Tuesday, December 1, 2020
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TCW’s Brexit Watch

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THE battle of words continues between the UK and EU, the latter continuing to pile on demands which are clearly attempts to turn Brexit into a Brino of regulation and controls, draining Brexit of any reality. 

Mrs von der Leyen’s disingenuous assertion that the UK ‘must make its mind about what it wants’  has been decisively met by Michael Gove’s announcement of the release of the UK’s Canada-type deal document before the next round of the talks.

Since Boris Johnson took over as Prime Minister, this has always been the officially stated desire of the UK government; it’s the EU that’s been backsliding on its previous position on a Free Trade Agreement, adding in conditions which boil down to unprecedented demands for political control.

In the Telegraph Martin Howe QC, arguably Britain’s leading ‘Brexiteer’ legal expert, has delivered a powerful rebuttal to their latest demand that the UK remain under the European Convention on Human Rights as a condition of a trade deal. 

He writes that the Prime Minister is right not to bow to it, pointing out that the convention has changed since the original text, creating doctrines ‘demonstrably contrary to the intentions of the states who drew up the original convention’ – three of these doctrines being votes for convicted prisoners, right of asylum and extension of its jurisdiction over member states’ affairs outside Europe.

Government rhetoric at least sounds robust, and Michel Barnier and Mrs von der Leyen are beginning to look rattled. Asa Bennett, also in the Telegraph, writes that the EU cannot pretend that the UK has been anything but crystal clear about what it wants, namely independence and partnerships with the EU as a sovereign state. 

The UK has always negotiated in good faith, something that can hardly be claimed for the EU, which seems determined to make the UK a trade colony. That is the battle now going on.

Coronavirus meanwhile tears open the EU’s never-resolved structural weaknesses. In its desperate plight, ‘Lockdown Italy’ will be calling for the emergency suspension of the EU’s ‘Stability Pact’, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard reports in the Telegraph, to enable the country to borrow and spend as it needs in order to defeat the virus and its impact: 

Laura Castelli, the deputy finance minister, said Rome is exploring a request to EU authorities to waive the rigid limits on budget deficits until the storm has passed. This has never happened before – even during the Lehman crisis – and would amount to the nuclear option in EU crisis management. The minister told Il Messaggero that it was imperative to lift the spending caps. “Europe is facing an epidemic that threatens grave economic damage, and Italy is at the front of the line“.’

Evans-Pritchard says a waiver is unlikely however, as ‘ fierce resistance from hardline creditor states in the North’ is expected. 

In an opinion article for the Sydney Morning Herald on how the coronavirus epidemic may change the world order, Evans-Pritchard poses the further question – has it been the EU austerity regime on borrowing and spending that has hit Italy’s health services so badly, and left it in too weak a state to cope?

Are we seeing the delayed kick from cut after cut to the Italian national health service, its budget pared to 6.6 per cent of GDP? If you think Britain’s NHS has been starved of funds, spare a thought for Italy, Portugal and Greece.

Is an EU already riven by disagreement over the new budget, the northern states wanting tight fiscal rules, others wanting a ‘levelling up’ of EU wealth with poorer nations, about to be overtaken by this new crisis? 

Evans-Pritchard’s prognosis of medical failings unfolding ‘in tandem with a slump across the eurozone, which has failed to take advantage of the Draghi reprieve to rebuild monetary union on viable foundations’ does not bode well for it. 

‘The European Central Bank is exhausted,’ he says, ‘Interest rates are minus 0.5 per cent. The ECB can compress corporate debt yields further, or offer free loans to banks, but this is but damage control.’

According to the Express,  coronavirus is already causing member states to close borders in defiance of the EU core pillars, raising the question of just how real is this EU bond of nations when it comes to the crunch?

Back in Blighty, the Budget is going to have to relax fiscal rules for spending to cope with the virus and recalibrate the economy for Brexit. In particular, it is going to have to help small businesses survive rather than the Establishment thing of doing what the large companies want, as they have with HS2 and Huawei. We will see. 

For those of us who have not entirely forgotten about Brexit, the Budget will be a litmus test as to whether our leaders are really aiming at a our becoming a fully sovereign trading nation, or a carefully covered-up Brino.

It is worth noting the emerging thinking that Brexit fits with the grain of a growing sense that nations do need to attend to their own needs, in pursuing free trade, and not become utterly reliant on the kindness of others. David Goodhart in UnHerd believes that ‘even before coronavirus, economic nationalism was on the up’.

But still, as Evans-Pritchard points out, Brexit scarcely matters right now. It may well be, as he says, that Boris Johnson will be judged not on that, but on ‘whether or not his administration allows tens of thousands of avoidable deaths of the elderly and the not so elderly, and whether the NHS buckles in catastrophic failure’. 

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Timothy Bradshaw
Timothy Bradshaw is a Theological lecturer and Anglican clergyman

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