If Leaving the EU was easy

If Leaving the EU was easy

When it comes down to it, most articles only have one point at their heart.  They can be tricked out with lively language or illustrated with telling examples (or they can be pedestrian plods through the topic). Nevertheless, that one point is usually missed by most readers. So let me sum up the point of this article in one plain paragraph.

The EU can choose the terms of a deal with Britain that it wishes to offer.  Britain in turn is not obliged to accept the terms offered. Neither has to accommodate the other just because the other fervently wishes that they would do so. It is possible that there is no common ground.  However, this Leave government is stuffed full of men and women who promised that Britain would secure the exact same terms, that it would be the easiest deal in history and that Britain could have its cake and eat it.  So if that doesn’t happen, it has a lot of explaining to do why it lied so often, so loudly for so long.  Leave fanatics will be convinced. No one else will be.

You can stop reading now if you like. The other paragraphs are just footnotes really. But I don’t want to be accused of failing to give value for money, so here they are.

There may well yet still be a deal to be struck (if there is, it will be substantially on the EU’s terms for anyone who bothers to scratch the surface. As David Herdson noted on Saturday, however, it could all still go wrong.

If it all falls apart, we can expect the British government to blame the EU for being unreasonable. This would, of course, be nonsense. There is no such thing as being unreasonable in a negotiation.  Terms that would be utterly unacceptable when dealing with a weaker negotiating partner may be the tariff for admission when dealing with a stronger negotiating partner. You bargain for what you can get and make your assessments based on the consequences of failing to get that. If the EU decides that it’s not worth accommodating Britain’s wish list, all the huffing and puffing in the world is not going to change their minds. “Reasonableness” will play no part in that calculation.

Leavers will, of course, be duped. They have travelled a long way down the conveyor belt of self-radicalisation which started with them arguing angrily Norway or Switzerland were the appropriate model for Britain to aspire to.  They have accepted without a murmur the prospect of a trade barrier down the middle of the Irish Sea (or allowed themselves to be gulled into believing the Prime Minister when he says in defiance of the words he signed up to that there will be no such thing). Now they talk airily of WTO – or, more risibly, of a non-existent Australian model. So it will all, somehow, be the EU’s fault. Vote Leave, Avoid Responsibility.

The rest of the population remains unconvinced. There was a fond belief among Leavers that a consensus would form round Brexit once Britain had left the EU.  It hasn’t happened. Bar a very brief period in March, YouGov’s regular polling shows that the public continues to regard Brexit as a wrong decision, with average poll ratings on the subject that have barely moved in a couple of years and if anything the public is cooling further.  The prospect of no deal is hardly likely to make the doubters warm to the idea.

Britain’s project management has already been shown to be abject during the Covid-19 crisis, so we can expect further chaos and awful decision-making in the event of a no-deal end to the transition. (The most fervent Leavers will see the victims of any pain and suffering caused as being fallen heroes. Everyone else will seem them as the casualties of boors.)  The government was invested in addressing Covid-19 and still did terribly. It will be invested in pretending that no-deal will cause no-problems.  That’s hardly going to improve its already-lamentable performance. But the one aspect of Maoist revolutionary thinking that this government doesn’t do is self-criticism, so no doubt it will blame the EU for its own blunders.

If negotiations fail, would the EU be blameless? No, of course not. But its real failings would go unexplored. It should be looking to be building a stable relationship with an admittedly erratic neighbour. The start of that stable relationship would be deferred, perhaps for a very long time, as Britain declined further into paranoid introspection, fuelled by what is likely to be a further highly disruptive economic shock on top of the one Britain has already received from Covid-19.  

The EU has at least got the excuse that it is distracted at present. It too has Covid-19 to contend with, the consequent economic crisis and an ensuing budgetary crisis that is remaking the EU perforce. On its eastern front, it is facing challenges to democracy both inside and outside its border (though note, Poland and Hungary, so often the EU’s bad boys, are taking as stern a line on Belarus as Brussels).  

The EU no doubt correctly believes that Britain leaving the EU in a disorderly fashion would be more disruptive to Britain than to most of the EU, and in the current phase of negotiations where every country has a veto on a deal, Ireland no longer can use its leverage to address its unique exposure to Brexit. The EU as a whole may simply conclude that time does not permit it to engage with Britain’s unwarranted belief that it needs extreme special treatment.

Britain does not have the same excuse. The ridiculous timetable was set at its own insistence. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor pandemic are being allowed to stay Brexit.  Yet the government is injecting no energy into proceedings.  Much has been made of the Prime Minister preferring to loiter within tent rather than comment on the exams fiasco. The same point can be made about his leadership of the negotiations with the EU. The man who skipped every COBRA meeting in February is apparently showing the same work ethic when it comes to these negotiations too.  

David Herdson correctly noted on Saturday that Britain has a choice between no deal and a bad deal. Worryingly, the government may think that it can get a better deal by threatening no deal. The smoke signals are that the EU is simply no longer that interested.  

Alastair Meeks

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