January 18, 2019
Guest blog post by Peter Griffiths.
As we rapidly approach the final days of the UK’s membership of the European Union, it is clear that our political representatives are no closer today, on how to achieve a separation, than they were the day the referendum result was given. As Brits we face uncertainty of action, generating stagnation from indecision, and economic self-harm, from vacillation and do nothing approach we currently have from our politicians.
As someone with experience on both sides of this debate, I have examined the issues and produce this comment in the hope that a leader will emerge who is capable of delivering something tangible. That does not wipe out the gains of the last 40 years, and delivers, as European Citizens a solution to avoid losing the wealth, fundamental rights, and freedoms that we have helped build. Not only for us but for future generations.
I have worked in both the Public and Private sector, and when I joined the UK Civil Service the best piece of advice I got from my peers I still recall is ‘ remember our history, it is laced with examples of where we got it wrong and still affects us today’. How well I remember this lesson, it has served me well throughout all the work I have had the privilege to perform. Not only on behalf of UK citizens, but also at a European Level.
Looking at the circumstances leading up to the vote the difficulties started a long time ago. So the analysis of the Brexit issue, and our view of Europe must start with our history. The run-up to Brexit in my view starts as far back as the Battle of Waterloo. The rise of the European system, removal of borders, metrification, the dominance of a single point of view, under the command of an Emperor, generated sentiments in the British Culture you can still detect today that breed distrust in European control, particularly on immigration and migration, monetary and fiscal policy, and harmonisation. Prominent aspects of the leave campaign.
The UK, as an Island state, did not, in my view, see the European necessity of harmonisation, and cross border cooperation that exists, as something applicable to the UK. Influxes of foreign workers, always an issue, when there are many people out of work, aggravate this. As Brits, we have never seen the need to adapt to the conditions where the culture of one state can be detected some distance inside the borders of the other. Polyglot peoples living in these transition zones today still speak and operate in multiple languages with little difficulty.
The UK and Ireland, however, have never had that need. The 24 miles of water between France and the UK and the 30 miles onto Ireland are a gulf that might as well be a 100 miles. It creates a natural defence which is difficult to traverse for everything including language. Europe has evolved over a thousand years to become what it is today, but we as Island nation have often been at odds with that development.
Following the end of the last world war in 1945, Churchill stated an opinion that if Europe is to be successful, it needed a United States of Europe. In a speech in Zurich, September 1946, he stated this would be an ideal. However I have never found any reference to suggest that the UK should be part of it, in fact in an essay by him and comments made at the time he suggested that the US, USSR, and the Commonwealth, should be ‘friends’ of the project, stating ‘we are of Europe not part of it’. It is here that I believe the great European experiment of Union was born and we as Brits have had a love/hate relationship with it ever since.
In more recent times, our history shows that we agree that Europe needs to grow and harmonise. We as a European State welcomed enlargement bring in the emergent European States if the east following the end of the cold war. However, in every step we Brits have opted out of full integration through opt-outs, maintaining border control, our own currency, and a very clear policy of managing our own fiscal and economic well-being. A two-speed approach which gave us the ability to be an ‘in’ state but not too far ‘in’. Sometimes our views are harmonious, sometimes they conflict with European direction, but up to today, it has always been generally supportive.
The step towards Brexit is a divergence from this approach of the last 60 years, and it has significance which will have ramifications for all of us well into the future. It will seriously affect our activities today and the possibilities for future generations. It should not be taken lightly, but most of all, it needs all of us to decide what is the right approach, not as we have seen so far, a set of politicians who have no better idea than the rest of us what will happen have half-baked plans and no vision of what a future Great Britain looks like outside of Europe.
I last served in the UK Government in 2009 working under a then, Labour Government. My brief was to try and get some control over some of the more difficult policies in my area of influence Aviation. Of particular significance was the environmental portfolio as at the time the UK aviation companies represented approx. One third of all aviation interests in Europe and changes here would affect a significant work sector.
We had the third runway issue at Heathrow as well as new mechanisms to manage bilateral agreements with Third countries. These agreements such as EU US were moving through a Single Sky policy towards European negotiation rather than at individual State management.
