Brexit! So you thought it had happened? Not exactly. Britain may have left the EU, but its crucial future trading relations with the bloc are still being discussed, and in an unproductive and acrimonious way.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, has popped up in a Sunday newspaper warning Boris Johnson that he must keep his promises if a deal is to be finalised by the end of the year.
But this is exactly what the Government says about the EU — that it has broken its word. The specific charge against Brussels is that it has withdrawn the offer of a Canada-style trade agreement, and is demanding the UK continues to abide by EU rules as though it were still a member of the organisation.
Michel Barnier (left), the EU’s chief negotiator, has popped up in a Sunday newspaper warning Boris Johnson (right) that he must keep his promises if a deal is to be finalised by the end of the year
The truth is that the two sides are as far apart as ever, and there seems little prospect that the fourth round of talks, which began yesterday, will lead anywhere. A showdown later in the month between the Prime Minister and the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, looks likely.
In short, our old companion No Deal — which most of us have put out of our minds during the nightmare of Covid-19 — is back in the frame. Almost no one wants such an outcome, which would involve tariffs between the EU and UK.
That is why many people, including even some Brexiteers, may be seduced by the subtext in Mr Barnier’s Sunday Times interview. Essentially, he is saying that the gulf between the EU and UK is so huge that an agreement by the end of the year is a pipe dream, even though the deadline has been enshrined in British law.
The feline Mr Barnier is tempting us with an argument that has superficial allure. With Covid-19 still a time- consuming preoccupation, we need a lot more time to sort out our many differences. It can’t be accomplished in the next seven months.
A showdown later in the month between the Prime Minister and the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen (pictured), looks likely
Should we be taken in by his smooth suggestion? No, we should not! It would be little short of a disaster to jettison the December 31 deadline, which would involve repealing the Withdrawal Agreement Act. Let me explain why.
In the first place, if negotiations were to drag on for — who knows? — at least two more years after the end of this year, Britain would continue making an annual net payment of some £9 billion without having any say in the EU’s deliberations, since we are no longer a member.
We would be a captive, but one that was expected to pay an enormous amount of money for the privilege of being incarcerated. This sum would almost certainly increase substantially when Brussels passes around the hat, probably early next year, to raise extra billions for a Covid-19 fighting fund.
That’s bad enough, but the tactical consequences of a delay could be even more damaging. If the British Government were to agree to give up its end-of-the-year time limit, Brussels would have won a tremendous psychological victory, and drive a harder bargain in a final deal.
It was, in fact, a singular achievement on Mr Johnson’s part to get the EU to accept a December 31 cut-off. Its initial response was that no agreement could be made in so short a time, but it knuckled down in the end. Now the cover of Covid-19 is being used to finagle an extension.
Britain’s able chief negotiator David Frost, pictured on March 2 arriving for talks in Brussels, has been pushing for a free-trade agreement with zero tariffs
So the Government is absolutely right to insist the deadline can’t be changed. It is very important that Mr Barnier, and indeed all EU leaders, don’t think Mr Johnson is bluffing. If they suspect he is, and that a prolongation is on the cards, they won’t negotiate in good faith.
However, there is no disguising that the upshot of the Prime Minister playing hardball could be No Deal, which, as I say, is an eventuality almost no one wants. But it can still be avoided if both parties show more flexibility, and a willingness to compromise on the final terms.
So far as Brussels is concerned, there is a tendency to treat Britain as though it is some kind of satellite of the EU, and not an independent country. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the tough line Mr Barnier has taken on fishing.
To all intents and purposes, the EU wants the access its fishing fleets enjoyed in UK waters when this country was a member state to continue now we have left. The Government argues that, as is the case with non-EU Norway, Britain must decide how and when foreign fleets should be permitted to fish in our waters.
In the past week or two, there have been murmurings which suggest that some EU nations realise Mr Barnier has been given too narrow a negotiating brief. But it remains to be seen whether countries such as France, Ireland and Denmark — all of them accustomed to fishing in our waters — are prepared to compromise.
‘Nowhere is this more apparent than in the tough line Mr Barnier has taken on fishing,’ says Stephen Glover
The EU is surely also deluded to think that any British government could accept in any shape or form the final arbitration of the European Court in the event of trade disputes between Britain and Brussels.
But if the European Union hasn’t woken up to Britain’s new status as a sovereign state, it is also true that No 10 shows signs of wanting the commercial advantages of membership without the responsibilities.
For example, Britain’s able chief negotiator David Frost has been pushing for a free-trade agreement with zero tariffs. But is it unreasonable for Brussels to ask the UK for a legally-binding pledge not to undercut the EU, either through dispensing lashings of state aid or adopting lower employment and environmental standards?
It’s obvious that, if there is to be an agreement, there will have to be give and take on both sides. Boris Johnson finally broke the log-jam last autumn by accepting, somewhat controversially, that Northern Ireland should remain aligned to the EU Single Market. He showed that he is capable of making pragmatic concessions.
Stephen Glover says: ‘Boris Johnson finally broke the log-jam last autumn by accepting, somewhat controversially, that Northern Ireland should remain aligned to the EU Single Market’
Unless, of course, his naturally emollient heart has calcified under the influence of Dominic Cummings. Some Brexiteers believe the economic repercussions of No Deal pale into insignificance alongside the near-catastrophic consequences of Covid-19. They reckon the pain of No Deal might scarcely be noticed amid the agony brought about by the contagion.
All one can say is that it would be a foolhardy Prime Minister who embraced No Deal if a mutually advantageous agreement with the EU were possible, as there is still good reason for thinking that one is. I shouldn’t be surprised, though, if it comes at five minutes to midnight.
As for the EU, assuming its leaders and negotiators want a deal, which I believe they do, they would be rash to believe they can call Mr Johnson’s bluff over the deadline, and unwise to conclude that the Government has been badly blown off course by last week’s Cummings fiasco or its mishandling of the pandemic.
December 31 will not be breached in any circumstances. Nor should it be. Let us hope that, notwithstanding the many exhausting challenges thrown up by this dreadful pandemic, there are enough broad-minded and clear-sighted politicians on each side to broker a deal that is in the interests of both Britain and Europe.