what’s important is that the mix is appropriate to the country in question.

Of course there are some exceptions where theocracies or benevolent dictatorships have worked for a majority of citizens in a given country. But they tend to be few and may not last as long as vibrant and diversified nations with a traditional power sharing mix.


How to Fix Iran

Let’s make it a point to remember that Iran was a fully functioning nation-state until the Western intervention of the early 1950’s before we proceed.

At present, the country’s religious elite seem to be holding 2/3rds of the power in Iran with the Iranian government holding the other 1/3rd, which is a recipe for failure in any country regardless of who is holding that much power.

Internal destabilization in Iran is certain to occur within a few months or years — even without foreign intervention — and such dangerous power vacuums tend to propel the wrong types of people to power (Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, many others) who oppress their competitors but help their followers to live extravagant lifestyles — thereby setting up cycles of inequality and the resulting social angst which does nothing to help the majority of citizens, the country itself, the region, nor world peace.

The next 24 months will be pivotal for Iran; Either the religious establishment won’t allow changes to the present 66/34 power mix and citizen protests will increase, thereby drawing the attention (and sometimes the wrong kind of attention) from the world community — or Iran’s religious elites will find a way to retain a reasonable power base of about 30% of the total power base in the country and Iran will return to a condition of internal stability and other countries in the region can resume their historic (good) diplomatic relations with Iran.


What Can Western Governments Do?

Putting all kinds of pressure on the Iranian Ayatollahs and Mullahs isn’t going to work to cause them to share power with other power centres in Iran, that’s numero uno.

Second, if ‘Soft Power’ won’t work, then ‘Hard Power’ really won’t work.

In fact, making war on Iran is more likely to backfire, causing Iranian citizens to rally ’round an outside threat, further empowering religious leaders to take the country where they want but this time with the strong support of citizens. Whether by so-called ‘surgical strikes’ or by outright occupation of Iran, the aftermath of such conflict would create massive power vacuums and populist (and completely uncontrollable by the West) leaders could gain power and pursue any agenda they want.

(See Iraq War, Afghanistan War, Arab Spring, Syria, Lebanon, Soviet/Afghan War, etc. for examples of intervention where the result was massive power vacuums that turned those nations into dysfunctional states after the war ended)

But promoting equitable solutions, such as returning to a governance model that once worked well for Iran, might work wonders for the country, its citizens, and the region.

Unfortunately for those trying to help Iran, this isn’t a ‘sexy’ solution — it’s all about low-scale, low-speed, steady-as-she-goes professional diplomacy hidden from the public eye. And even if all UN-member countries worked with Iran to resume the previously successful paradigm, such a plan could take years to come to fruition although it would be almost guaranteed to work as advertised. Which is about 100% better than any Hard Power plan to help Iran regain stability.


The UK Policy on Iran

UK Prime Minister Theresa May and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson could decide to embark on a long-term plan to help Iran, its people, and the Middle East region, while saving UK taxpayers billions of pounds sterling (compared to the cost of a failed-state Iran, or compared to yet another costly military intervention) and make it easier for Iran to return to a stable condition by helping to promote a more equitable power sharing arrangement within the country.

The softest use of Soft Power would be for the sole male heir of the late Shah of Iran, Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi (who has lived in Maryland, U.S.A. since the 1979 Iranian revolution) to be invited to meet with Queen Elizabeth II at his earliest opportunity, and for other Kings, Emirs, or Queens around the world to meet him to help lift his international standing.

Of course, even with a new Shah, the government would still make all the day-to-day decisions while the religious authorities would return to publishing their religious decrees.

Therefore, the new Shah would stand for the people of Iran, while the government would run the country, and the religious elites would continue to run their religion — but not the whole country. All in all, a more sustainable power sharing arrangement that wouldn’t unduly punish any single group.

If the Ayatollahs can hand-off a percentage of their power (to a known individual like Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi who isn’t going to attack them) the country will be better for it, citizens will be mollified, and the new Shah could engage himself in the welfare of citizens of Iran and make himself available for ceremonial duties when a new government is elected and during state visits by foreign dignitaries, etcetera.

For as long as the situation continues to deteriorate, practical solutions like this will become harder to find, making the present the best time to begin working towards such a goal. Millions of Iranian citizens and millions of people in the region are crying out for solutions to the imbroglio in Iran — even as pundits continue to look at only the symptoms of an unbalanced power structure — instead of looking at restoring the previous working model, updated for the 21st century.