The Brexit cliff-edge

Are the UK and EU really converging, or is a blame-game under way for no-deal?

I wrote here last week that what would strike deep dread into the heart of every true Brexiteer would be the words: “A deal now looks more likely…”

This week, we’ve been hearing those very words. The European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, says there is now a “narrow path” to a trade deal between the UK and EU. Government sources say there’s been some movement towards a deal. Ministers breezily confirm that parliament can easily be recalled from its holiday break in order to vote on a deal before Christmas. 

There have been reports that the UK has given ground over state aid and competition law. If so, that couldn’t be more ominous. These things are the very essence of British sovereignty, its ability to make its own laws and policies in the UK’s interests.

As I wrote here, since as a protectionist cartel the EU cannot agree to anything against its own interests, it will never agree to anything that’s in Britain’s interests. So any deal would keep the UK in hock to the EU one way or another and thus negate the whole point of Brexit.

These latest developments are now causing intense alarm among the so-called “Spartans”, the most committed Brexiteers among Tory MPs, and other similarly-minded folk. In the Telegraph, Martin Howe, chairman of Lawyers for Britain, writes:

The EU's demands remain unreasonable and unlike anything it has negotiated with other trade partners. Most worrying are the hints and briefings in the media suggesting the Government is willing to make too many concessions on the "level playing field" - way beyond what the Canadians, Japanese, Koreans or Singaporeans agreed with the EU. 

…The real cliff edge is whether we succumb to a deal requiring the UK to keep or follow EU laws in the years ahead, thus negating the very principle of Brexit — taking back control and giving British people the democratic power to make and change our laws. If we succumb, the UK will have fatally signalled its submission, and disputes over EU domination and control would never end.

Too true. And the damage to the Conservative party, which would be held responsible for betraying the British people in this way, would be lethal.

Yet at the end of last year, Howe and the Spartans were persuaded to accept the appalling Withdrawal Agreement which Boris Johnson so cynically touted as a great negotiating triumph. In fact, that agreement effectively sundered Northern Ireland from Britain by delineating a virtual customs border down the middle of the Irish Sea, and undermined UK sovereignty in other ways too.  

Far, far too late, these soggy Spartans have apparently only now woken up to what some of us fruitlessly warned last year — that the Withdrawal Agreement had merely put lipstick on the dead parrot, leaving in place some of the worst aspects of the previous agreement that was so terrible it destroyed Theresa May’s premiership and brought Boris Johnson to power. 

As Alexandra Phillips and Ben Habib write in today’s Telegraph: 

Boris has checkmated the UK by legally enshrining mass concessions via the Withdrawal Agreement and failing to prepare thoroughly for a No Deal  outcome. Yet he was aided and abetted by the very politicians now fearing a great sell-out to Brussels, who were complicit in cheerleading the oven-ready deal that spells out much of what is to come.

There is, though, another way of looking at all this. First, it’s far from clear what the UK’s negotiating team has actually agreed. Shadowy figures around it insist that it has agreed little, that most issues are still up in the air and that the government will never cave into deal-breaking EU demands on fishing rights. But who knows if these shadows are themselves speaking with forked tongue?

Potentially most important, however, is the suggestion that all these feverish  murmurings are actually all about where the blame will settle when the music stops and there’s no deal.

Caroline Bell, a pseudonymous official somewhere relevant who has been providing an intermittent running commentary throughout the Brexit saga, made this argument in the Telegraph three days ago. S/he wrote:  

The PM, however, needs to walk the Brexit tightrope a little longer. If the talks collapse, it cannot be because the UK refused to continue discussions. Good faith/bad faith arguments are likely to come to the fore in the event of no deal, not least in implementing (or not) the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement and especially the Northern Ireland Protocol. The EU must carry the failure to reach an agreement because ramifications for the Protocol are considerable. 

It is quite significant that we have yet to see the terms of the "agreement in principle" announced last week on implementing the Protocol. What is clear is that using it as leverage in the trade talks wasn't working for Brussels, so essentially they agreed to park the issues in order to enable trade talks to continue. Otherwise the EU would have had to start infraction proceedings on the Internal Market Bill as threatened and it would be game over for a trade agreement for at least a decade and probably also the beginning of the end of the lopsided Withdrawal Agreement. And the EU does not want to lose that. In that sense, Boris’s Protocol ploy has worked well. But it is still in play. The clauses dropped from the Internal Market Bill and the Taxation (Post-Transition  Period) Bill can be reinserted right up to Third Reading. 

Were one being ruthlessly cynical in negotiations with the EU (as indeed one always should be), one might expect the actual text of the Joint Committee decision to differ from the "agreement in principle". The EU will probably delay releasing the final text as the stand-off in trade talks continues in Brussels. This in turn could well delay or alter our domestic legislation on implementation of the Protocol.

Why? Because if the EU has failed to negotiate in good faith a trade deal which obviates the need for most of the Protocol provisions, why should we not legislate entirely as we see fit to ensure the integrity of our internal market, customs union and unfettered access for goods across the Irish Sea? A prudent government might therefore reconsider the timetable for both these Bills to allow the nuclear clauses to be reinserted when – as is unfortunately likely – the EU not only fails to agree trade terms but chucks in additional conditions and demands, just as they did ten days ago. 

They have plenty of form in this area. It is a tribute to the monumental patience of our negotiators that they have kept their cool when confronted with the usual Brussels gamesmanship – legal text sent at midnight for discussion the following morning; agreement in principle on key areas undone by new EU text which sets the negotiation back several weeks; continual and insidious pushing to interpose EU law into our domestic affairs; not to mention a toxic and hostile atmosphere. And because we have not crumbled (as confidently expected, not least by France) these stalwarts are going to have to go through it all again. 

Really? Is this all just too clever by half? Is the UK negotiating team actually boxed in and about to fold — or is it shrewdly playing the other side?

Brexiteer nerves, already stretched taut by almost four years of political and cultural battle to get Brexit properly done, are now being absolutely shredded. 

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