An enabling component of this was the adoption of the Treaty of Lisbon. A comprehensive treaty that took nearly eight years to deliver. It established a constitution for Europe something that is necessary if there is to be greater integration. Provided a higher degree of centralised control based in Europe on key areas of policy as well as affecting every other part of the operation of Europe by updating to the Treaty on European Union(TEU) to become the Treaty on the Functioning of Europe (TFEU).
In my opinion, the Treaty of Lisbon, voted through our house of commons on the 8th March 2008, was a step too far for British autonomy and disabled the two speed Europe approach we used very effectively. I was in the house that day with my Minister, Ruth Kelly discussing transport policy issues with Dominique Bussereau and our French Civil Service counterparts. There was an air of great optimism; we are moving to closer cooperation.
An example of the Entente Cordiale that now existed occurred for me during negotiations on climate change held in ICAO in Montreal. I was supported by an extremely able French Civil Servant not one of my own team. On International Agreements I also had a member of the European Commission on secondment to the UK. I spent much time in Brussels managing the UK’s commitments and negotiating policy approaches to be followed. However, I was always surprised that the Treaty of Lisbon was adopted by a country with a track record of opt-out with hardly a ripple of dissent.
The idea of building a constitution for Europe had always been a rocky road. The first attempt was in 2001 when the idea was first put together. This lead to a number of referenda on the subject. In 2005 a referendum in France rejected the issue with 54.67% of the vote. This was followed by rejections in the Netherlands 61.54%. After a period of reflection (European speak for thinking again) a new version went through to ratification but was initially rejected by the Irish electorate. A second referendum adopted the Treaty, and the transformation began.
It is this step which I believe the British public, and thus our politicians, do not like and has led to the current situation. Generally, we have been as an electorate apathetic on European matters leaving it to Politicians to make the difficult decisions on how we interact. Largely disinterested in what goes on in the European Parliament. For most UK citizens their concerns are more substantive. For example, millions of Brits like to go to Europe to go skiing in the winter, or summer to the warmer climates of the Mediterranean coast with little travel disruption caused by bureaucracy.
It was step too far to hand over control of the Key Policy Areas, and as a social experiment, it has failed the UK, which in turn will badly affect Ireland, Scotland and Wales all of whom have differing views on what is happening. It will drive a wedge between future relations with Europe regardless of how amicable the split is made and could in the worst case cause internal frictions for the United Kingdom Union.
On its own the Treaty itself was not an issue during times of prosperity, it is in times of crisis and economic downturn that shows the weaknesses of key policy decisions. Continued austerity demanded within Europe has taken its toll. Not only on the UK but on other States who see unrest even today. Strains began to show within a short time and the change of Government of the UK in 2009, bringing David Cameroon to power as the leader of a Conservative Government, bought a fundamental shift in Government policy towards Europe.
When you are in Crisis, you look to find out two things. What am I dealing with? And: What is the least amount of damage I can sustain to reestablish control?
What I think happened here is; given the fact that the UK was now bound to the EU in Key Policy Areas it did not have all of the means to reestablish control on its own as it would have done in the past. History has shown that the UK when in financial crisis seeks positive market behaviours wherever it can to recover. However, it no longer had that option, as policy formulation lay in Europe, not in the individual State. Banking oversight became more stringent under European banking regulation, and States in crisis were looking for any means to support their economy and bailouts required for a number of States from the more wealthy economies.
The need to cooperate with others through the legislative Framework of the EC and leave key decisions to be taken by others was a new obstacle. The UK Government quickly recognised the difficulty of this situation. The EU framework is a large machine. It is difficult to interpret, build consensus, and promote action. EU legislative Frameworks are not rapid it relies on the three arms establishing an agreement to act to obtain legislation which can be watered down by unique local circumstances of other States or local interests. It was not designed to promote action but to ensure peace and prosperity in Europe.
It is to me highly socialist in behaviour, and having given briefings in the European Parliament on EC issues, highly intrusive in how it inspects what can be interpreted as particular interest of single States. So proposing new actions, driving policy decisions, required interaction with our European colleagues. This was doomed to fail no Sovereign State, and especially the UK wishes to ask another for help, or request a right to act on their own. So a campaign to destabilise these mechanisms was born which grew, that would inevitably lead to a leave decision, which was a surprise to some but not to the UK Politicians who wanted it but did not think there was enough support to get it so did not prepare a plan.
