IT’S D-Day, as it was on June 23, 2016, (the vote), January 17, 2017, (Theresa May’s idiotic “red lines” announced), March 29 (Article 50 triggered), December 8 (backstop agreed), November 25, 2018, (revised Withdrawal Agreement), January 15, 2019, (Commons rejects WA by huge margin), March 12 (ditto), April 12 (Article 50 deadline extended to October 31), October 19 (extension to that extension), January 31, 2020, (departure and start of transition), June 30 (last date to extend transition period) and October 15 (last realistic date for a deal, according to Boris Johnson). Other things happened in between, including the fall of two prime ministers.
Yet here we are, in the middle of November 2020, being assured that the next week or so will be decisive. Some of us who have been keeping an eye on this stuff for three decades are sceptical, though.
A common feature of this period was being cornered by Bill Cash MP, who would invariably start his description of some new EU outrage with: “This is it! This will settle things!” But though Sir William has been doing this since the Bruges Group set up shop in 1989, sadly, it never was it. As the post-referendum chronology shows, even after it was it, it wasn’t it and still isn’t it. It is no wonder that some of us wonder if it ever will be it.
But this probably is the moment that will decide whether the UK exits at the end of the year on what you may call No Deal, WTO terms or an Australia-style deal, all just different ways of saying current talks never reached agreement. Whether this is a disaster (the majority view) or a liberation (the hardline Brexit view), it will not, in any case, halt continued attempts to hammer out a deal; we’ll just be clawing our way back from an uncompromisingly detached position.
That’s something both negotiating sides are desperate to avoid, because of the ructions it will cause (notably with the Northern Irish border). Contrary to the general perception, almost all of this is to do with regulation and red tape rather than tariffs; this is another timing difficulty, because there are hundreds of pages dealing with them that need to be ratified and passed into legislation by the UK and EU – and that’s on the bits already agreed in theory.
If there’s an agreement in principle, the fact that there almost certainly won’t be time to formalise it by Hogmanay probably won’t matter if – a big if – both sides can sell it to those who need to sign off on it. The UK Government won’t get that from many of its own MPs if it concedes on certain specific points; the EU will probably have an easier job, but there are still elements (ie: the French) that could prove obstructive.
Any sort of trade agreement, no matter how cobbled together, also probably means the Irish issue becomes unimportant, because the Republic is just as desperate as the North to see frictionless trade continue (free movement of people is different, because that existed long before the EU). It’s the EU that is demanding the imposition of restrictions here, to prevent cheaper or unregulated goods moving into their territory; the UK is trying to avoid any threat to the Good Friday Agreement.
Any sort of deal largely sorts this problem, though. The sticking points for getting to one in this last push seem to be on three points: state aid, a level playing field on regulatory alignment, and fisheries. If reports are correct, the parties are fairly close to agreement on the first, disagree on the mechanics though not the principle of the second, and are “miles apart” on the third.
On the first, the UK should just agree not to subsidise firms in a way that EU law previously prevented; no Conservative government should want to, anyway. But it should be a treaty provision, not something imposed by Brussels. On the second, we have already undertaken to stick with, or exceed, current standards on food, drugs, safety, employment legislation and the like; the disagreement, as with state aid, is on who gets to enforce it, and on whether the UK binds itself to those limits forever.
It makes practical sense to abide by them (or we won’t be able to export to EU countries), but there’s no reason the UK should be bound by EU law on the matter or allow it exclusive control of “ratchet” powers; the normal and sensible solution would be independent arbitration of any divergence. Any continuing control by the ECJ would, in any case, be very difficult to sell to Tory backbenchers.
Both of those ought to be entirely soluble, with each side giving nominal ground that doesn’t matter much: the UK should want to keep practices and standards close to the EU’s, and the EU should accept that, as one of the parties to that agreement, it’s not for it to determine and rule on any breaches, but some neutral party.
Fishing ought to be soluble, too. On the one hand, it’s where the EU doesn’t really have a leg to stand on. There’s no question that they are British waters, Brexit means unalloyed sovereignty over them, and the UK can be bullish.
On the other, our fishing industry is a tiny part of the overall economy (0.12 per cent overall, and less than 0.1 per cent of jobs); smaller than leather-workers or travel agents. Another point that a lot of people seem to have forgotten is that the market for UK fish is largely in EU countries. With no deal, the UK will struggle to sell in France or Spain, and we don’t buy nearly as much of it ourselves.
It has become a totemic issue for sovereignty and, despite the figures, is still a significant economic one for Scotland. Any concessions around it will be a hard sell in the UK; one reason why the government is ready to walk away. But it’s an economic priority for EU countries that access our waters, so the EU needs to try to offer them something. The net result of all the wrangling of the past four and a half years, and decades before, may rest on this one issue. A pretty kettle of fish.
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