Negotiations are the way each side works out what the other really wants. That is obvious. Slightly less obvious, but equally important, is the fact that they also force each side to work out what it wants.
In most Brexit matters, Boris Johnson is guided by the principle that one should study Theresa May’s example – and then avoid it. Although she publicly stated early on that “No deal is better than a bad deal”, Mrs. May accepted the framing and sequencing of negotiations that Brussels proposed. She did not know what she wanted. So the EU understood from the start that she did not mean what she said. A bad deal was therefore inevitable and duly arrived. That is why she was forced from office.
As foreign secretary, Boris watched these events unfold, and resigned. He then became party leader and Prime Minister. He got the first half of a Brexit deal, partly by insisting that no deal was a genuine possibility. He resoundingly won the ensuing general election by saying “Get Brexit done”. That victory was a year ago today, and tomorrow is the deadline for agreement – or lack of it – between Britain and the EU over the Brexit second half, our future trading relationship after we leave the single market and customs union on December 31.
It is not credible that Boris will use the weekend of the anniversary of his victory to capitulate.
Cynical though one must be about some of his promises, doubtful though one sometimes feels about his strength of purpose, such a surrender would not make sense. It would end his political career.
I must admit that when the Prime Minister flew off for dinner with Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday, I feared he was breaking his “Don’t do a Theresa” rule. It reminded me of her embarrassing dawn flight to Brussels three years ago to “seal a deal” that could not work. Boris has additionally promised to fly anywhere – Berlin, Paris – which might help. Are such journeys really necessary? It would be better if he stayed put and avoided getting into a compromising position alone in a room with any EU leader.
His leading officials, Lord Frost and Oliver Lewis are long-marchers from Vote Leave days. They know what they are doing. But so far, no harm has come of his journey. And he does, to be fair, have an interest in showing the wider world that he will not be the one to collapse the talks.
Compared with the latter half of 2019, Boris is, on the European issue, in an oddly strong position today. Then, he had no reliable majority in a Parliament that was trying to usurp executive power. Most MPs opposed a genuine Brexit, but his party members, and the original decision of 17.4 million voters, supported it.
He was in the tightest of corners. He got out of it with the Withdrawal Agreement which the EU – to many people’s surprise – granted him. It contained problems for the future relationship, notably about Northern Ireland, but it did the trick.
Now, the Prime Minister has an 80-strong majority. His reputation may have been dented by erratic policy over Covid-19, but no one else within or outside his party is about to take over, and it is four years until the next general election.
There have been more fuss about Ireland, and the Government’s threat to break international law to defend our customs territory; but this week, the clouds parted, revealing an Irish rainbow. The EU conceded on the Protocol: it will ensure that nearly 100 percent of goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will pay no tariffs. As it had secretly planned, the Government duly withdrew the relevant clauses from the UK Internal Market Bill.
In the current negotiations, Boris enjoys what could almost be called a luxury. Of the three possibilities – a real deal, no deal, and the deal currently proposed by Michel Barnier – he would be happy with either of the first two. He would prefer the first because a deal would bring more peace and less disruption than no deal at all, but he is content to accept the logic of no-deal if a bad one is an alternative.
The one thing he cannot say is that he will accept automatic EU control of any new trading rules which it may decide to make, and of our fish. As both sides agree, our decision to leave the EU is a decision to diverge, not converge. We haven’t got this far out only to go back in later.
The EU negotiators, and especially the French, may have reckoned, as they hardened their positions ten days ago, that the fear of no-deal would force Britain to back down at the last minute. If so, that was a psychological misreading.
Perhaps I am being oversanguine, but I think the public see this. They think – and in essence, if not in detail – they are right, that the key decision has been made. They are irritated by the delay. Literally, years of scare stories about no-deal may have depressed the spirits, but they have also vaccinated people against what might come.
The problems are real, but not eternal. The preparations, though still not good enough, are better advanced. It is not going to be pleasant for us – or, indeed, for the French – if President Macron tries to coerce local officials in the Pas-de-Calais to impede our goods, but it is hardly going to rekindle our enthusiasm for EU membership.
Most Conservative MPs see all this. Perhaps they cannot have their cake and eat it, but they know which side their political bread is buttered. Besides, they have not got the mechanism to reject no deal, even if they wanted to. It is what will happen if nothing else does.
Politically, the situation reminds me of the miners’ strike in 1984-85. Appalling and prolonged though the contest was, the most dangerous bits for the Government were whenever it seemed to wobble on the principles at stake. It was a fight it just had to win. As in that struggle, Labour MPs today, under their fairly new leader, are visibly confused about which line to take.
Even hard-line Remainers, after years of fighting talk, are now becoming retrospective and recriminatory. In a recent article in the Guardian, Lord Mandelson lamented “the price [we] in the pro-EU camp will pay for trying, in the years following 2016, to reverse the referendum decision rather than achieve the least damaging form of Brexit”. In other words, they lost quite a long time ago.
What of EU leaders themselves? In the longer term, they would do better to be flexible. The United Kingdom, even outside, will remain a major market for the continentals. The sooner that can be maximized, you would have thought, the better. There are more intractable problems for them to consider – Covid, lack of growth, mutualized debt, quarrels with Poland and Hungary, threats from China.
At present, however, the protectionist club seems to feel it must punish the British rebel. The mood is brittle as if the EU fears that an independent Britain could actually succeed, thus exposing its own economic and governmental model. It is acting like an empire that grows old and starts losing colonies, rather than an internationalist model for more backward nations. Which only confirms we are right to leave altogether.