Week in Review: Prospect of Trump state visit haunts No.10 as Nazi debate rages

Arguably the most surprising thing about the Trump presidency is its capacity to still cause outrage. You would have thought that we'd be immune to this now, that the latest horror story wouldn't even touch the sides. But in fact it's still striking, even now, to see the moral depths this man is prepared to go. He's like a Russian doll. No matter how many you prise apart, there still some extra level of venal, grotesque ignorance he is capable to encapsulating.

This week it felt like we must surely be at the bottom. He was defending attendees of a Nazi march as "very fine people". There really wasn't any other interpretation you could put on it. All the old attempts to somehow exonerate him - from respectable columnists stroking their beards, business leaders eager for tax cuts, and fellow Republicans prepared to countenance anything to force through the rest of their agenda - had finally become impossible. He was stating, as clearly as possible, that he was a Nazi sympathiser.

It was so bad that even Theresa May made something which approximated a pointed criticism. "I see no equivalence between those who propound fascist views and those who oppose them," she said. "I think it is important for all those in positions of responsibility to condemn far-right views wherever we hear them."

She didn't name him, of course, but it was a start. And yet that bad smell still hangs around her. The offer of a state visit still stands. This trip, made incautiously at the start of her premiership, still connects the prime minister to every decision the American president takes. It creates a moral throughline from him to her, so that every story about Trump, every utterance he makes, reflects on her judgement.

Back when she was the all-conquering Iron Lady Mark II, critics of Brexit would use this decision to highlight the flaws in May's judgement. She had made herself a hostage to fortune with no gain to show for it in return. Trump hadn't promised to start trade talks. And indeed any trade talks which took place while Britain was still negotiating with the EU would have been either superficial or damaging.

There's no need to make these points anymore, of course. May's judgement is now universally considered to be abysmal. But the offer still stands. For Trump to be offered the honour of a full state visit, with all its pomp and ceremony, and the attendance of the Queen, would do extraordinary harm to this country's reputation. If it was up to May, it would have happened already. The only thing that has stopped it are demonstrators.

It is fear of them which has prevented Trump from coming until now and fear of them which prevents him coming in future. They are the firewall which protects the UK from Trump's visit and our reputation from the damage it would have inflicted. 

Political journalism in this country has never been very generous to protestors, even though there is an honourable tradition of meaningful demonstrations, from the Chartists through to Iraq, in British history. Protest is treated as faintly un-British, a populist blot in a representative democracy. At best it is meaningless, at worst a bubbling threat of anarchy.

But on this matter, as on many others, it was the protestors - organising on Facebook, preparing to go out marching on the streets - who have been proved right and the respectable prime minister who has been proved wrong. They protected Britain's global reputation from the humiliation of a state visit for a Nazi sympathiser.

Not only does protest work, it often contains far more sensible political judgement than that found in Downing Street.

Ian Dunt is the editor of Politics.co.uk. His book - Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now? - is available now.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

Has anyone bothered to ask what the EU gets out of all this?

I was talking to a strategy expert the other day and something he said stuck with me. When you go into negotiations, you need to offer your partner something positive - an advantage they did not have before negotiations which they do have now.

In the case of Brexit, what is that exactly? Almost all our arguments - about transition, about the customs union, about EU citizens, about the Irish border - are about the EU working with us to neutralise the risks we have ourselves created by leaving. Our proposition is: If you struggle really hard for the next few years, dedicating extraordinary levels of manpower and intellectual capacity to this project, you can succeed in ending up exactly where you were at the start. It's about damage limitation, rather than gain.

But in fact even this is false. Britain is a net contributor to the EU. Its exit means either that countries like Germany have to pay more or that countries like Poland are going to get less. There is no Brexit outcome which adds up to a status quo. It is all worse than the status quo.

And that is just the financial aspect. The other negative concerns risk. Yesterday's UK position paper on Northern Ireland basically requested an open border for goods and people. If the UK, as it threatened earlier this year, turns itself into a low-regulation tax haven, that open border is a threat to the regulatory and legal integrity of the EU. Whatever rules they impose, there is a wide open backdoor for them to be flouted. If they pass a law on chemical standards on packaging, for instance, there'd be nothing to stop the products which did not meet that specification flooding in through Ireland.

