Brexit’s Hotel California

Brexit’s Hotel California

This time next year, we’ll be in a very familiar place

They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. Originally was said of the Bourbon monarchy after its restoration, it’s equally true of the EU Commission today which seems intent on repeating all its own mistakes for lack of comprehension that they are, in fact, mistakes.

Perhaps this might be because one of the easiest ways to turn a blind eye to existential threats is to convince yourself that the reasons for those threats existing is nothing to do with yourself and everything to do with the obsessions and prejudices of the other side – which by definition can’t be engaged with because they’re not the product of rationality. The best you can do is strengthen your defences and wait for the crisis to pass, at whatever cost.

This attitude isn’t, of course, unique to the EU. England, from the government through to individual citizens, could benefit by asking itselves why support for independence in Scotland, for example, remains so high – and by trying to answer the question as honestly as possible. It’s not just about oil (which may well be a worthless asset into the future anyway). But that’s another discussion for another day.

As far as Brussels has been concerned, the critique and solutions that Cameron put forward in his Bloomberg Speech were so heretical that they needed to be opposed, even at the risk of Britain being forced out of the club (granted that this risk was misappraised in advance and grossly underappreciated).

Consequently, Cameron’s negotiations – which his campaign promises of 2015 obliged him to undertake – became a question of British special pleading, which was at least something that Brussels had the conceptual capacity to process but one which would, inevitably, grant the minimal possible. And for want of a decent deal, that ‘minimal’ meant that Britain’s membership was lost.

It’s not necessary to repeat the whole history of the last three and a half years to see the same repeated pattern of grudging engagement, maximal demands, misjudgements about what would be acceptable, a UK political crisis as a consequence of unrealised expectations or broken pledges, a rupture and a failed agreement.

We should deal here with the cynical explanation that Brussels actively wanted Britain to leave; that it didn’t regard it as ‘properly European’, that its membership got in the way of The Project and that Brexit itself would bind the rest more closely together. Such a view is, to my mind, a mishmash of ex post facto reasoning on how Brexit has played out, a confusion of interpreting the comments of a few zealots as being representative of the whole, and – typical of conspiracy theories – the attributing of an excessive control of events to the dark forces of the enemy.

It’s far too early to say whether the political benefits to the EU of Brexit outweigh the economic, security and other costs and while cynics would say ‘ah, but the important thing is not what has happened but what they expected in advance would happen’, the far more likely explanation to that objection is that they consistently didn’t think that Britain would leave and that therefore they didn’t need to do more.

But this time there won’t be a failed agreement. The Withdrawal Agreement Bill, only introduced this week, has already passed its Second Reading and the government can confidently expect it to become law by the end of January. Any belief or expectation that Britain would eventually, somehow, remain are now over.

That’s not to say there won’t be a battle in January over the detail. The government has ruthlessly stripped the Bill of the concessions it previously made to the pre-election hung parliament and opposition MPs will no doubt bewail futilely that development. The Lords, however, where the Tories don’t have a majority, could well succeed in reinserting some or all of the dropped clauses. If so, chances are that this will be a final echo of life before 12 December. The government will argue that it has no need to parrot what foreign countries agree among themselves, that Westminster is perfectly capable of delivering on workers’ and environmental rights itself, and that in any case, Taking Back Control means such decisions (or indecision) should be Britain’s to make and for those who do so to be accountable for it.

The one area where a Lords amendment might succeed is in parliamentary oversight and involvement. Number Ten has an unusual and unhealthy aversion to parliament (and counterproductive given that any Tory leader is only ever 48 hours from being dumped by his or her own MPs), but concessions on a temporary process don’t affect any fundamental interests and arguing for the exclusion of MPs sends poor signals. Best to throw the dog a bone while you’re enjoying a banquet.

However, while Brexit might be legally ‘done’ on 31 January next year, it won’t just go away, much as many might like it to. The UK and EU will then have eleven months to conclude a trade agreement. Trade experts generally believe this impossible and if conventional processes are to be adhered to, they’re almost certainly right. But politics can provide solutions where the circumstances demand it and the ingenuity is there; Brexit is a unique circumstance and wider precedent is not necessarily a good guide.

Or that would be the case were it not for everything about Brexit so far, and indeed about what we already know about the incipient trade talks. Charles Michel tweeted again yesterday that “a Level Playing Field remains a must for any future relationship”, which is almost certainly code for an EU demand that it set and enforce, and the UK be obliged to implement, standards on pretty much anything from product regulations to social policies. Whether the EU’s concept of the Level Playing Field extends to financial services is a more open question and a genuine card in the UK’s hand, albeit in a game it doesn’t want to play.

But either way, once again the EU is playing hard-ball to a degree that suggests they either don’t understand what’s going on in British politics, or they do but that they don’t care because they’re so wedded to Ever Closer Union that it must bind even a state that leaves the club – which truly would be a Hotel California Brexit.

Is there any logic behind the EU’s stance? Yes, on a tactical level, there is. If we ignore the strategic calamity of turning one of your biggest members and financial contributors into a best an ambivalent outsider, the EU’s negotiating tactics have been highly effective. Time and again, the British government has agreed to what it said it wouldn’t, either because the UK side felt compelled by the circumstances or because of a change in personnel. True, time and again, the British parliament or people have rejected those deals but the negotiators’ job was only to launch the deals; where they came down was someone else’s department.

As regards the next round, the EU can look at Johnson and see someone who has sold out his former partners in the DUP and agreed without much fuss to one of the EU models on display. They can also looks at someone without a strong personal ideology and whose Euroscepticism is so thin that he didn’t even decide to campaign for Leave until February 2016. Johnson might have always regarded the EU as an outlandish absurdity but he also has something of a soft spot for outlandish absurdities, perhaps not without self-interest. In short, they can see what they want to see: someone who will bend to pressure.

What such an analysis would miss is that Johnson is under pressure from both sides. Having sold his political soul to Leave in return for the keys (but not the title deeds) to Number Ten, he is under an obligation to deliver for them. In normal circumstances, relying on Johnson’s sense of obligation might be a little naïve but in this one it’s backed up by the hard fact that the Tory majority is nothing like sufficiently large enough to make the ERG irrelevant, not least because most of those new MPs that constitute his majority were elected from strongly Leave seats on a specific mandate to Get Brexit Done.

What that means in practice is that the December 2020 deadline is real and that the UK government won’t be able to sign and deliver a deal that ties Britain to ongoing comprehensive regulation from an outside source that it has no formal input into. The chances of a No Deal in a year’s time are therefore quite high: I’d make them narrow odds-on. The chances of nothing being agreed – and therefore No Deal being on the table, with all the risk and uncertainty that brings – before the backend of next year are all-but certain.

Welcome to the new year: just like the old one.

David Herdson

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