Sunday, June 10, 2018

Brexit and the spirit of Cobden

If you, like me, considered the best argument for Brexit to be sovereignty, then maybe you, like me, considered an essential advantage of sovereignty apart from the EU to be the ability to pursue free trade, away from the common European Tariff. This core aspect of leaving the EU has been targeted by Michel Barnier through the point of attack of the Irish border with Northern Ireland. You can't have free movement of people between North and South without a common trade policy, the argument runs. The attempt is to make the economic political and thereby put politics ahead of economics.

The same has been true with the Euro-crisis, though. Every time someone has tried to put economics first, the EU has intervened politically. Greece once (using the IMF to strong-arm Tsipras), Italy twice (Mario Monti replacing euro-sceptic Berlusconi in 2011; Paolo Savona in 2018 rejected as Finance Minister for euro-sceptic views), and Spain didn't need intervention only because of the bloody-minded Francoism of (thankfully ex-) Prime Minister Rajoy (which required the EU's acquiescence to the suppression of Catalonian concerns as Spain's richest region).

Amidst this tumult of discord, the still small voice of Richard Cobden beckons us to listen. It was Cobden, after all, who established the anti-corn law league which finally brought relief to Ireland at the height of the potato famine by allowing imported corn to replace deficiencies at home. It was also Cobden who reached out to France and via the Cobden-Chevalier treaty, which imposed a maximum level on tariffs, secured a doubling of trade between the two countries. It was furthermore Cobden who criticised the mercantilist policies pursued by the British representatives in China during the Second Opium War.

Thus on the one hand we have political gamesmanship and chicanery masquerading as real-politik, and on the other hand critical engagement with positive social intent. The latter spirit is what inspired Brexit, the spirit of Cobden, and that's what has to win through today and, I would say, for all time.

As to the practical question of the Irish border, the issue is too minute to be generally discussed. The question of EU-bound trade from the North would be mainly of produce destined for the South of Ireland. Likewise in the opposite direction it would be a question only (or mainly) of consumables from South to North.  To ensure this was the case (and not some grand scheme of tariff avoidance) there could be an obligation to declare the intention to 'export-on' when crossing the Irish land border, combined with an obligation for transports above a certain value (either individual or cumulative) to register and detail that trade electronically. What it means is accepting basic principles that will be worked out on the ground and on the go. To make politics of this economic footnote is in the worst tradition of European demagoguery. Give me Cobdenism every time.

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