Anyone thinking strategically about the negotiations would see that these are all negative outcomes for the EU, even in the best-case scenarios. But what's interesting is that no-one on the UK side really seems to be thinking about the EU at all. After all, our official position on customs is to have "a" customs union, not "the" customs union. Our position on free movement is to basically maintain it while withdrawing from the system. These distinctions are absurd, but they satisfy the political agendas of those who promise them. In other words, they are designed for domestic consumption.

This has been the emotional instinct of the Brexit debate since the start of the campaign. It has been defined by us saying I WANT I WANT I WANT without any real sense that there are other countries with their own interests. It's been there from Boris Johnson's early promises that you could get rid of free movement and yet stay in the single market to the way tabloids constantly scream about open borders and then get terribly upset when British tourists face queues in foreign airports.

This has been a hermetically-sealed, inward-looking debate. Ukip might not have become the official campaign, but their Little Englander mentality defined it, both in content and in attitude. It is a debate which does not really recognise, or care much about, the rest of the world. You could see that much when Theresa May tried to neutralise Boris Johnson by putting him in the Foreign Office. To her, that great office of state amounted to 'out of sight, out of mind'.

Brexiters treat the British position paper on Ireland as a plan, when it is, in reality, a long petition for the EU not to enact its own laws, in order to save us from the repercussions of our own decisions.

Or they suggest the EU is trying to somehow punish Britain for refusing to tailor its laws to whatever demand we happen to be making at the time.

This attitude has made us less consequential on the world stage and alienated many of us inside the UK from a country we used to admire. But it is more than just immoral. It is also ineffective.

The absence of empathy, of being able to see things from someone else's perspective, doesn't just diminish you individually. It makes it harder for you to get what you want, because you cannot put yourself in someone else's shoes and imagine what might get them onside. That is the problem Britain is having now. Our plans have no resonance, because they are tailored around our own needs rather than those of our negotiating partner.

More than anything, this is just a really bad strategy. The longer we insist on thinking only about ourselves, the less able we are to get what we want.

Ian Dunt is the editor of Politics.co.uk. His book - Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now? - is available now.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

Irish border paper: Britain is hostage to its own delusions

Over the last 12 months, Leavers were warned that a hard Brexit outside the customs union and single market would lead to the return of a hard border in Ireland. They called it Project Fear. Now here we are and Project Fear is Project Reality. The government's position paper on Ireland today suggests they have no plans to deal with this problem except to plead with the EU to save us from our own decisions.

The paper makes substantial promises. Not only does the government pledge no hard border in Ireland, but also that there should be no "physical border infrastructure… for any purpose". Quite how they can stick to this given their reliance on technological solutions framed around the use of surveillance is another matter. That is the pledge and it has consequences. 

A long preamble to the paper details the history of the border in Ireland - how the HMRC posts were the target of bombing attacks during the Troubles and had to be manned by a very significant military and security presence, including watchtowers and road blocks. The Good Friday Agreement committed to the removal of security installations and the border has effectively disappeared. But Britain has now put this arrangement at threat. Not that you'd know it. The pointed references to the Good Friday Agreement make it sound as if it is Brussels which is doing this by refusing to give us everything we want. It is almost like they are daring the EU to oppose their suggestions, at which stage they will accuse it of threatening the peace process.

There are two types of free movement to protect: one on people and one on goods. The former has legal protection in Irish, UK and EU law. Protocol 20 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU allows the UK and Ireland to "continue to make arrangements between themselves relating to the movement of persons between their territories".

The real danger is not from the EU, but from right-wing tabloids, who are likely to complain that an open border allows any EU citizen to get into Britain from Ireland and work illegally.
This is muddled thinking. A Polish plumber heading to the UK after Brexit will presumably be able to come using a tourist visa, unless we plan to ban Europeans from even coming here on holiday. And they could just as easily work illegally having done that as they could work illegally entering the UK through Ireland.

