The Cooking the Books column from the March 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard
So, the UK left the EU at 11 pm on Friday 31 January. Well, not exactly. The UK left the EU’s political institutions (Parliament, Commission, Council, Court of Justice, etc) but remains in its economic arrangements (customs union, single market, free movement, trade deals, etc) until at least the end of this year. No wonder nobody noticed the difference.
Some ultra-nationalists wanted us to celebrate ‘independence day’, though Boris’s idea to have Big Ben bong fell flat. But what is ‘independence’? As far as states are concerned, it’s the same as ‘sovereignty’. A political territory is independent if the rulers there have the final, supreme, say in matters concerning it.
‘Independence’ and ‘sovereignty’ are political concepts, but politics is one thing and economics another. A state can make what ‘sovereign’ decisions it likes but whether they are effective is another matter. No state can be independent economically as all are dependent directly or indirectly on the world market, which places limits on the effective exercise of their sovereignty. The UK has an additional problem. It and the EU countries are economically interdependent and have become more so over the nearly half-century of UK membership. The UK can’t become ‘independent’ of that, whatever ultra-nationalists might want, at least not without a severe disruption which would affect both the UK and the EU. So both have an interest in avoiding this.
Given that previous options of staying in the single market and/or customs union are now ruled out, the only one left to avoid this is some sort of agreement for the UK to ‘align’ in some way its regulations on technical standards, food standards, workers’ rights, state aids and the like, with those of the EU. At the moment, both sides are at the pre-negotiation stage of rhetoric and laying down ‘red lines’. Even so, some ministers have made fools of themselves, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Savijd Javid, for instance.
On 18 January the BBC reported that he ‘has warned manufacturers that “there will not be alignment” with the EU after Brexit and insists firms must “adjust” to new regulations’. Faced with the resulting howl of protest from the CBI and other representatives of capitalist industry at this expression of unconcern for their interests, when he went to the annual world leaders’ junket in Davos a week later, he was forced to backpedal and explain:
‘“Britain will not diverge from European rules “just for the sake of it” after Brexit, Sajid Javid said yesterday, as he softened the government’s rhetoric on future EU trade talks. In a move to reassure business, the chancellor said that while ministers were determined that Britain would not become a “rule taker” from Brussels, it did not mean the UK would necessarily diverge from European standards. “We will be a sovereign and independent country,” he told a lunch for British executives at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos. “But we’ll always protect the interests of British businesses throughout this process and we’ll maintain high standards — not because we are told to, but because we want to.”’(Times, 24 January)
One way of interpreting this is that he his saying that the UK will align with EU rules but it will do so as an ‘independent nation’ making its own decision – to do what it would have done had it remained in the EU. If this is indeed the final result, it will confirm that Brexit has been a fuss about nothing, just about how a decision is made not about what it is.