Bthis time Britain can leave without an agreement
The first phase of the Brexit negotiations was an agony, an embarrassment and sometimes a national humiliation for Britain. Theresa May and Sir Olly Robbins have given way to almost everything in the European Commission from the outset, bowing within a couple of months of the 2017 general elections to Brussels’ demands to “sequence” the talks so that all the things that l The EU was concerned about – a divorce, citizens’ rights, the Irish border – were agreed before we could even start talking about what we wanted.
Ms. May would never have left without an agreement and everyone in Brussels knew it. In the end, the terms of the indefinite agreement across the UK that he agreed were so humiliating that the officials of the European Parliament involved in the negotiations were captured by cameras joking about how they had finally turned Britain into a colony. Fortunately, the blonde bomb took the lead and recovered some useful starting conditions.
As we embark on the second phase of this process – the shape of future UK-EU relations that include trade agreements – it is clear that the European Commission believes that a new phase one phase is in order. The same goes for the British media, which are pushing the same Brussels model that “holds all the cards”.
Last night on BBC2 Newsnight opened with the claim that Boris Johnson “must get a Canadian-style free trade agreement outside the EU” as he struggles to increase panic. The discussion that followed emphasized the European Commission’s determination to keep us winners of rules bound by “level playing field” obligations and the judgments of the European Court of Justice.
But this is basically to misunderstand the completely changed political environment in Britain. Boris Johnson must not actually convince the EU to accept anything. It has already been clear that he would like a Canadian-style deal to guarantee zero-rate trade on the vast majority of items traded, but he will also do well with an “Australia-style deal” (his new name for WTO terms).
He has a solid mandate from the British people to complete a significant Brexit and a large parliamentary majority behind him. All opposition parties are in disarray. If the EU does not negotiate reasonably and wants to start a trade war next year, Johnson has the political coverage and political strength to overcome it. Capitolante, in Theresa May style, is in fact the only thing that would torpedo its first.
Britain’s new chief negotiator, David Frost, could not have been clearer in his Brussels speech this week: “We bring to the negotiations not an intelligent tactical positioning, but the fundamentals of what it means to be an independent country. It is crucial for our vision that we must have the ability to establish the laws that fit us … So to think that we could accept EU supervision on so-called equality conditions simply cannot understand the point of what we are doing. It is not simply a negotiating position that could move under pressure, but it is the point of the whole project. “
Frost also clarified that the UK will not allow for an extension of the transition period and the government is eagerly anticipating the recovery of “our political and economic independence in full”.
Now, I suppose, it’s possible that Johnson and Frost are bluffing. But if you were the European Commission or a government of the EU Member States, you wouldn’t really think about it. The firms they hired make no sense if their fallback stance is to fold, like May’s. Their humiliation would have been total and the verdict of the British public would certainly be unequaled.
During spring and summer the penny will begin to fall on this in capitals across Europe. In Brussels itself, the European Commission can still decide that punishing Britain for leaving is more important than ensuring frictionless access to one of the largest export markets in most Member States. But in national capitals it is unlikely to be true. Germany and the Netherlands in particular depend heavily on the UK market. Those huge trade surpluses with Britain will begin to bite as an important consideration.
EU member states are already fighting like ferrets in a lot on how to bridge the deficit left by the disappearance of UK budgetary contributions. There are already signs of internal tensions over how central the issue of access to UK waters should be for EU fishing fleets in Michel Barnier’s negotiating mandate. Western coastal states naturally consider it important. Central and Eastern members – particularly landlocked ones – are far less likely to consider this a potential affair.
And, unlike Britain, European governments have no political coverage for a slide in WTO trade terms with the UK. This was not requested by the electorate of any member state of the European Union. Most of the governments of the Member States are already weak and even unpopular at national level. Most member state economies are limping with anemic growth or no growth.
The new political reality that Britain can and will go away this time, given the continued absence of a generous approach to negotiations by the EU, has not yet fully realized the European governments. So we see stupid stunts like the proposed proposal to insert an Elgin Marbles clause in Barnier’s draft mandate.
But the fact is that now all the most difficult questions have to be addressed on the EU side as the end of the transition on 31 December is getting closer. This time the negotiations could actually be quite positive for UK morale. Yes, if there are no trade agreements, 2021 will be economically irregular for us. But on this side of the Channel the democratic imperative is clear enough. The Prime Minister acts with firm and repeated instructions from the British public. Basic British sovereignty is not negotiable – after all that we have gone through it cannot be negotiable – and our new agility and freedom of action will offer us compensatory opportunities around the world.
Until now, Mr. Barnier is the man who will feel the most heat during the year. It will be fascinating to see what the Brussels bottom line actually means when the pressure is really high.