David Frost, Michel Barnier.
We’ve all got bigger things on our minds right now than Brexit. Wasn’t it supposed to “get done” in January? There’s a pandemic on, after all. Why should anyone care about some abstruse discussions about trade in Brussels?
Well, the reason is simple. We’re going to be poorer, for good.
As Her Majesty The Queen says, one day we will meet again, because one day the coronavirus crisis will pass (even though the virus may be hanging about for much longer). Brexit will not. Whatever deal we get we will know about pretty soon, and by the end of the year, it will be implemented. Permanently. No more talks (the British insist on that). Whatever it is, we will be lumbered with. A Brexit deal is for life, not just for Christmas.
So how’s it going? Not very well. Boris Johnson has accelerated and intensified the talks, moving from cumbersome video conferences among large groups to include smaller, more face to face sessions. The two respective chief negotiators, Michel Barnier for the EU and David Frost will meet in person in London on Monday for the first time in months. Both sides declare they want a deal and they are being constructive. Still, the frustrations are palpable. Johnson promised to “put a tiger in the tank” of these talks, a typically upbeat and exhilarating, but meaningless, call.
For seven decades, since the dawn of the European Community, the British have been trying to get Europe to do things the British way. First outside, then inside and now outside again the British always wanted to have their cake and eat it. They rarely did. The French, as it happens, always said “non”. It is a long track record, and hard to see why the habit would change now.
No deal, hard Brexit, clean Brexit, trading on World Trade Organisation terms...call it what you wish, it is fast approaching Britain, a nation currently badly distracted by the sunshine, the football and the virus. The last “compromise” being canvassed by both sides has been rejected by the British. This would have meant that the Europeans would have taken on trust British promises to play fair and not unscrupulously undercut European businesses – but with the EU reserving the right to slap tariffs (and presumably other barriers) on British goods and services if they felt the cross-Channel “level playing field” was being violated.
Thus, for the sake of argument, if one distant day a British government decided to scrap workers’ rights, or relax environmental protections or pour billions into some grand project to build electric vehicles, the Europeans would be entitled to level the playing field back up again by raising the prices and costs (and reducing the profitability) of British exports.
In the nature of things, the EU would probably be slow to act, but the threat of it would be enough to constrain any radically minded British government. Therefore, it impinged on absolute sovereignty, and Frost (on Johnson’s mandate to him) has rejected it.
Fair or not, however, the EU can do what they want. It is really as brutal as that, and they take the integrity of their single market (the one invented by the British) very seriously. The British have a few cards – fish, armed forces, the position of Ireland – but the EU has size and scale. Very roughly the EU Market is 10 times bigger than the UK, and our businesses and jobs need the EU much more than they need us. The British are playing a very dangerous game of chicken. Or rather, Johnson is doing so on their behalf, and the British people don’t seem to have noticed. They’re in for another hell of a shock if the Europeans aren’t bluffing.
It’s unfortunate to have to do this as early as the very first sentence but just so you know, the forthcoming column is nominally a work of satire. It is my job to make fun of politicians, to point out the hypocrisy and absurdity of what they’re up to.
His critics say Boris Johnson is a lucky politician — lucky to win an EU referendum he didn’t expect to, lucky that Brexit gave the Tories a once-in-a-generation opportunity to hoover up Labour voters, lucky that his general election opponent was Jeremy Corbyn.
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