The Brexit deal is done: a shabby Christmas present from a shabby government

Was the Brexit deal announcement timed for Christmas Eve so that its shabbiness would go unchallenged? Does Boris Johnson actually believe in it?

Boris Johnson’s bluff-and-bluster announcement of his Brexit deal on Christmas Eve sounded more-or-less credible, as long as you didn’t listen too closely.

He managed 30 seconds before mentioning the “oven-ready deal that you voted for” [in the General Election], deftly overlooking the fact that, if it had been “oven-ready” it would have been signed a year ago… instead it was concluded with just over a week to go before the brutal realities of a “no deal” Brexit would have kicked in.

His words might have sounded more-or-less credible had I not just listened to Ursula von der Leyen’s wise and balanced comments on the same deal. The contrast should ring alarm bells.

Robert Peston bursts the bubble

Johnson’s hubris was punctured by Robert Peston’s question at the end:

“You said all along you wanted a Canada-style deal, but what you’ve agreed means that we in the UK have to follow EU rules on subsidies, on tax on workers’ rights, on the environment, or potentially incur the imposition of tarifs… We’ve just heard Ursula von der Leyen say that she’s got her level playing field which you’ve explicitly rejected all the way through. You’ve also just said there would be no no-tarif barriers. Again, that’s not right. From January 1st as a result of leaving the customs union, and Michael Gove has been warning about this, week in, week out, for months, there is a ton of new bureaucracy on British business. Lots of non-tarif barriers. This is not to say the deal is a bad deal, but you’re not selling it correctly. You’re mis-selling it”

Johnson’s fumbling response referred to “either country” — as if the EU were a single country, and gave examples of animal welfare and product compatibility which sound like textbook illustrations of why membership of the Single Market is a good idea.

Key points from Johnson’s speech

A few sound bites from Johnson’s speech show the problem:

“Beating Covid is our No.1 national priority. I wanted to end uncertainty and give this country the best possible chance of bouncing back strongly next year”

With seeming pride he said that we had given 800,000 vaccine shots already, with the implication that we have turned the corner. But this is the vaccine developed in Germany and manufactured in Belgium — already a strong case for international co-operation. Johnson’s claim of 800,000 shots is contradicted by a government press release saying it was 600,000, but, even assuming he is right, 800,000 shots in just over a fortnight comes in at 400,000 shots a week. It’s been suggested that we need 70% of the population to be vaccinated to get this under control — at this rate, giving two shots to 70% of 66.65 million people would take 233 weeks (4.5 years). That makes the claim of bouncing back strongly next year sound somewhere between naive and irresponsibly optimistic.

“We’ve taken back control of every jot and tittle of our regulation” … ”British laws will be made solely by the British parliament and interpreted solely by British Judges sitting in British courts and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice will come to an end”

Except that, in the 21st century all nations are inter-connected. Parliament can make laws, but it can’t change the economic reality of the surrounding world.

Removing the UK from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice sounds grand, but all this means is that disputes get resolved by an independent tribunal instead. And those British judges will be referring to precedent — which, since 1973, has been framed by our being in the EU.

“We’ll be able to decide how and where we’re going to stimulate new jobs and new hope, with free ports, new green industrial zones”

Except that there are Free Ports in the EU and Free Ports were legal in the UK until the legislation for them expired in 2012, and Johnson didn’t say anything about how “new green industrial zones” were helped by Brexit. But trading into the EU, whether it is from free ports in the UK, or from “green industrial zones” would be easier if we were fully in the Customs Union and Single Market. This is actually an argument against Brexit.

“We’ll be able to cherish our landscape in a way we choose, backing our farmers and agricultural production”

Did EU membership stop us cherishing our landscape? Meanwhile Farmers have been expressing real concern at the likely impact of Brexit on their livelihoods.

“For the first time since 1973 we will be an independent coastal state with full control of our waters. With the UK’s share of fish rising substantially from roughly half today to closer to two thirds in five years, after which there is no theoretical limit, beyond those placed by science of conservation on the quantity of our own fish we can fish in our own waters. To get ready for that moment our fishing communities will be helped with a £100M programme to modernise their fleets”

£100M doesn’t sound very much to regenerate an industry.

The very first journalist to ask a question at the end was Laura Kuenssberg. Johnson got quickly to “As a result of this deal we will be able to catch and eat quite prodigious quantities of extra fish” which flies in the face of his comment on conservation and is wildly optimistic. We can’t fish more fish than are there, and we can’t expect to fish in UK waters without coming to agreements with the EU about conservation.

Johnson putting the case against Brexit

Listening closely to Johnson’s comments I was struck by how much they sound like arguments for EU membership — for the vision itself and for the reality. Where he seemed to kick against EU membership, he was kicking against a Brexiteer fantasy.

