Monday 7 December 2020

Would you buy his used car?


It was four and a half years ago that the UK narrowly voted to leave the EU on the basis of a series of promises, including that one about being able to trade on the exact same terms but without following EU rules. It was nonsense then and it’s still nonsense now, but it’s that same issue which threatens to completely derail the last minute talks. From the outset, the EU has made it clear that easy access to the Single Market depends on following the rules of that market and, from the outset, the UK has demanded that it should have that access without following the rules. In essence, that’s what all the talk about ‘level playing fields’ and governance’ boils down to – the EU wants to protect the integrity of the Single Market, whilst the UK wants to destroy that integrity.

It makes sense from a UK perspective - having a large integrated market on our doorstep of which we are not part was always a silly idea - but it's a debate in which there was only ever going to be one winner. English exceptionalism led so many to foolishly believe that the EU would eventually roll over, but that exceptionalism is wholly misplaced. That doesn’t mean a deal is impossible, even at this stage – but it doesn’t depend on the EU making anything other than minor concessions on the fringes. It depends, rather, on two things. 

The first is the extent to which the EU is willing to agree to a form of words which enables the Prime Minister to claim that he has met his objectives with enough credibility to persuade the extremists in his own party to accept the inevitable major concessions which he will have to make. I don’t doubt the EU’s willingness, at the end of the day, to help the PM in that regard (however undeserving they may feel him to be of any assistance); words cost them little as long as they have a binding legal text and sufficient confidence that Johnson won’t simply renege on that the day after signing it (the latter being no small matter in itself).

The second hinges on whether a man who has gone through life believing that rules don’t apply to him and that he should always get what he wants is ready to make the biggest compromise of his life. On the one hand, it seems unlikely given his history; but on the other, we are dealing with a man who strongly believes in the power of his own rhetoric to deny truth and sell a lie (£350 million on the side of a bus, anyone?). The tragedy for the rest of us is that so much should depend so heavily on the flawed character of a single man.

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