The reality is that the people problem is outsourced. Recent legislation imposed severe penalties on firms and individuals who do not check candidates' right to work, so the responsibility here has been effectively handed to employers. On security, intelligence agencies in the country will hopefully make up for the lack of checks at the border. And finally, we will presumably have to outsource a lot of the immigration work to the Irish. After all, six countries require a visa to the UK but not to Ireland. Someone has to check they're not sidestepping that through the open border.

On goods, the paper effectively throws up its hands in surrender. The border between Ireland and the UK will become an external border of the EU customs union and the only real solution Westminster has are its fantasy-land suggestions from yesterday about "innovative" new arrangements, either through streamlining checks or a new customs relationship. 

At one point, the UK government basically appeals to the EU to forget about it altogether. "One potential approach," it says, is to say that smaller traders "cannot be properly categorised and treated as economically significant international trade". In other words: Just wave them through. How many people would get waved through under this system? The paper states that 80% of North to South trade was carried out by "micro, small and medium-sized businesses".

Of course, what will really happen here is that someone will take us to court. A company importing something from a separate EU customs border, say at Calais, will make a claim at the European Court of Justice (ECJ) because those importing them across the Irish border are having an easier time. And the ECJ will rule in favour of them for the simple reason that they are not enforcing the external border of the customs union. It's not a matter for Westminster, or the Irish government, or even the European Commission. It is simply a matter of law.

So the position paper asks the EU to scrub out that law. It cites the case of Cyprus, Croatia-Bosnia and recent derogations from Schengen over the refugee crisis. "There are a number of examples of where the EU has set aside the normal regulations and codes set out in EU law in order to recognise the circumstances of certain border areas," it says.  Britain is asking for something really rather significant here. The EU has no idea what Britain will be like in years to come. We can't even decide on what kind of Brexit we want. Not so long ago Philip Hammond and Theresa May were threatening to turn the UK into a low-regulation tax haven, undercutting the EU on its doorstep.

What if Britain now starts cutting regulations across the board, from chemical standards to animal welfare? All those goods would then be able to freely cross the Irish border into the EU, where they wouldn't be checked, no matter how many countries they went to. What if the UK reduced tariffs on a kind of product? What would stop unscrupulous exporters sending it to the UK and from there getting it into the EU through the Irish border? Nothing. The British are asking the EU to give up control of what goes into and out of the single market and customs union, and their only leverage is the moral fact that we have risked our own Irish peace process. They are being asked to lean over so far backwards in order to accommodate our decisions that they could break their back.

The one area where the UK government is most concerned about checks on the border is with sanitary and phytosanitary measures for agri-food, which includes agriculture, horticulture and food and drink processing technology. The EU has very detailed and strenuous controls on these types of imports, which the UK is keen to avoid. In doing so it proposes something remarkable. "One option for achieving our objectives could be regulatory equivalence on agri-food measures, where the UK and EU agree to achieve the same outcome and high standards," it says.

This effectively hands over the UK's control in this sector so that we would mirror whatever the EU did. This would constitute a very severe impediment to striking trade deals with other countries, like the US. Its now-famous chlorinated chicken and hormone injected beef would presumably not satisfy these standards, and nor would genetically-modified crops. Also, this would drag Britain into the shadow of the ECJ, which is one of May's vacuous and self-harming red lines. We wouldn't be directly under ECJ jurisdiction but its judgments would directly dictate UK policy.

What's fascinating about this proposal is that it throws into stark relief one of the core choices Britain has to make when it comes to Brexit. Is it going to apply European standards or American ones? They have dodged this question throughout the last year, but here we see them finally being forced to confront it. If we sign up to European standards on food, chemical safety, digital rights, pharmaceuticals and the rest, we're of little use to the US. If we don't, we will have completely disconnected ourselves from our largest trading partner. The cake-and-eat-it theory is finally meeting the cold light of reality.

Absolutely every danger highlighted in this paper was extensively warned about over the last few months. It is now clear, if anyone doubted it, that the government has no idea how to address them.

Ian Dunt is the editor of Politics.co.uk. His book - Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now? - is available now from Canbury Press.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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