The UK-EU trade agreement has now been put up on the government website, all 1,246 pages of it. That is 486,549 words. It is marginally longer than Lord of the Rings. Its prose is still more turgid and some of it might as well be written in Elvish.
The government is giving the agreement one day’s debate on 30 December. That means that an MP who did nothing other than read the agreement from cover to cover would be able to give well under a second’s consideration to each word during his or her readthrough.
The House of Commons is to start its debate at 9.30am on 30 December. In the unlikely event that debate lasts as long as 15 hours, that amounts to just over a tenth of a second for each word in the agreement. The Prime Minister has told Conservative MPs that he is confident that the agreement will withstand the most ruthless and Talmudic scrutiny. We’ll never know.
This agreement is put forward as a landmark in British-EU relations, supposed to set the course of such relations for a long time to come. So why are the principals so highly allergic to any kind of democratic oversight of their actions?
This is not just a travesty of accountability, it is also self-defeating. For as sure as eggs are eggs, there will be all kinds of quirks, oddities and horse-trades hidden in the agreement. As they emerge one by one in the coming months and years, they will act as gashes in the credibility of it.
There are already those who are unreconciled to the agreement who will use those as pretexts to confirm their hostility. There are many who now are welcoming the agreement who will become disillusioned when the implications of some of the detail becomes apparent to them. All of them will be able, correctly, to say that their complaints went entirely undiscussed at the time the agreement was passed.
If the agreement were explored in detail I expect Parliament would conclude that a messy compromise with anomalies was better than endlessly relitigating past decisions, at least for a fair while. But it won’t be explored in detail. So this agreement is likely to fail to bring to an end the interminable trench warfare about British-EU relations. It is just going to be the source material for a new set of grievances.
When the Treaty of Versailles was agreed, General Foch said: “This is not peace. It is an armistice for twenty years.” I doubt this agreement will last anything like that long.