What will become of Brexit in the next few days? The Chinese may wish their foe to live in interesting times. But nothing that the British and the Europeans could do for themselves could rival the chaos and pandemonium now besetting them across the Strait of Dover. Regardless of deal or no-deal post-Brexit, disruptions to trade and supply chains will characterise life in that region and beyond for many months, compounded of course by a surging COVID-19 mutation.
As for a deal, the Brits are saying that the EU must make concessions to unlock the impasse, and the EU believes (or French President Micron believes) that if they stand firm until the deadline of 31 December, especially on fisheries, the UK will allow their final red line to be crossed and there will be a deal.
For the lead up to this point see:
Meanwhile in the midst of this uncertainty haulage vehicles queue up to twelve miles or more in the approaches to Dover and Folkestone (Eurotunnel), and other British ports, or wait in improviser truck parks serving as holding bays. Perishable goods are at risk of destruction or of not being delivered because of Covid induced travel restrictions causing drivers concern about being stranded and unable to return home without first submitting to isolation or quarantine. Supply lines, industrial and domestic, are being imperilled though supermarkets are advising that shortages may not occur until around mid-January.
But what do people do who had been assured by an over-promising Prime Minister that Christmas would not be cancelled when just three days later it was, along with graded lockdowns. What can one say about government in these circumstances? Haste and disruption affects all spheres of life everywhere at this time.
Coming back to Brexit, rumblings are gathering around the respective Parliaments – the British Parliament and the European Parliament – whose members were assured of a meaningful opportunity for consultations on the shape and form of any deal prior to approval. Past will be the time when this opportunity can be withheld any longer from members. Not just their members. Each of the EU states, and in some cases their provinces, have a right of veto over EU treaties and any one of them could come forward and stop the show at the deadline. But with that being just over a week away a minimum requirement would be that the agreement be made available before Christmas Day, so that it may be perused and submitted for approval on the 30 December at the very latest.
Lawyers are suggesting that the timeframe for adoption could be truncated if the agreement were tabled and passed provisionally by 31 December, subject to confirmation thereafter. The thereafter could run for several weeks in which time the agreement might unravel. Another approach would be to adopt an outline of an agreement, that is a thin agreement, with the substantive parts to be to be filled in and negotiated after 31 December. Either approach might well be unacceptable to any adherent of proper parliamentary process and could be reason enough to cause any proposed agreement to be rejected there and then. In effect the UK would have left the EU without an agreement with all the consequences flowing from that.
How far might the parties have been away from an agreement at that stage? On this one can only speculate but it would seem that in regard to the level playing field issue they had conceived of an ‘evolution clause’ which would allow the unilateral application of tariffs in the event of divergence on environmental, labour and social standards that could put one side at a competitive disadvantage to the other. Regarding governance on subsidies, existing WTO rules could be applicable subject to an internal arbitration process to resolve disagreements.
On governance more widely, there would be a premium on trust, a quality that in the light of experience with the UK’s Internal Market Bill might require some restoration but could build back over time. Whether that was a breaking issue we do not yet know.
On fisheries, the UK had initially demanded that the EU return 60% of the catch over 3 years while the EU offered 18% over 10 years. Last heard the UK position was that the EU reduce its catch by one-third over 5 years, with provision for annual reviews while the EU was offering a 25% reduction over 3 years. Whether President Macron was holding out over this with the threat of rejecting the deal as a whole we must wait and see.
Services, especially financially services, although more important to the UK than traded goods, will not be included in a trade agreement other than incidentally; but in Britain’s eyes they are seen as having an inherent strength on a world-wide basis that they can, by and large, look after themselves.
The remaining differences on trade issues seem relatively minor. It comes down to whether politically either wishes to retain a formal trading link with the other; whether they see the advantages of a free trade agreement as a platform for on-going inclusive trading arrangements; or whether the UK’s ambivalence towards Europe in general and France in particular requires nothing less than a restoration of ‘sovereignty’ inter se. It has to be hoped that as in the past they will approach their issues in good faith and with mutual respect. Europe requires no less.