The EU, on the other hand, has consistently favoured negotiating a deal - as befits a multilateral and rules based organisation. But could it be that the EU has come to the view that a better deal might become possible after a period of no deal has brought the British to their senses? Certainly there has been no hint of the EU softening its negotiating stance as the hard deadline for an agreement approaches: member states have resisted all calls to modify Barnier's negotiating mandate, and expressed concerns he might be in danger of breaching their red lines.
Attempts by Boris Johnson to negotiate directly with Merkel and Macron have been rebuffed. Not even the UK's belated agreement, in the context of the N. Ireland protocol, to withdraw legislative provisions in breach of the Withdrawal Agreement and international law has elicited a more sympathetic approach from the EU. All one can hear is the sound of doors slamming shut. The EU has had enough of Brexit, and all bar a few emergency proposals to keep UK planes flying through EU airspace now seems to be approaching "take it or leave it" territory.
It doesn't help that Boris Johnson is the EU's bête noire and regarded as a figure not to be trusted. The UK exhausted its political capital in the EU a long time ago, and now not even face saving olive branches are being proffered. The scene is set for the trade war I predicted in The 2021-2026 EU UK Trade war. I am in agreement with the Irish and German foreign ministers who warn it is unlikely that, in the event of a no deal, the UK will come crawling back to the EU for a deal in an even weaker position after a few months of economic turmoil. They just don't react to disaster like that.
But perhaps there has been too much focus on the political needs of a Prime Minister leading a divided party and country. It's not all about the UK, you know. The EU, too, needs some issues it can agree on and rally around at a time of extreme economic dislocation and social trauma. What better way to demonstrate firmness of purpose and clear unified direction than to put it up to an unpopular British Prime Minister who has never wished "his friends in Europe" well.
This negotiating stand-off isn't about the clear economic benefits, for both sides, of reaching a deal, but about the political benefits of showing unity, coherence and resolve in the face of an external threat both sides might need to "big up" in order to distract from problems closer to home. The economic fall-out can be dealt with later, and if much of it includes the relocation of UK based financial services, manufacturing operations and the displacement of British brands from the EU Single Market, then, from an EU perspective, so much the better.
One of my first jobs in Irish industry was to conduct a post-audit of a very damaging strike which had just taken place in the business despite it being one of the best payers in the country. My conclusion: the Personnel Director has taken an overly academic and conciliatory approach to the negotiations, had promised to investigate and consider even the most hare brained union claims, and had thereby raised their expectations to entirely unrealistic levels. Various Union leaders were also seeking to outbid their rivals to boost their re-election prospects, and management had, unwisely, sought to indulge them.
Critical to any successful negotiation is the identification of the moment when the opposing side has moved beyond the rhetorical indignation stage to the actual "solution seeking stage." A proposal floated too early will be rejected out of hand while being lauded as a wise and clever compromise if broached at the right moment. In the ideal scenario, the opposing side even come to believe it was all their idea in the first place. That maximises the chances of it being accepted at a subsequent Union ballot on the settlement proposals. In the case I was investigating, management had gotten its timing wrong, merely raising union expectations that the longer the strike went on, the more they were likely to gain.
So far Johnson and Gove haven't moved beyond the rhetorical indignation phase of denouncing EU attempts to compromise British sovereignty. Their response to not getting their way has been to thump the drumbeats of war ever louder. Perhaps they feel they can rally the country behind them more effectively by denouncing EU intransigence, than by engaging in the messy business of compromise. Similarly, for the EU, the citizenry have long lost patience with Brexit, and would rather their leaders focused on other, more pressing, problems. Politically, there is little enough to be gained from making major concessions now.
The stage is set for a long trade war, where the common people, as ever, will serve mostly as cannon fodder. It will be the raw brute strength of a united continent against "plucky Britain", with the Scots branded as traitors and back-stabbers if they pursue the independence issue now.
In some ways, however, the UK negotiators have gotten their calculations badly wrong. Their divide and conquer tactics never worked. Merkel and Macron refused to be set at loggerheads. The German car industry never instructed its government to make a deal. Demonising Barnier and Van Der Leyen will merely increase their stature in Europe. The EU never blinked at the last moment, as Brexit folklore insisted they would. Even the strategy of using the N. Ireland border and peace process as a way of prising open access to the Single Market didn't work. The election of Joe Biden put the kibosh on that.
Post independence in 1922, the Irish economy and people suffered almost 4 decades of miserable deprivation and depression. A civil war, the Anglo Irish economic war 1932-38, WWII, and protectionist economic policies saw to that. It was only with the opening up of the economy to foreign investment, and, since 1973, the economic and social policies of the EU that Ireland prospered. The dislocation of any UK-EU trade war will pale into insignificance by comparison, and will not, contra the fond wishful thinking of leading Brexiteers, lead Ireland to shun the EU and re-join the UK.
