Tony Abbott, former Prime Minister of Australia, well-known misogynist, homophobe and climate change denier, stuck his head over the parapet on Brexit and his Spectator article keeps doing the rounds online. It's tiresome and ridiculous so I thought I'd break it down. Just to be clear, to quote the hapless Theresa May, Tony's words are in black and my words are in red.
It’s pretty hard for Britain’s friends, here in Australia, to make sense of the mess that’s being made of Brexit. The referendum result was perhaps the biggest-ever vote of confidence in the United Kingdom, its past and its future.
OK, Tony, I'll stop you there already. Sure, people in other countries are baffled by Brexit for a wide range of reasons but it's the bit about the vote being a vote of confidence in the past that is especially pitiful. It is about nostalgia for "good old days" that weren't that good at all - it is a hankering for a time when the UK was known as "the sick man of Europe", when manufacturing was in a terrible place, when GDP lagged dramatically behind those of Germany, France and Italy, and trade with European partners was constipated. But you know what reversed all those trends? Joining the EEC and then the EU!
But the British establishment doesn’t seem to share that confidence and instead looks desperate to cut a deal, even if that means staying under the rule of Brussels. Looking at this from abroad, it’s baffling: the country that did the most to bring democracy into the modern world might yet throw away the chance to take charge of its own destiny.
Oh, please. Enough with the "British establishment" - the loudest pro-Brexit voices such as Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg are the very definition of the establishment. It is a campaign that has largely been led by a moneyed elite who will be largely unaffected by a catastrophic Brexit, probably never expected the Leave vote to win and, as such, had no interest in taking responsibility for the outcome or doing the serious, intellectually and economically rigorous work required to not make Brexit the car crash we are now witnessing.
And the "under the rule of Brussels" rhetoric is Daily Express-in-bumper-sticker nonsense which ignores the fact that we have elected MEPs and the power of veto as EU members. Sadly, the work of MEPs has been pitifully under-reported over the years or deliberately mis-reported, particularly by Boris Johnson when he was play-acting at journalism as an EU correspondent. And when I say "mis-reported", I mean "made shit up".
Let’s get one thing straight: a negotiation that you’re not prepared to walk away from is not a negotiation — it’s surrender. It’s all give and no get. When David Cameron tried to renegotiate Britain’s EU membership, he was sent packing because Brussels judged (rightly) that he’d never actually back leaving. And since then, Brussels has made no real concessions to Theresa May because it judges (rightly, it seems) that she’s desperate for whatever deal she can get.
Let's get one thing straight, Tony - David Cameron was frequently terrible, but his negotiations with the EU as Prime Minister gave us the best deal of all EU members.
Here is a helpful list:
1. We have kept our currency.
Here is a helpful list:
1. We have kept our currency.
2. It was written into EU law that the UK was exempt from any documents referring to an "ever-closer union".
3. Newly arrived EU citizens are banned from claiming jobseeker's allowance for three months and have to go home if they haven't found a job within six months.
4. If EU workers lose a job through no fault of their own they are only entitled to jobseeker's allowance and housing benefit for six months.
5. Access to benefits for newly arrived EU workers was limited for a period of up to four years from the commencement of employment.
(Newsflash! By a long, long way, the old age pension makes up the biggest proportion of the UK's welfare bill, people born here are more likely to be on benefits than people who have arrived from the EU, and the proportion of people in work who still need welfare to get by keeps rising)
6. As we are outside the eurozone, the UK is not required to fund euro bailouts and will be reimbursed for central EU funds used to prop up the euro.
The EU’s palpable desire to punish Britain for leaving vindicates the Brexit project. Its position, now, is that there’s only one ‘deal’ on offer, whereby the UK retains all of the burdens of EU membership but with no say in setting the rules. The EU seems to think that Britain will go along with this because it’s terrified of no deal. Or, to put it another way, terrified of the prospect of its own independence.
Christ, here we go again with the EU "punishing" the UK for leaving. To enjoy full access to the single market and the benefits of the customs union, we have to abide by certain rules, such as freedom of movement.
And the pitiful whining about how we will have "no say in setting the rules" needs to stop - if you voted to leave, you voted for the UK to have no MEPs, no representation in any EU institution, and therefore no say in the rules. But we will still have to trade with the EU post-Brexit - even Brexiters realise this - and to do so, our goods and services have to meet certain standards. It's just that we won't have any say in those standards but having no say is literally what you voted for when you wanted to render MEPs unemployed.
But even after two years of fearmongering and vacillation, it’s not too late for robust leadership to deliver the Brexit that people voted for. It’s time for Britain to announce what it will do if the EU can’t make an acceptable offer by March 29 next year — and how it would handle no deal.
Sit down, Tony. You're peddling myths again, starting with "if the EU can’t make an acceptable offer by March 29 next year". We're the ones who are leaving, the onus is on us to tell the EU what we want from this brave new post-Brexit world. If our demands are seen by the EU as giving the UK rights over and above EU members, why the hell would the EU say: "OK then, you can leave the EU while still retaining the benefits of membership with none of the responsibilities, you wacky kids!"?
