by Frank Schnittger
Mon Oct 16th, 2017 at 10:26:38 AM EST
Many here at the European Tribune have been predicting a hard Brexit almost from day one, convinced that the UK government was being almost totally unrealistic in what it expected to achieve out of the negotiations. Ministers seemed to be negotiating with themselves and each other as to what they really wanted, with any consideration of why the EU might actually want to concede such things barely an afterthought, if that.
Conscious that the Brexit negotiations were going to be difficult and complex, Theresa May quickly came up with another cliche to rival her famous "Brexit means Brexit" mantra. Now it was "No deal is better than a bad deal" in an effort to put the wind up the EU negotiators and force concessions. Apparently Germany was supposed to act as the adult in the room and bring both sides to their senses and force a deal at the denouement.
But the gradual hardening of the UK negotiating position has had the opposite effect to what was perhaps intended. Instead of softening their position the EU side has looked on with increasing incredulity at the shifting sands across the Dover straits. Could the UK really be serious? Trade talks before a financial settlement is reached? An invisible Irish border despite the UK leaving the Single Market and Customs Union? EU citizens in the UK being used as bargaining chips and threatened with deportation despite their importance to the UK economy? A Transition deal with no quid pro quo?
But what perhaps no-one has anticipated was that a hard Brexit might actually become the UK policy objective. Political commentators have moved slowly from an initial position where a deal was seen as inevitable to one where the risks of a 'no deal' Brexit were seen to increase, if only because of the incompetence of the negotiators. Now Chris Johns in the Irish Times has come to the conclusion that far from being a result of a negotiating failure, a "Cliff Edge" Brexit is becoming the desired outcome for many on the UK side. Far from falling off a cliff, the UK may be getting ready to jump.
His analysis is well worth reading in full. Central to his thesis is the conclusion that "Brexitism" has become almost a cult, similar to Trumpism or climate change denial which is largely immune to factual intervention. All attempts at realism are portrayed as betrayal or even treason. Raising the implications of a hard Brexit is seen as defeatism or a lack of faith in what a "free" UK can achieve outside the constraints of the EU.
Judges are portrayed as traitors for upholding the primacy of parliament. The wholly independent office for budget responsibility, which is the Government's official economic forecasting body, is supposed to be forced to upgrade its gloomy forecasts into line with Boris Johnson's sunny vision of a post Brexit Britain trading with the "free" world. It's like the "Battle of Britain" all over again, with Boris Johnson auditioning for the role of Churchill. Perhaps it's all nostalgia for a time when Britannia ruled the waves, but a serious engagement with the EU it is not.
In response the EU Council is poised to declare that "insufficient progress" has been made in the Brexit talks to enable them to move on to the issue of most concern to the UK side - trade. Theresa May is flying over to meet Commission President Juncker today in a bid to kick start the stalled talks. But ultimately it isn't within Juncker's gift to move onto trade - or even a transition arrangement. That is entirely within the remit of the European Council, and here there has been a notable lack of success.
Attempts by May to go over the Commssion's head and appeal directly to Merkel and Macron have met with an almost indifferent response. They have other fish to fry. When Boris Johnson offered EU foreign ministers a trip in his rowing boat on the lake at his Chevening House retreat only Czech deputy Ivo Sramek took him up on his offer. "This is going to be a tremendous success" Johnson said, even as his wife warned him not to drown EU foreign Ministers...
The Labour party is insisting there is no majority within Parliament for a "no deal" Brexit but this rather misses the point. Brexit is happening in March 2019 whether there is a deal or not, and to date there has been no substantive discussions even on the possibility of a transition deal. The Brexiteers' fall back position - that WTO rules will apply - rather misses the point that the WTO only provides a framework for agreement: you still have to negotiate a deal on precise tariffs and quotas and on mutual regulatory recognition. In addition, WTO rules do not cover financial services, aviation landing rights, atomic energy regulation and are way out of date on medicines regulation. In other words, they will not avert chaos.
I have long harboured a suspicion that the Brexiteers' "no deal" scenario has been little more than a negotiating ploy: a way to force the EU to make concessions because of the sheer unthinkability of flights no longer being able to take place between the UK and EU, of many miles of tail-backs on roads approaching Dover and Calais Customs check points, of hundreds of thousands of ex-patriot workers having to return home. But I am no longer so sure. Events have a way of creating a dynamic all of their own.
Ever since the referendum, UK politics have been spiralling out of control in an ever more right-wing and xenophobic direction, and once Brexit actually happens, unanimity among the EU27 is required to put in place any fixes that may be required, however urgent. That creates an entirely new dynamic on the EU side: A Spain in need of a patriotic upsurge may play hard ball on Gibraltar. Eastern European Countries whose ex-pats have been turned away may want to exact some revenge. There is no telling how bad this could get unless the adults in the room take control again, and it seems there are hardly any left.
Paradoxically, a negotiator's worst nightmare is not having an intransigent opponent, but having one who doesn't appear to know what they want and who probably can't deliver on any deal even if one is agreed. Labour is probably correct in saying there is no majority in Parliament for a "no deal" Brexit, but is there a majority for any deal the EU could possibly concede? Expectations as to what a deal should contain seem to diverge more and more by the day.
The DUP will not countenance the only sensible solution to the Irish Border - that Customs controls should take place at air and sea ports, effectively turning N. Ireland into a Special Economic Zone - one of 4,500 in the world, the first of which was in Shannon - and which could largely shield N. Ireland from the fall-out from Brexit. But can May risk jilting them without risking a general election which would effectively be a Tory suicide mission?
So we are left caught between a rock and a hard place, between a rule bound EU and a UK elite rapidly losing control of its own polity. The EU cannot offer a deal the current UK Parliament can accept and even the competence of negotiators is no longer the issue. Soon the only question which may remain to be answered is whether the UK will fall off the Brexit cliff or whether it will decide to make a virtue out of necessity and actually jump off first to the cheers of many Brexiteers. Reality can wait...