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TCW’s Brexit Watch: Is Johnson being steered towards betrayal?


TODAY’S Brexit Watch focuses on an article by an Irish journalist who seems to have a different angle on events from that of UK commentators. Tony Connelly, Europe Editor of RTE, gave the most credible account of the Prime Minister’s cave-in last October over the Withdrawal Agreement. Bullied over the phone by Angela Merkel close to the deadline, Johnson duly signed a deeply toxic Withdrawal Agreement which in effect divided Northern Ireland from the UK and remains highly dangerous to any real Brexit. Connelly appears to have close links to Irish politicians in the scrum of the current ‘negotiations’.

His latest article, ‘Countdown to endgame on a Brexit deal’, opens with this statement: ‘When the Taoiseach Micheál Martin met Boris Johnson at Hillsborough Castle on 13 August, the British prime minister signalled he wanted a Brexit deal.’ 

He did not want a no-deal exit but a deal. So we now have this for a fact, that he has apparently given away the threat of no deal. This, I suggest, is confirmed by the reported sloth of UK officials in making practical arrangements for a no-deal exit, revealed in the hauliers’ complaint that they have not been consulted on no-deal preparations, that the necessary IT work is not being done, and that preparations are just not happening. 

With lorries from the UK constantly going into the EU, you would have thought the paperwork and form-filling would be in a file already. Where is Michael Gove’s co-ordinating genius in getting such basics ready? Yet he appears keen to appease the EU in its insistence on the toxic Irish Protocol in the WA Political Declaration that keeps NI in the EU customs union.

Connelly reports Barnier’s anger when the expected UK concession did not come, and that: ‘Worse, neither side is agreeing on process, never mind substance. They dispute the nature of a paper put forward by David Frost during the August round. British officials called it a “consolidated” text; EU officials say this was a misnomer, since a consolidated text would be one which both sides had worked up together. Instead, say officials, this was simply the UK’s own draft, with elements of the EU text “which they liked” copied and pasted in.’  

Of course the EU is insisting on precisely the reverse, that the UK signs up to an EU spider’s web before any details are agreed, a trap the UK must know well by now.

On the fisheries issue, Connelly’s report reflects what has splashed out into our press, that Barnier began talking about UK sovereignty being accepted over its waters but as to the fish stocks in those waters, well that was an entirely different matter! Meanwhile Mr Johnson, as though announcing a triumph and not a major cave-in to the EU, said that the UK will insist on having half the fish stocks – thus conceding half the stocks to their control! 

Boris Johnson is brilliant at dressing up a terrible betrayal as a triumph. Connelly describes the situation:

‘On fisheries, the EU’s starting point is that European fleets should continue to have access to UK waters, based on historical precedent. The UK says as an independent coastal state it will decide on who accesses the fish stocks in its waters, based on a method known as Zonal Attachment. Despite the hostility of EU fishing countries to this method, which they dismiss as a “quota grab”, Michel Barnier did suggest that Zonal Attachment could be considered, as long as it was balanced by historic fishing rights and the needs of European fishing communities.

‘According to a number of EU sources, David Frost had signalled his intent to move in this direction. Both sides began discussing the 100 or so species they share, exchanging lists on “priority” stocks.

‘Frost is even said to have suggested that so long as Britain could double the value of fish its fishermen catch, then the methodology was less important. “Even on fish they had seemed to be coming closer to a discussion on what stocks there were,” says one EU diplomat. “They were sort of going down that road, but they went back to Zonal Attachment.”

‘British sources say that Zonal Attachment must be the foundation of any new method of sharing out quotas but accept that other factors can count as well. 

‘However, London argues that whichever way you cut it, the EU still by and large wants the access that is enshrined in the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), to which Britain will no longer be party.’

Boris Johnson meanwhile seems to be tossing out casual ideas, then retreating, presumably when faced by the national mood of not conceding to Brussels and being happy with a no-deal exit. Last October, after burbling about Irish cows in British territory as a brilliant solution, he still caved in to Merkel at the end. Many Brexiteers fear that his lack of grip and desire to be liked by officials and EU leaders will lead him again to betray us.

Connelly says that on the EU’s ‘level playing field’ demands concerning state aid, Brussels officials complain that despite repeated promises, the UK is still not coming clean. He writes: ‘”The UK have been saying,’ says one source, “bear with us, wait until we’ve got our domestic system set up. It’s imminent”. That’s been the case for a while. But the soundings now are we’re not sure it’s imminent – or that it’s going to come at all.

‘London counters this by saying that the EU has agreed mechanisms which address state aid in other FTAs and that what matter are the principles underpinning the UK’s incoming state aid regime.

‘In other words, the UK does not have to spell out ahead of time every detail of what their post-Brexit state aid system will look like.

‘However some EU diplomats believe London wants to leave state aid to the last minute, partly in the hope that there can be a grand trade-off between fisheries and the level playing field.’

It sounds ominous that the EU is being told that the UK is setting up domestic law to accommodate the ongoing control of UK industry and trade. In the recent farming debate in Parliament, DEFRA minister Victoria Prentis declared that all EU farming regulations will become UK domestic law automatically under the WA. What stronger indication could there be of the UK getting ready to accept continuing EU regulation in the UK conduct of a major industry post Brexit – or BRINO?

Connelly says that EU diplomats are telling Barnier to give way on nothing at all, to remain adamant, confident that PM Johnson will crack at the end. But there remains uncertainty as to which way he will jump and who has his ear at the time. Simon Case, the new Cabinet Secretary and head of the Home Civil Service who is being sold as the new Whitehall Wunderkind, now controls 10 Downing Street. Connelly reminds us that Case was a close colleague of Olly Robbins and worked on the toxic Irish Protocol signed by Johnson so disastrously last year. Connelly suggests Case will steer the PM towards caving in.

Do read the article which sounds convincing and is not great news for real Brexit, which is about regaining our constitutional liberal democracy, not just about trade. Watch Gove, who is using Scotland as a block on no-deal, whereas no-deal would make independence far harder to argue.

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Timothy Bradshaw
Timothy Bradshaw
Timothy Bradshaw is a Theological lecturer and Anglican clergyman

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