If it's no deal the Brexiteers want, Ireland is all too familiar with that situation, through 30 years of Troubles up to 1998 as well. We will not revisit those times. The EU can count on Ireland as a firm ally, even if the fall-out from any UK-EU trade war hits us hardest.
But the time has come to deal with the fall-out of such a trade war. Shipping capacity avoiding the British "land-bridge" has already been increased significantly. Doubtless much produce will leak across the border into N. Ireland and from there to Britain as well. Farmers and agribusiness will be most badly hit by 50% tariffs on beef and other food stuffs. Irish exports to the UK have already reduced proportionately from 70% of total exports in 1973 to c. 10% now, and this decline will be accelerated. New markets, perhaps displacing UK exports to the EU will have to be found. Some reductions in output to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and animal feed imports may be required in any case.
But there is no doubt major adjustments will be required, and some rural areas, already suffering from below average employment levels and income will be the most badly hit. The 5 Billion EU Brexit relief fund, already being fought over by many member states will have to become much more targeted and enlarged. But the problems are not insurmountable and relatively specific compared to the widespread problems caused by the pandemic.
Irish consumers will see an estimated 3% increase in food prices as a direct result of Brexit, with low income families hardest hit. A fall in the value of Sterling could offset this, but make life for Irish exporters to the UK even more difficult. But what is the alternative?
Fintan O'Toole (subscriber only) has put the more general Brexiteer argument thus:
Shortly before the Brexit referendum in 2016, Michael Gove made a joke about the Irish famine. As co-leader with Boris Johnson of the Leave campaign, he was giving a major set-piece speech, one of the very few that actually made some effort to describe what would happen if they won.
Gove was mocking the Remain side's scare stories about the dark consequences of Brexit: "The City of London would become a ghost town, our manufacturing industries would be sanctioned more punitively than even communist North Korea, decades would pass before a single British Land Rover or Mr Kipling cake could ever again be sold in France and in the meantime our farmers would have been driven from the land by poverty worse than the Potato Famine".
Let us leave aside the news this week that British Land Rovers will, after Brexit, not just be sold in France - they'll be made in France. It was still quite some rhetorical feat to move so briskly from Mr Kipling cakes to the Great Hunger, which is the greatest human catastrophe in the modern history, not just of Ireland, but of the country in which it happened, the United Kingdom.
To manage it, you would need, not just a supreme talent for crassness, but a contempt for the whole idea of consequences. For, insofar as it constituted anything that might be called an argument, Gove's line of reasoning was: Brexit won't be as bad as the Irish famine, so let's not worry.
---<snip>--- [Gove continued...]
"The day after we vote to leave we hold all the cards and we can choose the path we want." Britain would unilaterally "decide the terms of trade" with the EU. While there would be "some questions up for negotiation", resolving them "won't be any more complicated or onerous than the day-to-day work" of dealing with the usual EU bureaucracy.
The question of what the EU might think of any of this was of no account. It was overwritten, ironically for a reactionary Tory project, with a Marxist magic marker.
As Gove, and many of the other Brexiteers, explained, the German car manufacturers, the Italian fashion houses and the French wine makers would all demand continued access to the British market. Since governments are just fronts for the capitalists, their prime ministers would instruct the EU to accept whatever terms Britain demanded in return.
This was always the fundamental problem: the idea that the EU might have its own collective interests remained essentially incomprehensible to the Brexiteers. In another irony, their ignorance was one good argument for Brexit - it showed that, after nearly 50 years of membership, a large part of the British ruling class still did not understand the EU.
There were two big things in particular they did not get. One was the simple logic that if a country could leave the EU but still enjoy all the benefits of membership, there would be no EU. Giving Britain what it wanted would be terminal.
The other was that the EU has a lot of people who can read English and listen to what the Brexiteers were actually saying. What they were saying was that, as Gove put it in that speech, the economic point of leaving the EU was "shedding unnecessary regulation".
The Brexiteers were perfectly right to think that, if they could still have frictionless trade with the EU while allowing their firms to cut labour, environmental and safety standards, those firms would devastate their European competitors.
And so it has come to this: the interests of the EU and those of the UK as defined by Brexiteers are fundamentally incompatible. Ireland will just have to put up with the costs and inconveniences of Brexit, and if that means re-orientating large parts of our economy from Britain to the EU, then so be it.
Not only are the British unlikely to come begging for a deal post the economic devastation caused by a no deal Brexit, but the EU is unlikely to be particularly accommodating should they do so. This battle is for real, and it is for keeps.
As Boris surveys his options this week-end, it must be becoming increasingly clear to him that he doesn't have a good one. And no, deploying warships to demonstrate the UK has every intension of enforcing its exclusive maritime economic zone is not a good look, and most unlikely to make the EU any more inclined to compromise.