Brexit – denouement or disaster

As the process towards a post-Brexit agreement with the EU staggers towards its denouement (or otherwise) the gathering scene is looking increasingly bizarre. What has gone wrong to date is almost bound to go wrong again, as 31 December deadline approaches.

It is slowly being realised that the disruption to trade, travel and commerce from an outcome without an agreement will be much greater now than previously thought. But others among the Brexiters remain in denial.

The wayward deadline for completing the negotiations has certainly intensified the pressure. Although the Boris Johnson government had opportunities for extending the transition period these were deliberately declined as the Brexiter faction in the Tory party feared that Brexit could slip away altogether. They believed that the way to a good agreement was to push the Europeans to the limit. They overlooked that a plan for this was nonexistent, that the Europeans were not susceptible to pressure, and that Boris could not be relied upon to maintain a steady course, as is still the case. At that time no one could foresee the devastation of the Covid pandemic, or that the head of the EU negotiating team, Michel Barnier, would be required to self-isolate because of contact with a positive case of the virus in his delegation, perhaps in the most critical week of the negotiations.

Without an agreement, tariff and quotas are unlikely to remain at levels that could preclude physical border checks at UK/EU entry and exit points with their associated documentation requirements, verifications, fees, conformity to product standards, etc. Green pastures close to shipping ports are being turned into massive truck parks with supportive facilities to accommodate queuing vehicles. At Dover, Kent alone some 10,000 trucks pass through daily. Innovative digital technologies are being devised to compress as much data as possible into convenient mobile formats, to facilitate passage. But lengthy delays will be unavoidble, no less so at airports when COVID restrictions on flying are eased. The extent of unreadiness for what is to come among Britons of all interests, situations and occupations is enormous and unbounded.

These practical aspects are being transcended by complications with legal and political process if an agreement of any sort is to be in place by the deadline. It is understood that the English text of the present draft is some 600 pages in length with annexes of similar length. Critical unresolved issues remain in square brackets. If and when agreed the full text must be translated into the 24 languages of the EU member states, no less than a French version which President Macron insists will be the authoritative text. Others may think similarly about their own texts which opens a Pandora’s box for varying interpretations and disputes over key words and phrases.

Ratification itself may be problematic too. Because of the strict time limit for completion it may not be possible for the text to be agreed and ratified in time by all 26 EU member parliaments, and before that by the EU Council and the EU Commission, respectively. Then there is the need for the British Parliament itself to ratify after taking into consideration the concerns of Northern Ireland and the other devolved parts of the Kingdom. The civil service is busily preparing the ground for a speedy ratification. The controversial Illegal Internal Market Bill remains in play and would seriously disturb the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) which in turn could preclude for an indefinite period one of Boris Johnson’s most cherished objectives – an FTA with the US, likely to be denied by President-elect Biden, a fervent GFA supporter, and Democrats in the Congress.

On the EU side it has been suggested that ratification by the EU Council alone would allow the agreement to enter into force provisionally until all the formal ratifications are to hand. But there is much uneasiness about this among the member states who believe they were assured of an opportunity to be consulted on the text well in advance.

Without an agreement key questions about future fishing rights in the North Sea will be left in abeyance along with arrangements affecting security, the status of nationals residing in the other jurisdiction, data exchanges affecting law enforcement, environmental safeguards, air and sea traffic flows, etc.

It is not beyond possible that some provisional measures in these respects may be agreed to minimise chaos in the new year, but if the political tenor at the end of negotiations is mutually hostile this cannot be assumed.

Should matters get that bad who will stand up and accept responsibility in the UK now that Prime Minister Boris and his fiancée have dispensed with the services of the architect of the Leave campaign, Dominic Cummings and his loyal associate, Lee Cain. They might well choose to disavow any consequences that fall short of what was promised to the British people in 2016.

As explained by an insightful British observer [Cambridge Professor Chris Grey https://chrisgreybrexitblog.blogspot.com/ ]: Prime Minister Johnson is Johnson, and bears a heavy responsibility for Brexit. But it shouldn’t be forgotten that he was one of many leading Brexiters who, orchestrated by Dominic Cummings, cajoled voters into leaving the EU without knowing or caring about what happened to Northern Ireland, to the Good Friday Agreement, and certainly to Ireland. For that matter, they didn’t know or care what Brexit meant for everything from creating customs arrangements to disrupting medical supplies to road haulage (£) to musicians’ tours to financial services (£) to data transfer, police and judicial cooperation to the millions of lives left in limbo, and so much else besides. They didn’t know or care at the time of the Referendum and, for the most part, they haven’t bothered to find out since. Worse, throughout all these years they have vilified and belittled those who did know and care”. He adds:: “… as Brexit limps on, the unloved orphan of a failing populism, to some kind of resolution of at least what the end of the transition period will mean, we shouldn’t forget the lies shamelessly told, the promises blithely made, and the fears viciously propagated which have brought us to this shambolic point”.

Relative to earlier ambitions an agreement now will at best cover traded goods but will do little for services, including financial services. A no-deal would be adverse for relations with the EU in other areas where, as noted, cooperative relations are critical. But if an agreement when concluded can be accepted technically as being a ‘free trade agreement’, even without including ‘substantially all the trade’ between the parties, it might open wider trading possibilities for Britain by providing a trading platform to build on for the future. It will need that at least as it seeks to recoup the enormous economic damage which the Brexit caper has been causing. In any event the UK will have to square off its obligations within the WTO. No easy matter as previously explained.

One might suggest that Boris remains in two minds – either to accept a deficient agreement, even one that self-evidently fails to live up to his claims for it (for example, ‘frictionless trade’) but still be able to say he got Brexit done – even though his Brexiter colleagues will see that as a betrayal. Or he could reject an agreement regardless of the consequences as long as he can put the blame squarely on the ‘inconsiderate Europeans’. One must think there is every chance of the latter if, in spite of facts, he can put up a credible case of blame on the EU. Many might believe him in this age of faux truths. Boris needs at this time to be seen as toughening up after a series of humiliations and set back, especially over his handling of the COVID crisis. His main concern overall is to remain in power until the next General Election. The government is spending considerable funds on projects in the north of England pursuant to its policy of levelling up the economy, and on defence – and will soon announce a decision to locate part of the Treasury in the north, probably in Leeds or Darlington.

We await now for what emerges in the next week or two for the UK’s post-Brexit economic relations with the EU, and for that matter to see what it may mean for its future trading possibilities with the world at large. In any event there will inevitably be a need for further negotiations with the EU on a range of outstanding matters, as noted. In a sense Brexit will be a never ending process, probably in fraught circumstances.

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Andrew Farran is former diplomat, trade adviser to government and senior academic (public law including international law).

Writes extensively on international affairs and defence, contributing previously to major newspapers (metropolitan and rural). Formerly director of major professional publishing company; now of a major wool growing enterprise.

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