by Frank Schnittger
Sun Nov 25th, 2018 at 01:09:08 PM EST
The Brexit deal has been agreed by the European Council in the time it would take to eat a good breakfast brunch in a Brussels brasserie. No point in wasting a whole day on this sort of thing. It's happening for the optics only, to send one clear message to all concerned: THIS IS BREXIT, this is the deal, we are not going to revisit it. Take it or leave it.
The House of Commons can huff and puss all it wants, vote for it, against it, amend it to its hearts content: But this is the deal. Mutti Merkel has said so. She wouldn't have wasted her time coming to Brussels if anyone was going to reopen the debate.
Boris Johnson is absolutely right: This Brexit deal is a historic mistake, and he should know. He has been the prime mistake maker: leading the UK up the garden path of delusional dreams. Nothing encapsulates that delusion more than the gap between what this deal delivers for the UK and what the Brexiteers said they would be able to negotiate in "the easiest deal in history".
The Gibraltar dispute was useful, from an EU perspective, in demonstrating that it is not just the UK that is unhappy with aspects of the Brexit deal. There has been an attitude in the UK that the EU will cave if the UK shouts loud enough, and demands certain changes.
Not only is this unlikely, from an EU perspective, because it is by no means certain that there are any changes, acceptable to the EU, which would bring a majority in the House of Commons on board, but re-opening the negotiations could open a Pandora's Box of demands from other members among the EU27.
Sánchez has gotten his hour in the sun (or rather his people got to pull an all-nighter) and was made look strong in relation to Gibraltar ahead of the Andalusian elections. Merkel could perform her favourite "adult in the room" routine, and the UK is reminded that any renegotiation, even if it were to occur, would not be a one way street.
The centrality of the Irish border to the negotiating process and the shape of the final deal is also a reminder of how much stronger your negotiating position is if you have the backing of a powerful and united trading block. Varadker has performed the difficult task, for him, of saying as little as possible, without quite being able to wipe the smug smile of satisfaction from his face.
Good luck with trying to negotiate your own trade deals in the future if you turn down this deal is the message. Michel Barnier advised MPs to vote for the deal on the table, suggesting that a "no" vote could damage negotiations on the future relationship. "Now it is time for everybody to take their responsibilities, everybody," he said. The deal was "a necessary step to build the trust between the UK and the EU" to build "an unprecedented and ambitious future partnership." The EU is now even using the UK's florid and meaningless piffle against it.
From day one, this negotiation has been almost a one way process: Brussels set down the timetable for the negotiations, stipulating they had to be complete this autumn. A.50 is actually very sparse to the point of being silent on the substance of the agreement itself, saying only that it should set out "the arrangements for [a members] withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union".
It was Brussels which insisted that the agreement should deal with 4 basic issues:
- An Exit Payment to settle outstanding liabilities
- Provide for the continuing rights of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU
- Avoid a hard customs Irish Border, and (later)
- provide for a Transition Period
It was Brussels which decided that the future relationship could be dealt with only when the above four issues had been settled, and that it should only be covered by a a vague aspirational and non-legally binding short document. It did so to prevent the UK from using the disruption caused by a hard Brexit as bargaining leverage in the new negotiations. In particular, the Peace Process in Northern Ireland was not going to be allowed to become a bargaining lever or collateral damage.
The negotiations on a future relationship will take place from a starting point of the UK being a third party outside the Union, seeking to preserve and retain a close trading relationship with the largest trading block in the world. Ask Canada how that feels. Ask Yanis Varoufakis for that matter. He too had the backing of a popular national referendum for his negotiating position. Little good it did him...
When the history of these negotiations is written, I would not be surprised to find that the vast bulk of the 585 page Brexit deal was written by EU officials, with the UK side getting to argue over a word here and there. And it was not necessarily because the UK negotiators were being totally incompetent: they simply had no clear political guidance on what their negotiating priorities should be, and what trade-offs they could offer in return for their priorities.
The EU negotiators had the luxury of clear political guidance and a clear legal framework to work from. Juncker and Barnier took great care to keep all 27 remaining member governments on board. For many, Brexit was not a life and death issue and they were happy to let the Commission, Germany, France, the Benelux countries and Ireland take the lead. Nevertheless their achievement in maintaining a united front among the EU27 with only token dissent is remarkable.
Contrast that with the UK, where Conservative law makers and the DUP seemed to delight in undermining Theresa May's negotiating position at every opportunity, humiliating her into embarrassing U-turns and rubbishing proposals before they had even been presented as opening negotiating offers in Brussels. Brussels negotiators merely had to sit and wait while their adversaries did the hard work of shredding their own proposals. As Napoleon is reputed to have said: "Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake".
A 26 page non legally binding "Political Declaration" dealing with the proposed future relationship between the EU and UK has also been hastily cobbled together to provide Theresa May with as much political cover as possible. It uses the word "consider" 19 times and kicks all the more difficult issues into the long grass of future negotiations. If the House of Commons has difficulties with the 585 page legally binding Brexit deal, the EU will be more than happy to accommodate those concerns by putting more emollient phrases into this text.
The EU strategy appears to be to draw a line under the legally binding text and redirect UK anger onto the political declaration. If the House of Commons passes various amendments to the Brexit deal the EU will seek to accommodate them, as best as possible, in the political declaration. But from now on, passing the Brexit deal through the UK constitutional process is essentially an internal UK matter. The EU can only negotiate with governments, and it has fulfilled its obligation, under A.50, to do just that.
The DUP, meanwhile, is going almost beserk, angry that their natural allies in the business and agricultural communities in N. Ireland have abandoned them. There has long been a convention in N. Ireland politics for business and trade never to get involved in N. Ireland politics. Not only is it extremely divisive and damaging to business, but it used to be a matter of life and death. Seamus Heaney summed it up in his poem: "Whatever you say, say nothing". So for them to speak out publicly, in tandom with just about every other Northern political party is "a wonder to behold".
It remains to be seen whether time and circumstance do their thing and House of Commons attitudes to this deal change when they consider the alternatives. Seasoned observers expect many more twists and turns in this tale before the matter is settled. Jacob Rees-Moggs' dramatic and outraged but failed challenge to Theresa May's leadership - when it turned out he couldn't even muster 48 MP's to sign letters to that effect (from among his own 80 strong European Research Group caucus) may be a straw in the wind. Certainly Theresa May's resilience in the face of adversity is drawing some respect even from her adversaries.
If there isn't a majority in the House of Commons for this deal, or for no deal, and no other deal is in prospect, where do you go?