Professor Chris Grey’s latest Brexit analysis on the Frost letter, the latest debates about the extension of the transition period, trust, and the glimpses we are getting of a post-Brexit Britain.
First published in May 2020.
Last week the UK government, belatedly, made public its draft legal texts for an agreement with the EU, for the first time authorising them to be communicated to EU Member States. They are, necessarily, lengthy and highly technical documents which have already begun to be picked over by numerous independent trade experts such as David Henig, Sam Lowe, Dr Anna Jerzewska, Dmitry Grozoubinski, and Iana Dreyer. No doubt more will appear as they and others digest the contents of these documents.
They were accompanied by a covering letter – described by Daniel Boffey of The Guardian as “extraordinary” – from David Frost to Michel Barnier which gives much insight into how the UK is approaching the negotiations. Much of it is not surprising. Repeatedly, it invokes arguments which are now familiar and which I have discussed in several previous pieces.
First, it envisages a “suite of agreements” rather than the kind of over-arching Association Agreement sought by the EU. Secondly, it constantly invokes supposed “precedents” based upon a variety of other agreements that the EU has with third countries. As I discussed in my recent blog, this is profoundly unrealistic. However, what I didn’t say there and which has only become clear (to me, at least) with the publication of the draft texts, and the commentary of those listed and linked to earlier, is the cumulative effect of these two things.
For, despite being predicated on the idea that the UK is not asking for anything that other third countries don’t have, stitching them together creates what overall is an unprecedented ask, without apparently offering much, if anything, in return. There’s nothing wrong with trying that, of course, but it is disingenuous to suggest at the same time that it is a modest, minimal or straightforward demand, and absurd to complain if it gets rejected.
It’s not fair!
That brings us to the third feature of the letter, which was more surprising and, indeed, extraordinary. For it reads as, first, a letter of complaint, in which the EU is ‘told off’ for having taken an unsatisfactory stance and, second, as a submission to an academic seminar on political theory in which various “arguments” are discussed and (supposedly) refuted. However the overall tenor is, more than anything else, like the familiar refrain of childhood: ‘but it’s not fair’. In that last respect it is very much in line with what Bobby McDonagh, writing in the Irish Times but before the letter appeared, described as Britain’s “Brexit tantrum”.
Thought of in these terms, a useful question to ask is – what reaction from the EU is anticipated? If a letter of complaint – ‘we’re sorry, we got it wrong’? If an academic seminar – ‘good point, we hadn’t thought of that’? If a childish lament – ‘there, there, mummy’s here now’? What, precisely, is envisaged? In the event, the response from Barnier was to point out that such posturing “cannot be a substitute for serious engagement and detailed negotiations”. Well, quite.
For those who insist, as many Brexiters do, on the dignity and indeed the pride of the British nation it was a remarkably undignified and petulant statement. More to the point, it’s simply irrelevant as regards an international (trade) negotiation. For such negotiations are not about winning arguments or making complaints. They are about cold, hard power, interests, and trade-offs. Not only do argument and complaint cut no ice, but they show that you have already lost. It’s as simple and as brutal as a playground fight – the person who wants to reason with their opponent is the one who has already lost.
Does that make the EU a bully, administering ‘punishment beatings’? It’s a meaningless question. Power is just power. What is surprising is that Brexiters who have spent decades saying how awful the EU is are now pearl-clutching about its ‘viciousness’, as if what they expected was charity, or special treatment. And that is the more surprising since they have spent those decades insulting the EU, and yet now imagine that they will be the recipient of its kindness. What, for example, did Brexit Party MPs who last July were childishly turning their backs when the European anthem was played in the European Parliament think? That it would endear Britain to the EU? Did those repeatedly comparing the EU to Nazi Germany or the USSR think doing so would make securing a good deal easier?
So at one level the letter is an expression of the continuing naivety of Brexiters. At another, of course, it’s not about negotiations with the EU at all. Instead, it’s part of a concerted campaign to depict the EU, to the UK domestic audience, as unreasonable. And, indeed, the claim that Barnier is “losing the argument” is now being deployed routinely in support of this. It is as silly as Jeremy Corbyn’s widely-mocked claim that Labour ‘won the argument’ in the 2019 General Election in that, whether or not it’s true, it’s irrelevant to the only issue that matters.