The general hope was that the vote would be high enough to indicate disquiet to bolster support for another attempt at renegotiation of the UK’s participation treaty to opt out of key policy areas as concessions. A process successful under Margaret Thatcher but roundly rebuffed by EC states to David Cameron.
So where does this leave us today? This week will see the all-important vote on the Withdrawal Agreement — a 595-page document which from a European perspective is a good deal. If public opinion is to be believed, it will fail to get through this week throwing the country into a volatile environment with possible distancing by European States mildly supportive of the UK position (Yes there are some), and creating the sort of disorderly withdrawal that is usually seen in pre-war conditions.
This will have the effect of disrupting transport as urgent new measures are bought in. Recently we trialled some of this plan in Kent not very successfully. Manufacturing plants are now preparing to shut to protect logistical mechanisms so they can gauge the effects before restarting. Over the coming weeks more plans will be trialled but, whilst we still do not know which Brexit we will have, it is difficult to plan for the unknown.
In unknown conditions, individuals will take whatever action they feel is necessary to safeguard themselves and their families. Businesses will relocate. This has already started with sales of things like; EU withdrawal prepping kits being made available on the internet and stockpiling of food items and water and companies leaving the UK like easyJet, a company I helped build. This frankly will be a disaster that will take years to recover from. Affecting every part of society, and making the UK a significant problem for European Governments for years to come and needs to be avoided. Yes, the UK will not disappear, but in my view, it will sustain considerable damage and may take 50 years to recover from a crash out of the European Economic structures.
So what can we do? As a student of disaster recovery, I have participated in many recoveries of companies from accidents and general misfortune. The first part of the recipe is to establish a leader, allow that leader to develop a policy, and sell that policy to their peers, then finally develop delivery plans for those policies in a realistic time frame allowing time for adjustment where necessary, to improve on the plan, or inform policy, so that if adjustment is necessary then there is a mechanism for managing it.
It is quite evident we have failed in the all of these basic steps, leadership and our plans lack maturity and buy in.
One of my favourite poems is by Richard McGough and today’s leadership I feel it reflects this. It is a short poem that says:
I wanna be the leader
I wanna be the leader
Can I be the leader?
Can I? I can?
Yippee I’m the leader
I’m the leader
OK what shall we do?
Leading opinion forming advocates for the leave campaign are now conspicuous by their absence from the leadership function allowing backbench snipping on both sides of the house rather than constructive debate. This results in considerable destabilisation that affects our economy. Observers of the Euro and Dollar rates of exchange will tell you there is an overall downward trend and this is not good long term for the UK economy as a whole.
This is not a surprise because managing crisis and disaster is a different skill to managing steady state. I have met and worked alongside many politicians in my working career. Many are very good at steady state some are outstanding, but very rarely do I come across someone who has the charismatic presence required to manage a major state crisis.
Churchill is often quoted as one such leader honing his skills on the global battlefields he had the presence to be the man of the hour. However, he did not remain in post for long after the war. Replaced rapidly by his party to give a more malleable personality. It could be argued that Margret Thatcher in contemporary history was another such individual especially with her handling of the Falklands Crisis where she received massive public support and a revival in the belief of Britain as a nation.
Sadly I don’t see this in our current Prime Minister who has demonstrated a more subversive tendency to stifle debate, refusing to disclose key facts, taking a more aloof characteristic which has the ability divide and rule. This came out in the disastrous snap election called to bolster her position.
I am not convinced that the opposition is any better, more akin to fence-sitters than defending a decision they took to accept the Treaty of Lisbon. Like most Brits, and I am no different, I like people to have tried and failed, rather than not trying, so defend your policy you enacted or state you got it wrong. Don’t vacillate its unbecoming of our politicians and demonstrates they cannot be trusted.
This leaves us with a possible leadership role for the EC to manage the spilt and ensure that positive relations are made. This, however, is not likely with the incumbents. They see this as a British issue, and they prefer to sit back and watch protecting European interests. The place where you would expect some proactive debate to take place is the European Parliament; the representative body of all the people of Europe. Sadly, this too falls short as there is a significant vociferous minority from the UK who positively disrupt consensus activity and only wish to destroy the European systems necessary for its management.
