by Frank Schnittger
Thu Aug 23rd, 2018 at 11:09:27 AM EST
Oui has an excellent diary up on the lack of progress made by May's summer diplomatic offensive trying to reset the Brexit negotiations and make her already "dead in the water" Chequers strategy the basis for future discussions. May managed to achieve an opening negotiating position 18 months too late, only to have it thrashed by her own side before she could even bring it to Europe.
In terms of a coherent negotiating strategy, May also got her timing all wrong. Having given Barnier his negotiating brief, European leaders were hardly going to undermine the Brussels negotiating process by overruling current EU negotiating positions.
Getting an agreed negotiating position among 27 nations and other significant actors is actually a considerable (if unsung) achievement: Why would EU leaders want to unravel all of that and throw their side of the negotiation into utter confusion, possibly precipitating Barnier's resignation, and playing into classic UK divide and conquer tactics?
There is a scenario where it might make sense for the EU Council to take over the conduct of the negotiations from the Commission, but only in the context of a last minute crisis where the UK needs a symbolic concession to bring an agreement over the line. "Putting one over" hated Brussels Bureaucrats might be sufficient to sugar a very bitter pill from a UK point of view providing it with a PR victory even if it makes little difference to the substance of the Brexit agreement. May must be seen to have gone "to the ends of the earth" in order to get the best deal possible.
It is worth noting, in this context, that Article 50 makes no mention of the EU Commission whatsoever. It is merely an administrative convenience that the Council has delegated the conduct of the negotiation to the EU's chief administrative arm, although Commission support for any final Brexit deal might make it easier to achieve the required threshold of an enhanced qualified majority as defined by Article 238(3)(b) of the Lisbon Treaty.
An enhanced qualified majority is defined as "at least 72% of the members of the Council representing Member States comprising at least 65% of the population of these States" as opposed to the Article 238(3)(a) weighted majority requirement of "at least 55% of the members of the Council representing the participating Member States, comprising at least 65% of the population of these States." Normally an enhanced qualified majority is only required where "the Council does not act on a proposal from the Commission or from the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy" but it is a requirement for an A.50 exit agreement in any case.
Others here may correct me on this, but I have not come across much informed speculation as to what actually transpired at these recent private bilateral Head of Government meetings with May. They may have been little more than courtesy meetings to give May the opportunity to look important and let off some steam. The UK would be making a grave error to mistake such courtesy for weakness.
So far the EU27's conduct of these negotiations has been little short of exemplary. All the EU leaders seem clear that the future of the EU depends on maintaining solidarity in these negotiations and ensuring that Brexit is not allowed to undermine the cohesion and functioning of the EU27 afterwards. All are clear that Brexit will result in at least some economic dislocation for their economies, but that this is less bad than allowing it to undermine the functioning of the EU as a whole.
The sad fact, from an EU27 perspective, is that Brexit cannot be allowed to be a success for the UK, as this would undermine the raison d'être of the EU27 as a whole. An EU27 may be a less optimal arrangement than an EU28 with the UK included, but it is a lot preferable to the break-up of the EU altogether.
Jeremy Hunt has already started the blame games in preparation of a no deal Brexit, but it is not Tory hardliners who would benefit most, despite their professed alacrity at such an outcome. It is the EU as a political project which would benefit most, as it does from Trump's depredations, despite the short term economic damage such an outcome would also do to the EU27.
In this context, the UK's attempts to build an alliance with Trump's USA could not be going any less well. Not only does Trump's Presidency appear to be unraveling, but Trumps's advice that the UK should sue the EU rather than negotiate, could not have been less helpful. What Court should the UK sue in? The European Court of Justice whose jurisdiction May is determined to leave? And on what basis? Article 50 gives no guarantees, and even provides for a no-deal Brexit.
And so it is that both sides are now stepping up their preparations for a no-deal Brexit, both to prepare for the increasing probability of such an outcome, and to concentrate the minds of partisans on both sides on the actual real world consequences of such an outcome. From having been described by Liam Fox as the easiest thing in human history, a Brexit deal is becoming almost impossible to agree.
The UK's resilient economic performance to date, albeit less robust than any of its G7 competitors has so far insulated UK voters from the worst consequences of Brexit with the result that there has only been a relatively small movement in opinion polling on Brexit to date.
The EU27 may well come to the view that it will still take some years for UK attitudes and expectations to change to a sufficient degree to make a post-Brexit deal with the UK a realistic possibility. Given the likelihood that a no-deal split will be extremely acrimonious and lead to a post Brexit surge in British nationalism, it may be a very long time before a more constructive EU/UK relationship become politically possible.
In this context May's summer summit diplomacy must be seen as an act of desperation rather than a shrewd political move with any realistic prospect of success. The reality is that all sides are now preparing for an almost inevitable failure. The UK may be hoping that the EU will ignore its own rules and do business as before in the event of a no-deal Brexit, but that is simply not going to happen. The EU is a multinational construct bound by treaties, laws and rules that cannot simply be bent to suit a departing member.
On a purely practical level, EU firms would not be able to compete with UK firms after a further, likely, devaluation of Sterling by up to 20%. Especially where WTO tariffs do not apply, the EU will be forced to erect non-tariff barriers, if only to protect its own industries in a context where exports to the UK are bound to suffer through sterling devaluation.
Ireland could be the big loser in all of this, but that is a topic for another diary!