“It will not be a bad thing for the EU to have a prosperous dynamic and contented UK on your doorstep. It will drive jobs and prosperity across the whole continent. It won’t be a bad thing if we in the UK take a different line to legislation. In so many ways our basic goals are the same. In the context of this giant free trade zone that we are jointly creating, the stimulus of regulatory competition will help us both.

If a prosperous UK helps the whole of the EU, and the UK and the EU have the same basic goals, doesn’t “regulatory competition” sound like the bureaucracy that Brexit was supposed to remove? If that’s a, potentially robust, discussion in a meeting, the competition of ideas is a good thing. If it’s an actual battle of regulatory regimes, then it gets in the way of business. Isn’t Johnson actually arguing for robust discussion in Brussels with the UK as part of the EU?

“If one side believes it’s being unfairly undercut by the other, then subject to independent third party arbitration, and provided the measures are proportionate, we can, either of us, decide as sovereign equals, to protect our consumers or business. This treaty explicitly advises that such action should only happen infrequently.”

The idea of the Single Market is to provide open competition, with the European Court of Justice available to resolve disputes. Johnson has just argued for what we had as members of the Single Market.

“The concepts of uniformity and harmonisation are banished in favour of mutual recognition and free trade.”

Did “uniformity and harmonisation” exist other than in Brexiteer fantasy? What the creation of the Single Market did was to enable mutual recognition to enable free trade.

“This agreement, this deal, above all means certainty. It means certainty for the aviation industry, for the hauliers who have suffered so much in the Covid pandemic. It means certainty for the police, the border forces, the security services, all those we rely on across Europe to keep us all safe.”

Europe-wide co-operation is how the EU works.

“It means certainty for our scientists, who will be able to work together, to continue to work together on great collective projects, because although we in the UK want to be a science superpower, we also want to be a collaborative science superpower.”

As full members of the EU we had the ability to excel by collaborating. All Brexit has done is to make this harder.

“Above all it means certainty for business, from financial services to our world-leading manufacturers, our car industry. Certainty for all those who are working in high-skilled jobs and factories across the whole country. Because there will be no palisade of tarifs on January 1st. There will be no non-tarif barriers to trade. Instead, there will be a giant free-trade zone of which we will at once be a member and at the same time be able to do our own trade deals as one whole UK, England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales together.”

Robert Peston’s question exposed the questionable truthfulness of this claim, but isn’t the tarif-free vision what would otherwise be called a Customs Union?

“I should stress, this deal was done by a huge negotiating team from every part of the UK and it will benefit every part of the United Kingdom helping to unite, level up across the country.”

Yet Johnson knows that Brexit has fuelled demands for Scots independence. It’s hard to see how the pressure for that can be resisted — except by becoming a federal Britain in a federal Europe.

“Leveling up” is not so well defined — unless the idea of the EU’s Structural Funds is in the back of one’s mind — as ways of stimulating areas that might fall behind. By contrast, there have been suggestions of government money being targeted at “left behind” constituencies that happen to be Tory marginals and pressure for government money to go to former-Labour “red wall” seats to keep them Tory. That’s no way to do regeneration. It — as the EU has demonstrated — has to be done on the basis of the likely impact of help. For this “levelling up” to avoid ending up as something seriously devisive, it has to follow the same politically-balanced approach as the EU.

“I say again, directly to our EU friends and partners. I think this deal means a new stability and a new certainty in what has sometimes been a fractious and difficult relationship. We will be your friend, your ally, your supporter, and never let it be forgotten, your number one market. Because, although we have left the EU this country will remain culturally, emotionally historically, strategically, geologically attached to Europe, not least through the 4 million EU nationals who have requested to settle in the UK over the last four years and who make an enormous contribution to our country and to our lives.”

Isn’t being “culturally, emotionally historically, strategically, geologically attached to Europe” where the case for full EU membership starts, for the UK and for any other nation seeking to join?

And if those 4 million EU nationals have settled status in the UK, shouldn’t they be able to vote? Doesn’t that, at a stroke reverse the 1.3 million majority for Leave in the 2016 referendum?

“I say to all you at home that our focus is on beating the pandemic and beating coronavirus and rebuilding our economy and delivering jobs across the country. I’m utterly confident that we can and will do it. By today we have vaccinated almost 800,000 people. We’ve also today resolved a question that has bedevilled our politics for decades. It is up to all of us together as a newly and truly independent nation to realise the immensity of this moment and to make the most of it.”

Talking up success against a global problem sounds like desparation. It sounds like someone trying to talk up the possibilities to convince themselves. Quite apart from the question of whether it is 800,000 or 600,000 shots that have been given so far, one of the major limits on the rate of vaccination is how many doses the UK can get hold of. In a globalised world we don’t have first choice — we’re all struggling to get enough vaccine. The “truly independent” nation is one that’s just climbed back into the past. The closet we can get to protection from the vicissitudes of the world markets — and therefore independence — is in the stability of the EU.