Yet it has a serious implication to the extent that it will morph into blaming the EU if there is no deal, and all the attendant chaos of that, come next January. And if that happens then, no doubt, many will buy that line and forget all the promises made by Brexiters about how Britain ‘held all the cards’. What will matter, politically, is how many do so, if fresh chaos is heaped on a nation still reeling from coronavirus. If it’s, say, 50% or more then the gamble will have worked (in a political sense – of course the economic damage will be unaffected by where the blame goes). If it’s, say, 30% or less then the gamble will have failed. No doubt the question of where, within that kind of range, public opinion might land is what Boris Johnson will be calculating over the next month or so as the decision on transition period extension has to be reached.
The extension debate
With respect to that, fierce debate continues to rage. The Brexit Ultras associated with Patrick Minford et al – in yet another incarnation, this time the “Centre for Brexit Policy” – produced a predictable call against extension. Based, as usual, on the discredited ‘Cardiff model’, it recycled all the usual Ultra lines of which perhaps the most egregious is that whereas, if necessary, ‘WTO terms’ are perfectly viable for UK-EU trade, the key to post-Brexit prosperity is negotiating preferential trade terms with non-EU countries (and if the predictable recycling of discredited arguments is your thing, look no further than David Davis’ suggestion on Radio 4 this week that – yes - ‘German car makers’ are about to ride to the UK’s rescue, as well as his prognostications about the trade negotiations. But always remember that Davis is the man who invariably gets everything about Brexit wrong).
David Davis is on the radio saying that, actually, *now* is the time that the German car makers are going to step in and sort out Brexit.— Tom Peck (@tompeck) May 19, 2020
That is really happening. Right now.
On the other side of the argument, warnings about the impossibility of completing a deal without an extension abound, both from (pro-Brexit) columnists and health experts, whilst Nicole Sykes of the CBI tweeted eloquently about the problems for businesses of preparing for a December end to transition whilst dealing with the coronavirus crisis. However, in general terms, businesses have been remarkably quiet about this, perhaps because in the current situation they are so heavily dependent upon government support. But several business-savvy journalists are speaking up, including Martin Wolf in a powerfully argued FT column yesterday. I’ve made my own arguments for extending the transition before, and won’t repeat them here.
One interesting intervention in the extension debate came this week from Raoul Ruparel – formerly Theresa May’s Special Advisor on Europe – in an article in Politico. It is a serious piece from a serious author, and proposed a ‘conditional extension’ to be agreed by the end of June, effectively to implement any deal agreed by, say, October. One merit lies in its recognition, often absent from this debate, of the key problem of business preparedness. Another lies in the implication – correct, I think – that the most likely route to extension in terms of UK political realities would be some form, even if not this form, of re-badging and re-designing.
That said, Ruparel’s proposal has several problems, both of timing (a deal by October) and of its legal basis (which he questionably suggests that Article 50 provides) but the one which I think is particularly important, because it has a wider implication, is the suggestion that such a conditional extension could be preceded by a UK parliamentary vote “to indicate that initial political agreement has been reached between the two sides on what their future relationship will be”.
The obvious problem here is that there has already been a not dissimilar kind of vote, when parliament approved the Political Declaration on, precisely, the outlines of the future relationship. This included a commitment to Level Playing Field conditions, specifically linked in the text to geographical and economic closeness, that the UK now openly disavows. It is therefore difficult to see what confidence could be placed in a parliamentary vote of the sort proposed.
A country that can no longer be trusted
For the bitter truth – bitter, that is, to have to say it about one’s own country – is that the way the UK has conducted itself these last four years means that the EU has very little grounds for confidence in us. That is both because we – or more accurately our governments – have repeatedly shown ourselves to be untrustworthy but also to be incompetent – either reneging on, or apparently failing to understand the implications of, what has been agreed to, for example, but also especially, as regards Northern Ireland. It doesn’t need a PhD in textual analysis to realise that when Michel Barnier wrote in his reply to Frost’s letter this week that “I would not like the tone you have taken to impact the mutual trust … that is essential between us”, it was diplomatic code for the fact that it already has done so.
But this is not just a matter of a single letter. The shrivelling of national reputation has been long in the making and, again, for this we must thank the Brexit Ultras such as Jacob Rees-Mogg who over a year ago proposed that the UK should use an (Article 50) extension period to make things “as difficult as possible” for the EU. Or David Davis who disowned the phase 1 agreement within hours of the UK signing it. Or the entire legion – Andrew Bridgen, John Redwood, Nigel Farage - who have made it clear that they regard the financial settlement as illegitimate.
