Friday 3 April 2020

The latest delusion

There’s always been something delusional in how Brexiters talk about negotiations with the EU. It started with Vote Leave’s lie that these would be completed before starting the legal process to leave. Since then - from David Davis’s ‘the first call will be to Berlin not Brussels’, through to Boris Johnson’s ‘breakthrough’ acceptance of the original but discarded Irish Sea border to secure his ‘oven ready’ deal, and via innumerable calling points - it has been a journey based on dissimulation, disingenuity and fantasy.

The latest delusion is the most bizarre of all. It is that the negotiations are happening when to all intents and purposes they are not, and that they are on track for the end of the current transition period when they very clearly are not.

It’s true that there have been some ongoing conversations and exchanges of documents between Brussels and London, but the two remain ‘galaxies apart’. Indeed there are signs that they are becoming even more distant, with reports that the UK is seeking to re-open what had been agreed in the Withdrawal Agreement about regional food trademarks (£).

This gap extends not just to the content of any agreement but also to what form such an agreement would take, with the EU favouring a single all-encompassing deal and the UK a series of separate deals. But, crucially, whilst there is some exchange on the nature of these differences that does not amount to a negotiation about how they might be resolved. This negotiation is “on hold” because of coronavirus (£).

The Joint Committee

It is also the case that the Joint Committee of the UK and EU met for the first time this week (by videoconference) and this was a high-level meeting led by Michael Gove and Maros Sefcovic, the Vice-President of the EU Commission. This is the committee established by the Withdrawal Agreement to oversee and monitor that agreement. In this sense, it is a separate process to the future terms negotiations, although it could come to play a role in overseeing whatever emerges from those negotiations and, equally, substantial disagreements over the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement could stymie them.

There are multiple questions and uncertainties about how the Joint Committee will work. It is not clear what progress was made on answering them this week, although the planned sub-committees were established for various areas (citizens’ rights, financial settlement, Cyprus bases, Gibraltar, Northern Ireland). On the last of these, there are already significant tensions. Tony Connelly, RTE’s ever-informative Europe Editor, reports that there is an ongoing row over the EU’s desire to maintain an office in Northern Ireland, which the UK apparently regards as an ‘infringement of sovereignty’.

On the face of it, this seems to be a further instance of the increasingly hard line approach Johnson’s government is taking. But, as with the backtracking over food trademarks, it feeds the sense that the UK somehow does not feel bound by, or is willing to renege on, what it has already agreed. And there are some grounds for that suspicion, not least because amongst the Ultras, perhaps including Johnson, there is a view that the Withdrawal Agreement was never legitimate, being largely the creature of May’s government during what they see as a ‘remainer parliament’. Indeed still lurking in the Brexiter undergrowth is the mistaken idea that nothing, especially the financial settlement, should have been agreed in advance of the trade negotiations.

Even if this were not so, on the most charitable interpretation the row over the EU’s Northern Ireland office is that it shows the underlying problem of differential readings of what the Northern Ireland Protocol (of the Withdrawal Agreement) means. That is not surprising given the way it was so hurriedly put together in order for Johnson to be able to proclaim a successful renegotiation of the erstwhile backstop. Indeed on the Protocol more generally, Tony Connelly also reports considerable divergence of emphasis between the UK and EU sides emerging from the first Joint Committee meeting.

In particular, the EU are emphasising the need to clarify in detail how and when the Irish Sea border checks will be implemented. This is contentious in itself, since the UK government, and Johnson in particular, seem not to have understood what was signed up to. But, crucially, it also points up the pressure of time: how, especially with coronavirus, are these systems to be established by the end of the year?

An absurd pretence

It is these issues, and regulatory preparedness, quite as much as the future terms negotiations themselves, which make it so absurd that the Brexit government will not openly acknowledge the need to extend the transition period. It’s reported that civil servants expect such an extension and as they get redeployed to work on coronavirus they are cancelling wholesale Brexit-related meetings with business groups, the European People’s party has called for it this week, and the British public want it (£). As per my post last week, the stumbling block is the Brexit Ultras, who regard extension as a conspiracy to thwart Brexit (£).

One way to blunt their inevitable opposition would be if, rather than the UK ‘applying’ for an extension with the connotation of being a supplicant, it were to be agreed between the two parties with neither acting or appearing as the first mover. That would be permissible within the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement and, whilst it wouldn’t assuage the Ultras, it might reduce the traction their complaints would have with the general public, especially if such a move happened at the height for the pandemic and if Johnson were still enjoying his current opinion poll ratings.

Ending self-indulgence

Unless or until that happens, we remain in a peculiar fantasy landscape in which we act as if Brexit is ongoing simply in order to stop the Ultras throwing a tantrum when we all know that, in fact, it has stalled. In a sense, this is just another version of the familiar Brexit dynamics in which purism does battle with pragmatism. In this case, purism decrees that 31 December 2020 is an immutable date whilst pragmatism suggests that terrible damage will be done by treating it as such. Not to say that extension would be easy, logistically, especially in terms of the EU budget cycle, but it would be easier than the alternative.

I continue to think, on balance, that in due course pragmatism will win out on this occasion. That would go against past form since at every stage of the Brexit saga it has been the Ultras who have won the day. But perhaps coronavirus means that we are finally going to reach a point where the country ceases to be held hostage by the peccadilloes of a few extremists. As Rafael Behr writes, the pandemic has made “the whole [Brexit] project look parochial and self-indulgent”. How much more so to refuse even to extend the period over which it is undertaken?

As noted in last week’s post I may be posting less now, as less is happening with Brexit. Today’s post is obviously shorter than usual reflecting this lack of activity - but I wrote it anyway to cover what little is happening just so as to maintain what has (inadvertently) become a continuous record of the main Brexit events since 2016.

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