Michael St George’s update of the latest Brexit key story headlines
NB: (£) denotes article behind paywall
DEALING with the French: Frost versus Barnier, Bacon versus Descartes – Robert Tombs in Briefings for Britain
Few are better qualified than Professor Tombs to expound on the historically different approaches to philosophy and law which govern the respective attitudes of the French and English towards the negotiating of treaties. The former view the opening text as sacred, to be departed from only minimally, if at all; for the latter, it is merely a starting point from which give-and-take bartering can proceed towards, eventually, a mutually acceptable outcome.
To this schism, we have to add current politics. In Germany, Merkel’s anointed successor as CDU party leader and Chancellor having withdrawn, the contest has degenerated into an unedifying struggle between two fairly unimpressive male apparatchiks. In France, an already unpopular Macron faces municipal elections in late March from which he is likely to emerge weakened.
The two diametrically different approaches, coupled with more volatile French and German domestic politics, could well turn the Brexit trade talks into a dialogue of the deaf. In which case, the likelihood of Britain deciding that further negotiation is pointless, and walking away to WTO terms, will become even greater.
This is about the EU’s restrictions on the power of member-states’ national legislatures on state-aid and competition. Yet despite the insistence by Barnier on ‘red lines’ for a ‘level playing field’ regarding his demand for continuing UK-EU ‘regulatory alignment’ after Brexit, the EU is, as ever, the greatest breaker of the rules it purports to impose on others.
Germany, France, Belgium and Italy all receive favourable state-aid dispensations at between three and four times the rate Britain does. Some ‘level playing field’. . . Moreover, identifying where responsibility lies for administering the rules is typically shrouded in bureaucratic obfuscation. It would be futile focusing on this area to the detriment of others in negotiation.
Once again, it’s possible to envisage this issue causing Labour some trouble domestically, especially if the party, though nominally united, has ongoing tensions between the soft-Left faction of presumed winner Starmer and the defeated hard-Left camp grouped around Long Bailey. Remember, Corbyn repeatedly appeared torn between his desire as a Remainer to stay within the EU’s ambit and his desire as a socialist to use taxpayers’ money to prop up failing businesses.
UK-EU: a question of trust – FT (£)
Briefly, for those unable to breach the paywall, the article references the spat between Britain and the EU, on the former’s accusation that the EU resiled from its offer of a Canada-style Free Trade Agreement, and the latter’s accusation that Britain is resiling from a previous agreement not to re-open aspects of May’s Political Declaration. It goes on to regret the result of the document supposed to guide the negotiations being at the centre of a feud.
It’s hard not to see a combination of naïveté and anti-Brexit EU-philia at work here. These negotiations were always going to be conducted in an atmosphere of bad faith on the EU’s side. The reason isn’t hard to discern. Going back to Professor Tombs’ article, for Britain these negotiations are transactional; for the EU, on the other hand, they are near-existential.
As the Bruges Group remarked this week:
‘The UK does not demand special treatment from the EU. We merely expect the EU to treat us like any other country.’ But that is to miss the point. The EU is conceptually incapable of treating us like any other country. Alone among other countries, we have chosen, not merely not to join, but to repudiate and quit their noble, neo-imperial project. For that, according to their world-view, we are heretics who must not only be punished but be seen to be, and if that sounds quasi-religious, it’s because it is. These negotiations were pre-destined to be acrimonious.
The UK and EU Negotiating Mandates Compared – Global Vision
It’s clear from this comprehensive, up-to-date summary, including all the developments of the past week, that behind the spin disseminated via the headline/soundbite-wanting media lie some potentially insoluble points of contention.
Fishing is the obvious and arguably the most difficult one since, despite its relative insignificance economically, it is hugely important politically and almost symbolically, given its public profile: one can easily see it being the bellwether by which the whole deal is judged. The UK has rejected both keeping current levels of access for other EU member-states, and sequencing. It could be the difference between an agreement and WTO.
I think we can expect EU obduracy on financial services, torn as it is between mercantilist envy of the City’s dominance and knowledge of EU firms’ dependence on it. Generally, if the EU refuses to budge on demanding its own legal order be supervening, the UK has made it clear there will be no agreement. Don’t delete your online WTO guide just yet.