And this is also relevant to the Ruparel proposal (or similar ones that may be made in the future) more generally. For whilst, as I agree, some re-badging and indeed repackaging is likely to be a politically necessary for the UK to agree to any form of extension, the question is – why is this so? The answer is solely in order to once more dance around the sensibilities of the Brexit Ultras – the same old dance that has driven the entire Brexit saga from the decision to hold a Referendum onwards. Again, it’s rather as with a spoiled child who is constantly indulged and, of course, whose behaviour gets ever worse the longer the indulgence goes on.
It is a national tragedy for us but, more importantly in the present context, it is a game the EU is no long willing and no longer needs to play. Having for decades offered compromises and opt-outs to satisfy British Euroscepticism, our domestic political poison is, luckily for the EU, no longer its problem. I don’t sense any appetite within the EU to indulge Britain further.
The brutal truth is that neither Britain, nor Brexit, really matter very much anymore for the EU. Except, to an extent, for Ireland, Brexit is scarcely discussed in the European media, doesn’t figure in the political debates of the member states, and is well near the bottom of EU priorities. The passage of time and the press of coronavirus means that almost no one outside the UK cares now. Yes, the EU would much prefer a deal, but not at any price. So there’s going to be little flex from the EU side because it cares so little about Brexit and, apparently, none from the UK government because it cares too much about Brexit.
For these various reasons, and despite my previous opinion that an extension would probably end up happening because of the overwhelming rationality of the case for it, I agree with Tom Hayes’ excellent discussion in his latest BEERG Brexit Blog which suggests that the transition period will almost certainly end as scheduled, and with no future terms deal in place.
Post-Brexit Britain is coming in to view
Whether or not that proves right, we are now seeing more and more detail of what kind of post-Brexit Britain is envisaged by the government. This is being revealed by, for example, the ongoing parliamentary passage of legislation such as the Agriculture Bill, the dangers of which for animal welfare and product standards were analysed by veterinary surgeon Anna Bramall in Prospect this week. It is also revealed by the Immigration Bill which gleefully cements the end of freedom of movement rights. Though it is rarely stated, this includes the end of those rights for British people – on the other hand, they are awarded the special Brexit bonus of having the lowest paid jobs reserved specially for them! There’s even now a dedicated ‘pick for Britain’ website to facilitate this.
This has been an unusually busy week for Brexit-related stories, and also a busy one for me, so there are several important developments and reports that I have not been able to discuss in this piece. So I will just briefly mention some of them.
First, the UK announced the new Global Tariff schedule it will apply to countries with whom it does not have a trade agreement from the end of the transition period. If that includes the EU, then the cost of food and cars imported to the UK from there “will rise sharply”. At the same time, the new Customs Academy – set up to train the estimated 50,000 new customs agents that will be needed after Brexit – is reported to have neither the money nor anything like enough trainees to deliver them.
Second, there was a good BBC report on the complex issue of fishing quotas, where all the Brexiter promises are unravelling. Third, there was an analysis of the intricacies of the Irish Sea border by Dr Katy Hayward and Tony Smith on the LSE Brexit site, plus a wider discussion of Brexit and Irish border issues by Dr Andrew Blick at Federal Trust. That is the same Irish border that, before the Referendum, Boris Johnson said would be unaffected by Brexit and about which, since, he denied the consequences of what he signed up to with EU.
Disparate as these and the other stories in this piece are, they all point towards what is emerging for Britain. A country that is poorer and meaner, in antagonistic relation with its neighbours and natural friends. A country mired in complex and intractable problems that are entirely of its own making. A country that in the name of taking back control and animated by nationalist chauvinism is now reduced to childish whining when the world outside does not do its bidding and scarcely even registers its complaints.
What makes us “so unworthy”? “It does not have to be like this”, David Frost caterwauled in his letter to Barnier, like a spurned teenager berating the intransigence of a lost first love. Well, certainly, it did not need to be like this and wouldn’t have been – without Brexit, of course, but also without the utterly cack-handed way in which Brexit has been pursued. But it is like this, and it will go on being like this. As indeed the Brexiter faux-patriots were warned from the start and throughout these years of negotiations in which they have, by their own choices and incompetence, dragged our country into internal distress and external disrepute.🔷
Check their Voting Record:
🗳️ Theresa May
🗳️ David Davis
🗳️ John Redwood
🗳️ Nigel Farage