Note: Longer and updated version of the article originally published at The Conservative Woman earlier today, Saturday 29 February 2020
A weekend update on some recent key Brexit-relevant story headlines, choosing four which, while not necessarily meriting a full-length article, nevertheless warrant a paragraph or two of comment, rather than merely a couple of lines. (NB: (£) denotes article behind paywall.)
Dealing with the French: Frost versus Barnier, Bacon versus Descartes – Robert Tombs at Briefings for Britain
Few are better qualified than Professor Tombs to expound on the historically different approaches to philosophy and law which govern the respective attitudes of the French and English towards the negotiating of treaties. The former view the opening text as sacred, to be departed from only minimally, if at all: for the latter, it is merely a starting point from which give-and-take bartering can proceed towards, eventually, a mutually acceptable outcome.
Personally, I find it a curious paradox how, when it comes to the nuts and bolts of trade negotiations, it’s the British who are pragmatic and transactional, while the Brussels Eurocrats are institutional and inflexible: but that, when it comes to the philosophical question of EU membership per se, it’s the Eurocrats who are transactional, emphasising alleged economic advantage, while the British are constitutional, prioritising the principles of sovereignty, democracy and self-government over the risk of temporary economic disruption.
Anyway, to the schism identified by Professor Tombs must be added current domestic politics among the main EU protagonists. In Germany, Merkel’s originally anointed successor as CDU party leader and Chancellor having withdrawn, the contest has now degenerated into an unedifying struggle between two fairly unimpressive male apparatchiks. In France, an already unpopular Macron faces municipal elections in late March from which he is likely to emerge weakened.
The two diametrically different approaches, coupled with more volatile both French and German domestic politics, could well turn the Brexit trade-talks into a dialogue of the deaf. In which case, the likelihood of Britain deciding that further negotiation is pointless, and walking away to WTO terms, will become even greater.
This is about the EU’s restrictions on the power of member-states’ national legislatures on state-aid and competition. Yet despite the insistence by Barnier on ‘red lines’ for a ‘level playing field’ regarding his demand for continuing UK-EU ‘regulatory alignment’ after Brexit, the EU is, as ever, the greatest breaker of the rules it purports to impose on others.
Germany, France, Belgium and Italy all receive favourable state-aid dispensations at between three and four times the rate Britain does. Some ‘level playing field’. . . . Moreover, identifying where responsibility lies for administering the rules is typically shrouded in bureaucratic obfuscation. It would be futile focusing on this area to the detriment of others in negotiation.
Once again, it’s possible to envisage this issue causing Labour some trouble domestically, especially if the party, though nominally united, has ongoing tensions between the soft-Left faction of presumed winner Starmer and the defeated hard-Left camp grouped around Long-Bailey. Remember, Corbyn repeatedly appeared torn between his desire as a Remainer to stay within the EU’s ambit and his desire as a socialist to use taxpayers’ money to prop up failing businesses.
UK-EU: a question of trust – Financial Times (£)
Briefly, for those unable to breach the paywall, the article references the spat between Britain and the EU on the former’s accusation that the EU resiled from its offer of a Canada-style Free Trade Agreement, and the latter’s accusation that Britain is resiling from a previous agreement not to re-open aspects of Theresa May’s Political declaration. It goes on to regret the end result of the document supposed to guide the negotiations being at the centre of a feud.
It’s hard not to see a combination of naïveté and anti-Brexit EU-philia at work here. These negotiations were always going to be conducted in an atmosphere of bad faith on the EU’s side. The reason isn’t hard to discern. Going back to Professor Tombs’ article, for Britain, these negotiations are transactional: for the EU, on the other hand, they are near-existential.
As the Bruges Group remarked this week. . .
The UK does not demand special treatment from the EU.
We merely expect the EU to treat us like any other country.
And if they don’t? We’ll walk away.
— Bruges Group 🇬🇧 (@BrugesGroup) February 27, 2020
Indeed. But that’s also slightly to miss the point. The EU is conceptually incapable of treating us like any other country. Alone among other countries who joined it, we have chosen to repudiate and quit their to them noble but to us neo-imperial Project. For that, in their world-view, we are heretics who must not only be punished for our apostasy but be seen to be punished for it. If that sounds quasi-religious, it’s because it is. These negotiations were pre-destined to be acrimonious.
The UK and EU Negotiating Mandates Compared – Global Vision
It’s clear from this comprehensive, up-to-date summary, including all the developments of the past week, that behind the spin disseminated via the headline/soundbite-wanting media lie some potentially insoluble points of contention.
Fishing is the obvious and arguably also the most difficult one since, despite its relative insignificance economically, it is hugely important politically and even almost symbolically, given its public profile: one can easily see it being the bellwether by which the whole deal is judged. The UK has rejected both keeping current levels of access for other EU member-states, and sequencing. It could be the difference between an agreement and WTO.
The so-called level playing field and rules of origin issue, and I think we can expect EU obduracy on financial services, torn as it is between mercantilist envy of the City’s dominance and knowledge of EU firms’ dependence on it. Generally, if the EU refuses to budge on demanding its own legal order be supervening, the UK has made it clear there will be no agreement. Don’t delete your online WTO guide just yet.
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