And in the questions at the end, several of his comments sound like back-handed arguments for rejoining.

Answering Robert Peston’s question (above) he referred to “either country” as if the UK and EU are countries: playing to the Brexiteer fantasy that the EU is a single country, but he knows this isn’t true. Talking of joining a federation of independent countries (i.e. the EU) when the time comes to rejoin will have a very different feel.

He added an example of something the UK might do differently:

“We in the UK might want to go further on animal welfare standards and might want to do things on how you rear pigs, banning sow crates and so on, that would incur extra costs for our pig farmers and it might be that bacon coming from the EU was at risk of under-cutting us. We might, under those circumstances, consider imposing tarifs. I think it is highly unlikely, but we might consider it. It would have to be subject to arbitration, it would have to be proportionate according to the arbitrator. Under no circumstances would we be in any way constrained legally or otherwise by anything that the EU did, or chose to do, themselves. Nor would there be any role for the ECJ.”

Except that one of the points of the Single Market is that it is possible to improve standards without reducing competitiveness if everyone, across the whole Single Market, applies the same standards. Tarifs are a clumsy way to have the same effect. This is not about sinister control, but is about enabling standards to go up.

He added an example of a non-tarif barrier:

“Your plugs won’t work in our country so they are banned”

Which is interesting because the UK didn’t change its plugs when it joined the EU. Rather than rules enforcing uniformity, it’s a brilliant example of how the Single Market can accommodate difference.

“For our exporters, the whole world will be treated the same, which will galvanise them”

But the vision, when the Single Market was created, was that it helped businesses in all parts of the EU to have a large domestic market. This is why Margaret Thatcher supported it. Full membership of the Single Market gives our exporters the best leg up that we can.

George Parker said: “Nigel Farage said today that ‘the war is over’ I wonder if you saw it in those terms?” and elicited this comment:

“No… The EU was and is an extraordinary concept. It was born out of the agony of the Second World War founded by idealistic people in France, Germany and Italy who never wanted those countries to go to war again. In many ways it was and is a very noble enterprise. The UK’s own relationship was always difficult. We always found some of the language about ever closer union, the idea of this political union, this very dense ideology of endless integration we found quite hard… what we have here stabilises the relationship. The UK always must be a great European power. We’re there outside the main body of the EU as a friend and supporter, as a flying buttress to make sure that we’re able to lend our voice when it is needed and to be of value in a strategic way. But the very dense programme of unification was not right for the UK.”

In this, Johnson brilliantly articulates the vision of the Schuman Declaration, that laid the foundations for the European Coal and Steel Community. What he misses is the sacrifices that were entailed in creating that. It meant France and Germany voluntarily entering an arrangement that made it impossible for them to go to war again. The “dense programme of unification” has never existed. The framework for peace and stability that he praises is at the core of the EU’s processes. For the rest of the EU, painful memories of invasion reinforce a vision that’s about devolving as much power as possible — the opposite of demanding uniformity.

The threat, for a nation not at peace with its militaristic past, is that the Schuman vision — like Churchill’s “United States of Europe” — involves giving up the vision that we will one day dominate, as we once did. A grown-up nation would recognise that this is a good thing. A wise Prime Minister would help a nation come to that place.

Details from the EU

Putting a different gloss on the story, and fleshing out Robert Peston’s criticism, Ursula von der Leyen gave three examples of how things will now be:

“Competition in our Single Market will be fair and remain so. The EU rules and standards will be respected. We have effective tools to respond if fair competition is distorted and impacts our trade.

“Secondly, we will continue co-operating with the UK in all areas of mutual interest, for example in the fields of climate change, energy, security and transport. Together we still achieve more than we do apart.

“Thirdly, we have secured five and a half years of full predictability for our fishing communities and strong tools to incentivise to remain so.”

So, Johnson’s achievement means we continue to trade in the Single Market subject to its rules (but without the ability to shape them), there will continue to be co-operation, and there will be string incentive for co-operation over fishing.

I read Norway’s arrangement with the EU as a masterpiece of civil service skill — after two referenda rejecting EU membership, civil servants cobbled together an arrangement that spares Norway most of the disadvantages of being outside the EU. The Norway solution was ever on the table for the UK, but civil servants have, in this deal, found a way to spare the UK the worst of the consequences of Brexit. It leaves one question: if we have a deal that spares us the worst disadvantages of leaving, why not bite the bullet and seek to add to this the advantages of re-joining?

Postscript: Independent signals that Johnson might not have read the deal

On 14 January 2021, Andrew Woodcock, writing in The Independent says “Boris Johnson has not read text of Brexit trade deal, Downing Street signals”. If he is right, that is a very serious allegation.

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