by Frank Schnittger
Sun Sep 23rd, 2018 at 08:30:58 PM EST
In all the hullabaloo about the EU's rejection of the Chequers proposals, one little detail has been forgotten: The Chequers proposals were never going to be part of the Brexit agreement in the first place. If agreed, they would have been part of the proposals for the future relationship between the EU and UK - as contained in a non-binding "Political Declaration" - to accompany the legally binding Brexit agreement.
The Brexit agreement itself is concerned mainly with the UK's exit payment, the treatment of EU nationals in the UK and UK nationals in the EU, and with the back-stop on the Irish border. According to all parties, that Brexit agreement has been 90% agreed, and the UK even signed up to the EU's outline proposals on the backstop in December 2017.
Theresa May only got cold feet on the deal in March 2018 when the EU produced a legally enforceable text which defined how it would work in detail.[Pages 108-116 of attached draft Brexit Agreement (PDF)]. Realizing that a failure to secure full access to the EU Customs Union and Single Market would result in some kind of customs or regulatory difference and therefore control requirements between Great Britain and N. Ireland, she caved in to DUP pressure and declared no British Prime Minister could ever agree to this.
Except she already had agreed to it (in principle). So the row over the EU rejection of the Chequers proposals (which had already been killed off by internal Tory party opposition before they ever got to Salzburg) is nothing but a red herring to distract attention from her real difficulty with the DUP. The political declaration to accompany the formal Brexit Treaty can be as vague or aspirational as she likes, referencing Chequers, Norway or Canada +++, but whatever it contains is not legally enforceable and won't be agreed in detail until towards the end of the transition period in any case.
Fintan O'Toole sees a dark conspiracy in all of this. Realizing that the EU proposals would give N. Ireland free and full access to the EU Customs Union and Single market (CUSM), May saw an opportunity to use this as a means of retaining full access to the CUSM for the UK via the back door of N. Ireland.
Suddenly the prospect of having any kind of controls between N. Ireland and Great Britain became absolute anathema. Never mind that controls on agricultural products and animals already exist, and the fact that N. Ireland already diverges starkly from Great Britain on matters like abortion services, marriage equality, and recognition and protection of minority languages.
When both the EU and many in the Tory party rejected this ruse, on the grounds that continued membership of the CUSM would restrict the UK's ability to control immigration, negotiate its own trade deals with third parties, and reduce the UK to being a "rule taker" of EU rules it had no power to control, May produced her "compromise" Chequers proposals which restricted membership of CUSM to products and excluded services.
This compromise, too, was rejected by many in the Tory party (and the wider public) on the same grounds as before - as effectively turning the UK into a vassal state. It should not have been any great surprise to anyone when it was also rejected by the EU, on the grounds that you cannot "cherry pick" the parts of the CUSM you like.
So why the big row?
It all began to unravel at May's breakfast meeting with Varadker prior to the summit where May indicated that the UK's counter proposals to the EU's text on the backstop would not be available for quite some time to come. The EU had been preparing "to be nice" to May ahead of the Tory party conference, in the expectation that May would deliver on her earlier commitments on the backstop shortly thereafter.
Instead May penned a hardline op-ed in Die Welt on the eve of the summit, one which she repeated almost verbatim in a speech to EU leaders at the Summit dinner. It's hectoring and moralizing tone was too much for some leaders, particularly Macron, to take. The following day they responded in kind.
But let us not be taken in by this exercise in kabuki theater. The precise shape of the UK's ongoing trading relationship with the EU won't be contained in the Brexit agreement in any case. This is a matter which cannot and need not be resolved now. What matters in the conclusion of the final 10% of the formal Brexit agreement, and this includes above all, the legal wording to give effect to the backstop deal on the Irish border May had already agreed to.
If Salzburg did nothing else, it should have disabused May of the notion she can continue to procrastinate on this issue. At stake is that most precious of commodities in any negotiation: Trust. May has just run out of it. As Chris Johns says in the Irish Times:
Anybody who was surprised by the latest episode of Brexit psychodrama simply hasn't been paying attention.
The template for negotiations was set within hours after the June 2016 referendum: the European Union sets out its stall and waits for the British response. As soon as UK prime minister Theresa May's `red lines' became apparent, the EU could legally and logically offer only one of two routes: Canada or Norway. Each time this is politely repeated, the UK cabinet and the rest of the Conservative Party pay little attention to what Brussels says, choosing instead to have a row among themselves.
This little two-step has been repeated many times. After each Tory party row, when someone says something like "the EU can go whistle for its money", the British return to the negotiating table with some new concessions and a slightly shorter list of impossible demands.
The whole process will get repeated until that list is small enough for Brussels to start negotiating. We are almost there. That list of impossible demands is actually quite short but, on the face of it, irreconcilable: no borders in Ireland or down the middle of the Irish Sea.
Part of the psychology of all this is the importance attached to high dudgeon. It is vital that members of the British cabinet takes turns to get very upset, if not angry at some imagined insult from Brussels. It almost looks choreographed. If a moral high horse is spotted somewhere in the distance, great effort is expended to climb upon it.
It is vital that tabloid newspaper editors are given the opportunity to write headlines in a style not seen since the sinking of the Argentinian General Belgrano during the Falklands war. Everything is a "shock" or a "blow". Or, more latterly, May's "finest hour", the latest in a long line or Churchillian, wartime, references.
I'm not sure why it has to be this way: trying to understand what basic human needs are satisfied by this kind of behaviour leads to another form of madness. But the results are clear. One consequence is an erosion of faith in the British as capable and efficient administrators.
Another is the evisceration of trust: any agreement, free trade or otherwise, can only ever be negotiated between parties who trust each other. There has been plenty of British backsliding but the signing last December of the Border backstop deal, followed by an immediate effective breach of contract, has been quietly noticed everywhere.