In that other hemisphere August is a time for holidays and reflection. For some it may be more a matter for reflection as they contemplate the virtual stalemate surrounding the UK’s quest to be rid of the EU. The fact is that having so inextricably integrated itself with the EU over so many decades extrication has become a nightmare. Crashing out rather than a phased withdrawal is now a more likely prospect.
Hardest at it will be the UK’s chief negotiator, Dominic Raab and Downing Street’s principal bureaucrat, Olly Robins, who Brexiters regard as the PM’s impersonator and hence a usurping upstart. Both are very competent operators as they showed on the last Parliamentary date last week when facing the Commons’ Committee for Brexit (to adopt a shorthand term).
Doubtless the Brexiters’s public face, the arch conservative Jacob Rees-Mogg, will be hard at it also, explaining how, if they get their way, ten mile truck queues at British docks and airports will be avoided after March 2019; and how a significant number of jobs in Britain’s centre and north east will not be in dire peril.
The UK bureaucracy similarly will not be doing much relaxing over the holiday month as they prepare plans for stockpiling food and medicines against a no-deal outcome. The question being asked is: who will be worse off in this eventuality, the U.K. or the EU? Each is making their own calculations, and disseminating these up and down their respective regions, with entirely varying results. Is this then an unavoidable moment of truth they are facing?
The problem was that Prime Minister May’s Chequers plan, which looked for a reasonable compromise among the wholly irreconcilable positions, has been shown up for what it is: unreconcilable . The principle difficulty is that the Brexters want no leftovers from the EU structures whereas the cool heads point out that that degree of severance without a well thought out alternative will lead Britain into a situation more like that of a headless chook than a credible self-governing nation with uncompromised international political and business interests.
The cornerstone of the May plan was the retention of a common market for goods, the possibilities of free and fair trading arrangements for services, and the avoidance at all costs of a hard border in Northern Ireland. The EU has found that the common market idea for goods, involving Britain collecting and refunding tariff charges for goods passing through Britain, would be unworkable and a derogation from EU prerogatives in this respect. It has not met with acceptance from Brexiters anyway. The Irish border issues presupposes the free movement of goods, which presupposes uniformity of tariff and non-tariff levels between those of the UK and the EU. Which presupposes …..?
Is there a way out of this impasse? Not if everyone sticks rigidly to their positions. The one possibility that has been around all this time but which no one wanted to look very hard at – apart from the former UK Foreign Minister, David Owen (now just turned 80) – concerns the ready and waiting European Economic Area format, adopted with the EU long ago by Norway. As Owen has pointed out in his letters to PM May, this arrangement allows for modifications, particularly concerning the free movement of labour, and would substantially free up the movement of capital, goods and (possibly) services. The drawback is that the EU would have the upper hand over rules and standards – but a pragmatic approach in the early stages should even out the bumps on that.
So will all parties take stock, whether on the beaches or in Whitehall, or in Brussels, and allow themselves some fresh thinking, to avoid catastrophe in their very common interests. UK/EU meetings scheduled for September will be crucial if the October deadline for a smooth transition is to have any chance of being met.
Andrew Farran, just returned from the UK, is a former diplomat, law academic and trade adviser.