The Brexit saga keeps going, now reaching the point where the UK government has stated that the Withdrawal Agreement reached in October, which became an ‘oven ready deal’ helping the Conservatives win a General Election in December, then a treaty so good it needed only minimal scrutiny from Parliament in January, is not acceptable in September. To variously baffled, concerned, and bemused looks from inside and outside the UK a Minister stood up in the UK Parliament and said the country did not need to follow international law in the form of the Withdrawal Agreement as long as any breach was limited and specific. Needless to say this is an interpretation of international law likely only to find favour with those who didn’t think much of it to start with.
Meanwhile trade talks between the UK and the EU seem to have reached an impasse, over fishing rights and the EU ask to go beyond WTO disciplines on state aid. The latter is thought to be the bigger issue, the EU ask in line with the development of Free Trade Agreements containing ever more detailed rules being in contradiction with the UK’s emerging notion of regulatory sovereignty. This notion may only be directed towards the EU, for if taken more widely it would eliminate the possibility of a Free Trade Agreement with the US and probably the UK’s membership of the WTO.
The most common question from outside the UK is how we got to such a state, and to explain this we are probably better starting with the Leader of the Labour Party, Sir Keir Starmer, who has been mostly silent over the EU issue since his election earlier in the year, for fear of being seen as wanting to reverse the decision to leave the EU. Thus his main comment on the state of talks was to say that he expects a deal. This sits alongside various articles asking whether the Prime Minister wants a deal, which not surprisingly conclude that he does, and believe this is then case closed.
The problem is not the UK, whether Labour or Conservative, wanting a deal. It is that the deal that the UK seems to want, of privileged non-membership access without cost, it not available, has not been available since 2016, and that neither Labour or Conservative Party is prepared to admit this. Worse still, by failing to be honest about the fundamental problem that such a deal will never be agreeable to the EU, they transfer the blame away from the UK in the minds of the media and wider public, and in doing so trap the country in a cycle of disappointment.
There is some alternate history in the UK that the problem was rejecting Prime Minister May’s proposals of 2018, first the idea of a “shared market” with the EU, then the completed Withdrawal Agreement of November. But the first was similarly never going to be acceptable to the EU, and the second, containing the original Northern Ireland backstop, never domestically acceptable to the UK given the extent of compromise.
It was seen as a testament to Boris Johnson’s skills of sales and self-delusion that he was able to brand his October 2019 climbdown over Northern Ireland, making the backstop a frontstop in exactly the way the EU wanted, a victory for the UK. But without at some time being honest about what was signed the level of contradiction became too great, in particular his own promises that trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain would not be affected by checks was clearly incorrect given the treaty. It was attempting to turn his words into reality that led a UK Minister to state that the government would override a treaty.
This then reopens the Northern Ireland problem of the UK leaving the EU, again never fully acknowledged, that if two territories have different regulations and tariffs then border infrastructure is needed. The agreed Protocol places Northern Ireland in the EU zone and the border in the sea, covered by some warm words about it still being part of the UK. The previous backstop would have kept the whole UK in the EU zone if no other agreement could be reached. The alternative, a land border in Ireland, risks peace, and also a UK-US trade deal given the strength of the Irish lobby there. Brexiteer hopes of using so-called “alternative arrangements” were an interesting but ultimately futile exercise which started with the answer and then hoped it fitted the question, of how you could avoid border infrastructure. It didn’t.
Nothing then has been resolved in the UK, because no truth is being faced with regard to the EU. That the UK may be an important neighbour, but that the EU will set its own interests and base agreements on its own precedents. That these precedents will mean extra access will require following EU rules, because that is the basis of EU third country agreements. The UK government talks of a ‘Canada style’ agreement, but of course CETA contains EU regulatory export appropriate for that market. The UK also wants more preferential access, for example in terms of haulage, than the Canadians. Because of course the EU as the UK’s nearest market is important for trade, and extra barriers to trade could have significant impacts.
The implications of this refusal to face facts are continuing instability in the UK, for reasons never satisfactorily explained to the public. Talk of Irish unification and Scottish independence are no longer unrealistic, politicians in both having understood the issues with a clarity that seems to evade their London counterparts. Any agreement will disappoint, and the EU will be to blame. Short of conceding on their own interests there is little the EU can do about this than be consistent and calm, explain the choices, and wait. Which is what has happened to date, more or less.
Ultimately until the UK public debate honestly acknowledges the realistic choices outside the EU we are trapped, with unpredictable implications that now include overturning 75 years of UK foreign policy in support of a global rules based order. Politicians believe that to acknowledge choices is to lose an election. Where this may lead is Boris Johnson being the politician who won the election but lost the UK, with much of it still confused about what happened.