Monday 28 December 2020

Brexit negotiations extended indefinitely


Brexiteers have made some striking claims for the deal negotiated by Boris Johnson in recent days.

·        They have claimed that ‘people said he couldn’t get a Canada-style deal, but he has’. The reality is that no-one ever said that he couldn’t get a Canada style deal at all. What they said was that he wouldn’t get one without making significant concessions in his negotiating position, and that such a deal would be a bad one. Both have been proved right.

·        They have claimed that ‘people said that a comprehensive deal couldn’t be done in 11 months, but it has’ – the reality is that the deal is by no means as comprehensive as they claim, and excludes large parts (services) of the UK economy, as was always going to be the case in a rushed deal. And it’s unlikely that seed potatoes will be the only detail overlooked in a deal done in a hurry.

·        Perhaps the biggest lie of all is Boris Johnson’s claim that the deal delivers everything that the British people were promised, when that is patently untrue. “Exact same benefits”, anyone?

The 11 months since the UK formally left the EU has been regularly described as a transition period, but that’s a complete misnomer. It has actually been a negotiation period during which nothing significant changed for most people and businesses. Transition doesn’t end on 31 December; it starts on 1 January. And it will last for very many years, probably decades.

·        On fisheries, we already know that all that has been agreed is a five-and-a-half-year transition period during which negotiations will continue on the arrangements to be implemented after transition and the trading terms consequences of those arrangements.

·        On the level playing field, we know that there will need to be new negotiations every time that either the EU or the UK changes any rules affecting trade to determine whether the trade agreement can continue on current terms or whether those terms need to change to reflect a new degree of divergence. Far from giving ‘certainty’ to businesses, the deal introduces a new element of uncertainty every time the UK decides to exercise its ‘sovereignty’ by changing, or failing to change, regulations in areas covered by the agreement.

Johnson claims that the EU will no longer constrain the UK’s right to make its own laws and regulations. It’s an ‘interesting’ claim to make having just signed a treaty agreeing not to change UK laws or regulations in a whole host of areas, which is what the agreement on the level playing field amounts to. The question is whether he intends to abide by the agreement that he has signed, or whether – as happened with the Withdrawal Agreement – he’s planning to simply ignore any parts of the treaty that he and his extremist supporters don’t like. The omens are not good. We already know that the government is seeking to change the terms of the agreement on Northern Ireland which they signed just a couple of weeks ago. And on the same day that he agreed to a treaty which sets out to maintain a minimum level of common regulation in relation to trade, Johnson also announced that the same treaty opens the way to “regulatory competition” between the EU and the UK. It’s not immediately obvious how the two things are compatible, and it is doubtful that his interpretation will be shared by the EU27. It sounds more like a recipe for conflict than cooperation, and adds to the conclusion that the serious negotiations aren’t the ones which have just been completed; they’re the ones which will start on 1 January. To adapt the words of Johnson’s hero, New Year’s Day looks more like the end of the beginning than the beginning of the end. Far from being done and dusted, Brexit will be a major item on the government’s agenda for many years to come.

There is some good news, though. In the event of a ‘no deal’ outcome, the position of an independent Wales or Scotland looking to re-join the EU looked more than a little difficult. Swapping tariff-free trade with England for tariff-free trade with the EU, and imposing full EU border controls between Wales and Scotland on the one hand and England on the other, didn’t look like the brightest idea anyone had ever come up with. But regaining full access to the EU’s Single Market – either through immediate EU membership or via interim membership of the EEA – in exchange for the sort of paperwork and bureaucracy which will now govern trade between the north of Ireland and the rest of the UK is a much more attractive prospect. No wonder Gove has called it the “best of both worlds”. Johnson claims he has negotiated the best route for the UK out of the EU – he may also, albeit inadvertently, have negotiated the best route back in for Wales and Scotland.

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