The UK Government seem to be repeating on a loop cycle after cycle of inane attempts to pacify their own party and satisfy some rabid newspaper owners, with no consideration given to the best interests of the people the Government are supposed to represent. There has been trip after trip to Brussels to tell the other member states what the UK wants out of its resignation from the EU; return after return, trying to explain why there has been no advance made, no advantage gained, no real progress at all; statement after statement made in this Chamber, blaming the other states for having the audacity to stand up for their collective and individual best interests and for the interests of their people.
Time after time, we have been treated to demonstrations of just how little understanding of the EU there is in the Government ranks. The last trips have been shining examples of just how impotent the UK has become, how out of touch with reality the Government have become and how much influence has been lost in the past couple of years. A Prime Minister went looking for help with domestic problems to find that there were no longer helpful faces around the table. Her inability to articulate an argument in favour of clarification of terms already agreed on is the dirty mirror to the long and pointless succession of meetings held by her Ministers who also managed to walk out of the room with nothing.
It is just a few weeks before the UK leaves the EU and the new imperialists of Brexit are having to face up to the uncomfortable truth that the UK is now, at best, a middling power in the world. No longer does Britannia rule the waves; these days she is queuing up for a ticket for the ferry. Shorn of the muscle of the EU, there will be some serious reckonings to come, not least of which will be the WTO shocks. It is repeated so often that it has become a political meme: we can trade on WTO rules and all will be well in the world. There is a fond imagination that WTO rules are like the rules of a club. They are rules that everyone obeys, like gentlemen should, and no one would think of going outside the letter and the spirit of those rules.
The truth is that the WTO is a bear pit of contrasting interests and competing economies. The sacred rules are little more than guidelines for the battles in the WTO panels, dispute settlement body and appeals process. It is economic muscle that matters in these consultations and political muscle that counts in the dispute resolution. We are losing both by leaving the EU, so the WTO will become a far less welcoming place for us to take trade disputes. It will become a place where we will learn to take defeat, a place where the Brexiteers’ dreams of adequacy will come crashing down.
Let me just illustrate that with an example: hormone-treated beef that the United States wanted to sell into the EU. The US complained in 1996 and the WTO ruling was in its favour, but horse-trading of quotas and tariffs between the EU and the US has meant that we have been able to keep our food chain free of that adulterated beef. The UK simply does not have the strength to resist that ruling. It has no way to offer the quota for high-quality beef without harming our own farmers and it does not have the economic resilience to soak up the tariffs.
The WTO is the dystopia of free trade, a baleful and distorted place where profit is king. Yet there we head, this ramshackle handcart gathering speed, driven by a Prime Minister who cannot control her own Government, far less her own party, egged on by a Labour party leader who has a similar lack of control over events on his side. A Tory Prime Minister deferring defeat for a month and a bit in the hope of finding some magic beans over Christmas was watched by a Labour Opposition leader frightened to bring her down in case he has to face up to some of those issues.