Freed from EU rules, Britain would automatically revert to world trade, using rules agreed by the World Trade Organization. It works pretty well for Australia. So why on earth would it not work just as well for the world’s fifth-largest economy?
Another lie from Tony! But there has been so much utter tripe spouted about the giddy, giddy joy of trading under WTO rules that it comes as no surprise that Tony has glibly said "it works pretty well for Australia". Australia does not trade solely under WTO rules, which would be the default plan if we crash out with no deal. Australia has multiple free trade agreements including those with New Zealand, China, South Korea and the USA, and negotiations have started for an agreement with, you guessed it, the EU.
The only country in the world that trades pretty much exclusively under WTO rules is Mauritania, a country most people struggle to find on a map (hint: it's in north-west Africa) and is frequently confused with the honeymooners' paradise of Mauritius (hint: the Mauritanian economy does not do well out of tourism, let alone tourism from honeymooners). Mauritania has an economy heavily reliant on agriculture, fisheries and iron ore. While a significant hydrocarbon discovery off its coast, which it shares with Senegal, has the potential to transform Mauritania, this project is still in the very early exploration stages. The Mauritanian economy, as it currently stands, is not one the UK should seek to emulate in a hurry.
In any case, Mauritania, while still being hamstrung by WTO rules, is part of the growing trend across Africa to form economic blocs of neighbouring countries, as well as being part of the African Union. So committed is Mauritania to having a seat at that particular table it hosted an African Union summit in June this year. The EU has been very busy in recent years signing Memoranda of Understanding with blocs across Africa - and these MoUs are a vast improvement on some of the terrible trading arrangements Europe has had with African countries in awful years gone by. The forming of blocs across Africa, as well as a strengthening of the African Union, is helping African trade enormously. Good Lord, it's almost as if forming close economic ties with your nearest geographical neighbours might be useful! Who'd've thunk it?
A world trade Brexit lets Britain set its own rules.
No, Tony, it means we will crash out with no deal, endure absolute bedlam across multiple industries and have to trade under the limitations of WTO rules until we get our shit together and sort out trade deals with the 50+ countries with which the EU has trade deals. Surely even you know, Tony, that trade deals aren't sorted out over a cup of tea and a slice of Victoria sponge. They can take years and when we're not negotiating them with the support of our fellow EU members, it won't be as easy. And there is no point trying to make a start on these amazing deals before it's clear what our relationship with the EU will look like - that will influence what sort of hand we will have going into any trade deal negotiation.
It can say, right now, that it will not impose any tariff or quota on European produce and would recognise all EU product standards. That means no border controls for goods coming from Europe to Britain. You don’t need to negotiate this: just do it. If Europe knows what’s in its own best interests, it would fully reciprocate in order to maintain entirely free trade and full mutual recognition of standards right across Europe.
Sure, Tony, we can "just do it" but that won't make negotiating trade arrangements with the 50+ countries we already have deals with as part of the EU any easier. See my previous comment. And see my even earlier comment about how we still won't have any say in standards across Europe if we leave the EU. Bloody hell, I am repeating myself now. It's like dealing with a slow-witted child.
Next, the UK should declare that Europeans already living here should have the right to remain permanently — and, of course, become British citizens if they wish. This should be a unilateral offer. Again, you don’t need a deal. You don’t need Michel Barnier’s permission. If Europe knows what’s best for itself, it would likewise allow Britons to stay where they are.
Oh, Tony, Tony, Tony. This is so naive it's almost adorable. Yes, of course the government could simply guarantee the rights of all EU citizens currently in the UK to stay and become British citizens with those funky red, I mean, blue passports. But, given that the perception and quite possibly the reality is that plenty of people voted leave to reduce the number of Europeans living here, and given that the Conservative Party is still obsessed with pandering to anti-immigration elements, that is not what is actually going on. EU citizens will have to go through the bureaucracy of applying for settled status, if they have lived here for five years, and "pre-settled status" if they have been here for less than five years, at a cost of £65 per adult and £32.50 per child under 16.
Hurrah! More bureaucracy!
Third, there should continue to be free movement of people from Europe into Britain — but with a few conditions. Only for work, not welfare. And with a foreign worker’s tax on the employer, to make sure anyone coming in would not be displacing British workers.
Tony, see my list above about the limitations of welfare for EU citizens before you start embarrassing yourself any further.
As for a foreign workers' tax, how exactly will that be enforced? How will employers prove their European employees are not displacing British workers? What if they are forced to sack European workers and they can't find British workers to fill the positions? Will those companies be compensated or just taxed into oblivion? That doesn't sound conducive to economic growth. I thought you were a low-tax, limited government conservative, Tony, yet here you are proposing a new tax that would potentially damage businesses and create additional administration for an already stretched civil service.
Hurrah! More bureaucracy! And a fun new tax!
