IS BORIS Johnson’s administration on top of the negotiations to leave the EU, or did the EU’s inept demands for regulatory alignment and the Elgin Marbles just make the Prime Minister look good?
Johnson has earned popularity for his lack of ambiguity about leaving the EU, but our certainty about leaving belies our lack of certainty about what leaving looks like.
Remember: Britain has not left the EU, although it is committed to do so by 2021. The commitment was made in domestic law and by agreement with the EU a few days before Britain nominally left at the end of January. The rhetoric of ‘Brexit day’ and ‘independence day’ was wonderful but practically untrue. Britain cannot exercise its own free trade agreements until 2021. Of course, one doesn’t need bilateral agreements in order to trade: the default international rules are institutionalised by the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Yet the British government has said repeatedly it wants its trade to be governed by bilateral agreements.
So why does this government remain unprepared? By the end of January, it listed only 19 countries engaged in discussions on free trade, of which the most economically important is Canada. Adding all 19 gets us to 6 per cent of total UK trade. Few will reach agreement by 2021. The government has reached agreements with another 20 countries or blocs, most of them tiny. The most important is South Korea, which accounts for only 1.1 per cent of UK trade (less than Canada). These 39 countries and blocs account for about 18 per cent of all the countries and blocs in the world, and a much smaller proportion of our trade.
Britain’s most important trading partner, the US with 15 per cent of UK trade, is not even officially engaged in negotiation. This failure is inexplicable, except by anti-Americanism within the civil service. As far back as the campaign trail in 2016, Donald Trump made it clear that he wanted to be the first to reach a post-EU trade deal with Britain. The Foreign & Commonwealth Office occasionally advertises for people to promote British trade to the federal government and even to private businesses at local level (San Francisco and Atlanta were advertised in 2019). Look at the job opportunities now: not a hint of any FCO appointments to negotiate a US-UK trade deal.
Okay, you might generously think that the government is so preoccupied in negotiating with the EU that it lacks capacity to negotiate with the rest of the world. In fact, the government is lethargic with the EU too. A month ago, somebody leaked that the government had not planned to start negotiating with the EU until March 3.
The government’s unreadiness has been obscured by the EU’s lack of good faith. Johnson demanded a free trade agreement like Canada’s (which abolished all tariffs except on meats and eggs, increased quotas, and left almost all services and border controls alone). This should have been uncontroversial: the EU itself had offered a Canada-style agreement to Theresa May. However, in January the EU suddenly ruled this out, presumably trying to regain the initiative it had lost when Johnson won a landslide on 12 December. Then the EU demanded full regulatory alignment. The ridiculous premise in both demands is that Britain is geographically closer than Canada. In fact, globalisation, cyberspace and a safe un-constricted intervening ocean make Canada practically as close as Britain for most trade.
When the EU looks ridiculous, the British government looks resolute. Johnson’s administration was unexpectedly in a position reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher in 1990, saying ‘No, No, No!’.
Thus, when Johnson’s chief negotiator David Frost made his first public speech, the press ignored the lateness and shallowness of his speech and focused on his unambiguous ‘No’ to regulatory alignment: ‘We are clear that we want the Canada-Free Trade Agreement-type relationship which the EU has so often said is on offer.’ Nigel Farage expressed gratitude that Frost ‘told an audience in the belly of the Brussels beast in no uncertain terms that Britain will become an independent country’.
However, Frost’s speech otherwise specified nothing. It referred extensively to Edmund Burke, but superficially and inconsequentially. I got the sense that this speech was aimed at a sceptical Conservative base.
Similarly, the government’s subsequent threat to walk away in June, unless the EU agrees a framework by then, seems like red meat for a bloodthirsty base. For instance, 96 per cent of Daily Express readers agreed with the threat. Walking away is not the mood (alas) of the unreformed Remainer majority in government. If civil servants could be polled, I bet a majority would oppose walking away. The news media, academics and search engines remain on their side. (As proof, just type into Google or Yahoo the terms ‘Boris Johnson EU public opinion’ – and look down the biased list of links to anti-British reports in the Guardian, the Independent, Financial Times, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal.)
Unadmittedly, Frost’s speech was warming up the base for the bigger event ten days later, Thursday’s release of a White Paper, The Future Relationship with the EU. Journalistic coverage was similarly superficial, focusing on the tough rhetoric from its deliverer, Michael Gove. Nobody questioned why this paper took so long to be delivered; nobody seemed to read it. Even unambiguous Brexiteers regrettably judged the speech without reading the paper.
Let’s take fishing. The paper exposes a horrendous contradiction between the repeated rhetoric of ‘independence’ and EU access to British fisheries. Yes, the section is loaded with descriptions of the UK as ‘an independent coastal state’; and it talks about the UK setting its own rules, annually and scientifically. Yet, contradictorily, it honours the ‘precedent’ for ‘ongoing’ EU access, and commits to negotiated agreements, governed by an international council. Compare the lip service to ‘the interests of the devolved administrations in this area’ (i.e. the Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish governments) (see page 20).
Explicitly, the White Paper places EU access to British fisheries within a comprehensive free trade agreement (CFTA). The prior EU negotiating paper had demanded the same (see paragraphs 17 and 86), before demanding continuance of ‘existing reciprocal access conditions, quota shares, and the traditional activity of the Union fleet’ (paragraph 89).
Nevertheless, in Parliament, Gove contradicted his own paper: ‘As well as concluding a full FTA, we will require a wholly separate agreement on fisheries. We will take back control of our waters as an independent coastal state, and we will not link access to our waters to access to EU markets. Our fishing waters are our sovereign resource, and we will determine other countries’ access to our resources on our terms.’
Even Kate Hoey (one of the founders of Labour Leave) was fooled by what she heard in the moment without reading the contradiction in the White Paper: she tweeted an edited video of Gove’s statement on fisheries, with the comment ‘absolutely right’.
Contradictions aside, the White Paper is vaguest where the government reserves wiggle room for more concessions. It says nothing about restricting particular EU members, protecting our fisheries from future members (remember the commitment: ‘ever growing union’), or banning super trawlers or electrification of the sea bed, even though it alludes to the need for conservation.
And so the White Paper goes on, asserting independence while granting continuities (‘equivalence in financial services’, ‘the continued flow free flow of personal data’) or breezily rushing through impossible contradictions (‘reciprocal commitments not to weaken or reduce the level of protection afforded by labour laws’ versus ‘the right of each party to set its labour priorities and adopt or modify its labour laws’). Much of the language is agreeable but too vague to count as a specification (we ‘should facilitate trade in all categories of motor vehicles’). It ignores issues that are high on electoral priorities (border control, immigration, asylum-seeking beyond first country of landing, human rights). Additionally, I noted no hint of the divorce payment that Theresa May agreed in 2017, at ‘about’ £39billion.
The public doesn’t need to care about the small number of people employed in fishing, or the EU’s traditional access, or the advantages of bundling a British concession in return for an EU concession. The public tends to be reductionist: it sees a basic contradiction between British sovereignty and supranational governance. That’s why Remaining couldn’t be sold by Remainers who see only positives in trade-offs, concessions, and compromises.
The government’s procrastinations, contradictions, and attempts to package supranationalism as nationalism will rekindle the distrust that has destroyed two Conservative premierships already. The government needs to walk away from some of its own concessions, not just some of the EU’s demands.