by Frank Schnittger
Mon Jun 11th, 2018 at 11:54:41 AM EST
It seems increasingly obvious that the May government is incapable of formulating a coherent negotiating position its negotiators can use to progress the Brexit talks much further. Hemmed in by the DUP and Brexiteers in her own party who have the numbers to mount a leadership challenge, and a Parliament which has a soft Brexit (if not an outright Remainer) majority, her strategy to date has been to procrastinate, prevaricate and delay.
The problem is she is rapidly running out of time. She can probably afford another non-event of an EU summit this month, but if at least the outlines of a Brexit deal aren't agreed by the time the October summit comes around, a hard, "no-deal" Brexit looms. Boris Johnson assumes that the Brexit talks will have to go into a melt-down and lauds Trump's much more confrontational approach.
"Imagine Trump doing Brexit. He'd go in bloody hard. There'd be all sorts of breakdowns, all sorts of chaos. Everyone would think he'd gone mad. But actually you might get somewhere. It's a very, very good thought."
That's probably as good as Boris' thinking gets.
However there are a few problems with this approach. Firstly, even Trump hasn't actually gotten very far with the 'bull in a china shop' approach. He may have ripped up the Paris Climate Change Accord and the Iran Nuclear deal, threatened to withdraw from NAFTA and do business with N. Korea, but what concrete positive arrangements has he put in their place? He hasn't even gotten his wall built.
Secondly, Trump is in a much stronger negotiating position leading the worlds only economic and military superpower, controlling the global reserve currency and running major trading deficits with the other major players. The EU and China certainly have a lot to lose in any major confrontation with Trump.
Not so much with the UK, however, which takes in only 4% of EU27 exports. So while a reduction in EU/UK trade would be damaging to the EU, it would be more in the nature of a bump in the road. The UK, by contrast, exports of 40% of its total exports to the EU. Ireland is the EU member state most heavily exposed to UK trade, and the only EU member state with which the UK runs a large trade surplus. So even here the UK would suffer more from a reduction in trade in absolute terms.
Moreover, as the Brexit talks have progressed, and despite all the talk of "a clean break", the EU negotiating team have been taken aback by how much the UK wants to continue being a member of various EU agencies and Treaties as if Brexit had never happened. All of this may be possible, no doubt, but we haven't even begun to discuss how much the EU will charge for continued membership. The sum total of membership charges at retail prices is unlikely to come in at less that the wholesale cost of EU membership as a whole.
So Boris can bang on about thumping the table as much as he wants. No doubt some all night negotiating sessions can be stage managed to ensure that everyone gets the impression some very hard bargains have been struck. No doubt talks may break down at certain stages only to be revived by the 'adults in the room' - presumably, Merkel, Macron and May - banging heads together.
But the overall shape of the deal is becoming clear: Yes, a transition until 2020 will be agreed, to allow all sides to better prepare for the split and enable trade talks to progress. Yes, selective membership of various agencies and treaties will be allowed - at prices yet to be negotiated. Yes, a special dispensation will be allowed for N. Ireland, but this will probably involve customs controls in the Irish sea whether May or the DUP like it or not. Ultimately, if the UK retains some form of membership or access to the Single market and Customs Union, these may not be necessary. But we are a long way from that outcome becoming clear.
From a Brexiteer point of view, it is essential that May "owns" the Brexit deal, and all the politically damaging compromises it will entail. She will be dumped like a hot potato as soon as the deal is done and passed by a soft Brexit dominated Parliament. Parliament, too, will be dumped by the UK electorate when the full effects of Brexit become clear. Then Boris and Co. can run the show - or at least that's the very cunning plan... But what we are witnessing now is essentially a pantomime act with Boris as the chief jester, playing the hard man, while seeking to avoid all responsibility for an outcome he, more than anyone, has been instrumental in bringing about.