8th December 2020
We are now at the latest Brexit endgame.
Another endgame in that succession of contests between the United Kingdom and the European Union that we call Brexit.
This latest contest is about whether there will be an agreement between the European Union and the United Kingdom for the relationship following the end of the transition period on 31st December 2020.
And the United Kingdom has a difficult choice.
With @BorisJohnson we took stock of the negotiations. The conditions for an agreement are not there due to remaining differences on critical issues.— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) December 7, 2020
We asked our Chief Negotiators to prepare an overview of the remaining differences to be discussed in person in the coming days. pic.twitter.com/rWCWlMz0dv
The choice is between the United Kingdom agreeing to the terms on offer or refusing those terms.
Take these terms or leave them.
This outcome, like previous outcomes in this process, will be determined by whether the United Kingdom refuses to agree a thing or agrees that thing on the terms of the European Union.
And this is how ‘taking back control’ has worked out in practice.
The European Union’s way, or the highway.
And, as before, it is more likely than not that the United Kingdom will agree a thing on the terms of the European Union.
This latest agreement was to be called the ‘treaty of London’ as a patriotic gesture.
But instead, it is Boris Johnson who has been summoned this week to Brussels.
Perhaps the European Union will not be so insensitive as to provide a disused Eurostar railway carriage as the venue for any reeluctant signature of instruments of the trade agreement.
Is ‘no deal’ still possible?
There is a real prospect that Johnson going to Brussels will not mean he agrees to the presented trade agreement.
Even with the United Kingdom government jettisoning the makeweight issues of fisheries and the Internal Market Bill clauses, there are two serious issues of contention.
The outstanding issues are the governance of the agreement (that is, how is to be enforced if things go wrong) and the ‘level playing field’ of regulatory equivalence (that is, how is any divergence from the current common commercial standards be managed).
A moment’s thought should make any sensible person realise that these two issues go to the very centre of any future relationship agreement.
For these issues to still be open just days before the end of the Brexit transition period is not a good sign.
There is no indication or reason to believe that the European Union will compromise on either issue.
Not least because the European Union will be fully aware of how any compromise in this agreement will affect its credibility in other trade agreements, and European Union negotiators are not fools.
So it will either be the European Union’s way, or the highway.
And the United Kingdom is perfectly capable of choosing the daft way.
Could things have been different?
What if, for example, the United Kingdom had exercised its (now lost) power to request an extension of a further year to the transition period?
That certainly would have been prudent from a practical perspective: it would have enabled the European Union and the United Kingdom to deal with other pressing issues, not least the coronavirus pandemic.
Does anyone seriously think the United Kingdom government would have used this further year working out what it wanted from Brexit?
It has had since 2016 to work out its position, and there is no reason to think that another year would have made any difference.
Had there been a year’s extension to the transition period, the United Kingdom’s (lack of) position would have been the same in December 2021 as it is now in December 2020.
So, if this is the current predicament – who is to blame?
There are currently pundits putting forward the view that the lack of a ‘soft’ Brexit, with the United Kingdom staying in either the single market and/or the customs union is somehow the fault of those who were not in government since 2016.
Remainers are certainly culpable for losing the referendum – after 43 years of membership, the referendum was theirs to lose.
And, in my view, Remain lost the 2016 referendum far more than Leave won it.
But once Theresa May made ‘Brexit means Brexit’ the basis of her bid to become prime minister and Conservative party leadership, there is no plausible chain of events that would have led to any Brexit being a ‘soft’ Brexit rather than a hard one.
(Brexit may have been avoided by a general election or a further referendum, or there may have been endless delays in sending the Article 50 notification – but if Brexit was to happen it was never going to be a happy one.)
‘Brexit means Brexit’ quickly became the red lines, and the red lines in turn necessarily meant the United Kingdom leaving the customs union and the single market.
Remainers can be blamed for losing the referendum, but not for government policy on Brexit thereafter.
Now we are a few days before the end of the transition period, without either an agreement or much clue.
Both a trade agreement on the terms of the European Union and no deal seem possible.
This is perhaps the worst possible position for the United Kingdom to be in at this time.
But since May told us ‘Brexit means Brexit’ it is difficult to see how any departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union could have ended up any better.
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