Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The UK’s Brexit concessions show that the EU has taken back control

Britain’s compromises on the Irish border, the 50bn divorce bill and trade talks expose the weakness of its negotiating hand. 

There is a distinct pattern to the Brexit talks: what the EU wants, the EU (eventually) gets. After months of prevarication, the UK has proposed that Northern Ireland maintain "regulatory alignment" with the Republic in order to prevent the return of a hard border (to the consternation of the DUP). "It is a matter of [Britain] facing reality," observed Philippe Lamberts, the leader of the European Greens, following a meeting with Jean-Claude Juncker.

The week before, the UK faced reality over its divorce bill. Having previously dismissed reports of a 50bn payment as "nonsense, completely wrong" (in the words of Brexit Secretary David Davis) and told the EU to "go whistle" (Boris Johnson), Britain has now accepted precisely this sum. In defiance of her earlier speeches, Theresa May has also agreed that the European Court of Justice will maintain oversight of EU citizens' rights even after the planned two-year transition period. 

Had the Brexiteers' original boasts been fulfilled, of course, Britain would now be on its way to agreeing a new trade deal with the EU. David Davis promised a summer-long row over the sequencing of the talks - and capitulated on the first day. In hope of merely opening trade negotiations with Europe, Britain has had to make multiple concessions. Though International Trade Secretary Liam Fox boasted that a new agreement with the EU would be "one of the easiest in human history", even he has accepted a two-year period from March 2019 during which, to coin a phrase, nothing will change. 

As is now emphatically clear, the EU27 and the UK are not equal partners. Though the British government maintains that "no deal is better than a bad deal", it knows that it would pay a far heavier price than Brussels. 

Failure to reach an agreement would deprive the EU of Britain’s budget contributions but, spread across the other 27 member states, each country would have to contribute just 0.1 per cent of GDP more a year. By contrast, though the UK would save 0.4 per cent of GDP, economists estimate no deal would lead to a loss of between 3 and 6 per cent of GDP. With good reason, the only country that currently trades with the rest of the globe under World Trade Organisation rules is Mauritania.

As Britain is now learning to its cost, the EU's divorce proceedings are designed to maximise its control. The withdrawal deal that Britain reaches must be approved by at least 72 per cent of member states, representing 65 per cent of the EU’s population. Once Article 50 has been triggered, the two-year deadline for leaving can only be extended by unanimous agreement. Even the much-maligned European Parliament has been guaranteed a vote on the final deal.

The great irony of Brexit is that never before has Europe had greater power over Britain's fate. And all this for a deal that, whatever its terms, will be inferior to the UK's present membership. If 2016 was the year that Britain voted to "take back control", 2017 was the year that the EU did. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

People are not prepared to see innovation at any price - we need to take care of our digital health

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

As individuals, we have never been better connected. As a society, we are being driven further apart.

Doteveryone’s People Power and Technology report, released this week, found that half of the 2,500 British people we surveyed said the internet had made life a lot better for people like them - but only 12 per cent saw a very positive impact on society.

These findings won’t be news to most people living in Brexit Britain - or to anyone who’s been involved in a spat on Twitter. The fact that we’re constantly connected to our smartphones has not necessarily improved our communities or our understanding of one other, and the trails of data we’re leaving behind are not turning into closer social bonds.

Many of the positives we experience are for ourselves as individuals.

Lots of consumer tech puts simple self-sufficiency first - one-click to buy, swipe right to date - giving us a feeling of cosy isolation and making one little phone an everywhere. This powerful individualism is a feature of all of the big platforms - and even social networks like Facebook and Twitter, that are meant bring us together, do so in the context of personalised recommendations and algorithmically ordered timelines.

We are all the centre of our own digital worlds. So it is no surprise that when we do look up from our phones, we feel concerned about the impact on society. Our research findings articulate the dilemma we face: do we do the thing that is easiest for us, or the one that is better for society?

For instance, 78 per cent of people see the Internet as helping us to communicate better, but 68 per cent also feel it makes us less likely to speak to each other face-to-face. 69per cent think the internet helps businesses to sell their products and services, while 53 per cent think it forces local shops to compete against larger companies online.

It’s often hard to see the causality in these trade-offs. At what point does my online shopping tip my high street into decline? When do I notice that I’ve joined another WhatsApp group but haven’t said hello to my neighbour?

When given clear choices, the public was clear in its response.  

We asked how they would feel if an online retailer offered free one-day delivery for lower income families, but this resulted in local shops closing down - 69 per cent found this unacceptable. Or if their bank invested more in combating fraud and cyber crime, but closed their local branch - 61 per cent said it was unacceptable. Or if their council made savings by putting services online and cut council tax as a result, but some people would find it hard to access these services - 56 per cent found it unacceptable.

It seems people are not prepared to see innovation at any price - and not at the expense of their local communities. The poorest find these trade offs least acceptable.

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

A clearer regulatory environment would support positive, responsible change that supports our society, not just the ambition of a few corporations.

Some clarity about our relationship with web services would be a good start. 60 per cent of people Doteveryone spoke to believed there should be an independent body they can turn to when things go wrong online; 89 per cent would like terms and conditions to be clearer, and 47% feel they have no choice but to sign up to services, even when they have concerns.

Technology regulation is complicated and fragmentary. Ofcom and the under-resourced Information Commissioner’s Office, provide some answers,but they are not sufficient to regulate the myriad effects of social media, let alone the changes that new technologies like self-driving cars will bring. There needs to be a revolution in government, but at present as consumers and citizens we can’t advocate for that. We need a body that represents us, listens to our concern and gives us a voice.

And the British public also needs to feel empowered, so we can all make better choices - adults and children alike need different kinds of understanding and capability to navigate the digital world. It is not about being able to code: it is about being able to cope.

Public Health England exists to protect and improve the nation’s health and well-being, and reduce health inequalities. Perhaps we need a digital equivalent, to protect and improve our digital health and well-being, and reduce digital inequalities.

As a society, we should not have to continually respond and adapt to the demands of the big corporations: we should also make demands of them - and we need confidence, a voice, and representation to begin to do that.

Rachel Coldicutt is chief executive of Doteveryone.