The only solution when we get to this position is to have an election. To give us someone who is a leader capable of managing the mess and a policy manifesto that lays what they hope to achieve post-Brexit. It should also show how they will allow the people of the UK to inform on that debate.
The withdrawal agreement is a process and transition document it tells you nothing about what will happen afterwards. It does not address the 850 thousand UK car workers jobs, or the relationship the financial workers of the City of London will have. Along with many other affected workers in every part of our community. It does not mention corporate relocation or market access after the split. It is not for the EC to define this, it is for us. What the EC must, and have offered is a mechanism for working this out. To ensure that we don’t wipe out key industries critical to our GDP. Facilitates movement of people and goods and address legacy issues of right of abode. It establishes the UK as an independent entity outside the EU and gives all participants time to adjust.
If we do not accept this there will be no mechanisms, and this will be even worse as there will be no commitment from the EU to facilitate anything. It is an undiplomatic and hostile act and may be interpreted by some as such who will use it against us in the future.
The issues raised as problems, from the Northern Ireland issue preserving the integrity of the Good Friday agreement essential to peace and prosperity in Ireland to the devolved issues of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are difficult subjects. Scotland, in particular, voted to remain in every constituency whereas Wales voted to leave but receives significant from EU cohesion funds. All require solutions and policy discussed at devolved and national level.
Plans are needed to provide processes for helping to solve the process of managing devolved issues such as trans-shipments through the UK essential for the Republic of Ireland Economy to remain connected to the mainland and preserving the land bridge, to border issues and mainly the period of transition needed for each region of the UK. Brexit means Brexit is often said; Brexit for each Devolved Government is a set of headaches for many which require careful planning and execution.
Then in leaving we must recognise that not all EU states are affected equally. Ireland, as mentioned already, is a close neighbour has some very fundamental issues about its economy that are inextricably linked to the destiny of the UK. As a principle, we may have agreed to leave, but the Irish Republic did not, and by taking action ourselves we should not inflict damage on others. It is our will that has bought about this change not the people of Ireland. As a minimum in the leadership role, we should have discussed this bilaterally with Ireland and agreed on principles first before taking the step of withdrawing.
If the withdrawal agreement is a process document then where is the policy, what are we going to do to improve our position, and recover from our change in circumstances. I have read the conservative party manifesto and whilst it describes taking back control it sadly lacks on what I can expect by this. To me, this is not enough to take the leap of faith I am currently being offered. We will be better off out was the leave campaign offer, with a sum of 360 million per week we could use for the NHS. I don’t believe it. It is sound bite politics. Playing to gallery informed by 140 characters, or less. All politicians know that the NHS is a sacred vessel of UK activity and a fundamental right. So it is an easy win, but we will only achieve this with minimal damage to the UK economy, it could turn out to be an empty promise, and like Trump’s wall, impossible to deliver.
Give us the policy detail necessary to show us the way forward. The people have made their views known, asking them the same question again won’t help. Lay out the vision necessary to take us forward and test that by asking the UK population, not if they take a deal many cannot interpret from the EU this is a waste of time. Instead, show what your vision contains for the future and how you expect to use the deal on offer to achieve it. Ask whether we the people of Great Britain believe we will be able to accomplish that vision outside of the Great European machine if the answer is yes. Then take the deal it’s a nuanced plan for transition and concentrates on the policy of post-EU membership.
People need to make a reasoned choice, buy into to what’s on offer and make that decision for themselves and for the future generations affected by this. It’s a big decision and it’s never as simple as yes/no.
So in closing, if we are to go, I have a simple ask of our politicians. Give us a leader that can achieve it; I certainly don’t see one yet, let us choose that leader, someone who recognises the difficult issues the government faces and will test the assumptions made informing us of the results. Allow the people to make the final decision based on what is on offer, to leave or stay, written in plain English free of sound bite politics, Then execute the informed will of the people it’s too important for all of us to get wrong.
Peter Griffiths is an expert in transport management and has worked in maritime and aviation, both in the public and private sector. His past role was as the Chairman of the European Unions Performance Review Body overseeing the effectiveness of Air Traffic Control in Europe. He operates his own company: European Performance Management Systems Ltd, based in London. He has a masters degree in risk crisis and disaster management. He is a pro-European but critical of key policy areas and political behaviours.Author : Guest contributor