Fourth, no ‘divorce bill’ whatsoever should be paid to Brussels. The UK government would assume the EU’s property and liabilities in Britain, and the EU would assume Britain’s share of these in Europe. If Britain was getting its fair share, these would balance out; and if Britain wasn’t getting its fair share, it’s the EU that should be paying Britain.
Sigh... Here we go again with the "let's just bugger off into WTO wonderland without paying a penny" claptrap. The "divorce bill" is not a fine for leaving the EU - it is about meeting financial obligations in a responsible manner. If we leave without paying the bill like an indignant diner who is angry with the restaurant because they don't like the colour of the tiles in the loo, that will not help our international standing, particularly when it comes to negotiating future trade deals outside the EU. It's going to be hard enough to negotiate 50+ trade deals without the support of our fellow European negotiators without further diminishing our international standing by behaving like petulant toddlers.
Also, spoiler alert, Tony: Britain was getting its fair share from the EU and then some.
Finally, there’s no need on Britain’s part for a hard border with Ireland. Britain wouldn’t be imposing tariffs on European goods, so there’s no money to collect. The UK has exactly the same product standards as the Republic, so let’s not pretend you need to check for problems we all know don’t exist. Some changes may be needed but technology allows for smart borders: there was never any need for a Cold War-style Checkpoint Charlie. Irish citizens, of course, have the right to live and work in the UK in an agreement that long predates EU membership.
The hard border isn't just about tariffs or pre-EU agreements, Tony. It's about inspections of goods as they cross the border once the UK is out of the customs union. Once we are out of the EU, we are out of the customs union - again, this is literally what people voted for when they voted leave so I have no idea why any Brexiter is crying about this. Hell, it's almost as if some people had no idea what they were really voting for, and didn't realise we are facing the prospect of UK trucks held up at every border in the EU for inspection as they try to transport goods easily around the continent, even with "smart borders".
Oh, and there is the not-insignificant issue of a hard border risking reigniting the troubles in Northern Ireland. But don't just take my word for it. Click here to hear from a retired member of the Irish Defence Forces on the risks and woeful lack of preparation on the side of the republic. Combine this with moronic, dismissive rhetoric on Ireland from the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and equally poor preparation for a hard Brexit by the UK and it soon becomes clear that this isn't as simple as just bunging in a few cameras and scanners.
Of course, the EU might not like this British leap for independence. It might hit out with tariffs and impose burdens on Britain as it does on the US — but WTO rules put a cap on any retaliatory action. The worst it can get? We’re talking levies of an average 4 or 5 per cent. Which would be more than offset by a post-Brexit devaluation of the pound (which would have the added bonus of making British goods more competitive everywhere).
Tony, levies of 4 or 5 per cent add up when we're talking about goods worth millions of pounds. As we face economic uncertainty and ongoing skyrocketing costs just to deal with the bureaucracy of Brexit, additional levies are not going to be helpful. As for the devaluation of the pound, we could always make like Germany and Sweden and ensure we manufacture high quality goods rather than relying on a tanking currency to help exports, but you've always loved simplistic, race-to-the-bottom ideas, haven't you, Tony?
UK officialdom assumes that a deal is vital, which is why so little thought has been put into how Britain might just walk away. Instead, officials have concocted lurid scenarios featuring runs on the pound, gridlock at ports, grounded aircraft, hoarding of medicines and flights of investment. It’s been the pre-referendum Project Fear campaign on steroids. And let’s not forget how employment, investment and economic growth ticked up after the referendum.
Tony, we haven't actually left yet. We still do not know what our relationship with the EU will look like with just 131 days to go until we leave the EU - sure, there was hyperbole about a Brexit armageddon but we won't know for sure how bad it will be until this ongoing saga is resolved. Under every credible economic model, the UK economy will shrink post-Brexit. It's just a matter of how bad the shrinkage will be, something a Prime Minister well-known for appearing in public wearing Speedos after swimming in cold water should know all about.
And the employment figures have been bolstered by the growth in zero-hours contracts, Tony. In Australia, this is known as the casualisation of the workforce - and, no matter what you call it, is is a trend that does work for some workers in certain circumstances but overall, it leads to economic uncertainty and limitations for so many others.
But you were never one for workers' rights, were you, Tony? That may explain why you didn't weigh into the debate about whether EU workers drive down salaries in the UK - someone might just ask you about endorsing and enforcing a higher minimum wage to make low-skilled jobs more appealing to British workers, which is something which needs to happen at Westminster level, not at EU level, and might make you look a little bit socialist.
As a former prime minister of Australia and a lifelong friend of your country, I would say this: Britain has nothing to lose except the shackles that the EU imposes on it. After the courage shown by its citizens in the referendum, it would be a tragedy if political leaders go wobbly now. Britain’s future has always been global, rather than just with Europe. Like so many of Britain’s admirers, I want to see this great country seize this chance and make the most of it.
Give over, Tony. You're delirious.
Photography by Sittoula (a.k.a. Sitt) Sitlakone/Flickr