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TCW’s Brexit Watch: Johnson can indeed rip up the Withdrawal Agreement

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BREXIT is back with a vengeance. We’re in the final furlong. Though the no-deal ‘deadline’ has retreated from July to October – or November if the EU have their way – the last pack of cards has been opened and, with this latest round of talks under way in London, is finally in play. Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, arrived yesterday for the latest round of formal trade talks on the back of Boris Johnson’s new fighting talk. The EU has just 38 days to strike a Brexit deal, Johnson told them. And no, he will not be ‘backing down’ over his plan to change the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement regarding the Northern Ireland Protocol that he’s finally discovered – if at the eleventh hour – never made sense. 

So the final talks have started with a major row between London and Brussels and with the European Commission’s President, Ursula von der Leyen, threatening the talks will be off if the UK ‘reneges’ on this matter of ‘trust’. 

For the moment leave aside all the dramatic headlines and Project Fear designed to ‘play’ the BBC, Guardian and our Parliament, and to keep wet Tories onside with the EU’s preferred diluted deal. I will come to the EU disinformation campaign to undermine Boris Johnson and the UK’s chief negotiator David Frost later. That Frost won’t be browbeaten or shoved aside is exactly why the EU is trying so hard to drag him off the field; the ‘game’ that Barnier gave away yesterday. It was hilarious, if only the PM and Lord Frost could see it that way.

‘Everything that has been signed must be respected,’ Barnier told France Inter radio. ‘We demand quite simply, and calmly, and until the end, that the political commitments in the text agreed by Boris Johnson be legally translated into this treaty.’  

He means of course the one that won’t happen if we have any sense at all. Even Barnier must know that the Withdrawal Agreement has a value in international law; that the wise old owl Sir Bill Cash inserted Section 38 specifying that ‘nothing in this Act derogates from the sovereignty of the Parliament of the United Kingdom’ into the Bill that Parliament passed in London.

An international treaty may have been signed by another country or an organisation (such as the EU) and the UK, but that treaty only comes into effect when it has been voted through as a Bill in our Parliament. That’s why there was a Bill to gain Parliament’s consent to the Withdrawal Agreement. Why have a debate if the Government can just sign whatever treaty they fancy? Sometimes our friends across the Channel and North Sea find an old and wise democracy a little puzzling.

Not for nothing did the Maastricht rebel Sir Bill, who at 80 is the oldest sitting MP, suggest this clause, Section 38, be inserted.

The less we hear from the duplicitous Mrs May and her acolytes, the better. If the Remainers are so worried about breaking international law perhaps they would prefer my solution as a retired diplomat. Under the Vienna Convention on International Treaties if circumstances change and to abide by a treaty would not be in the national interest, a signatory nation may revoke that treaty. As the EU made no attempt to reach an agreement with us, other than to threaten and stonewall until we caved in and agreed to the status quo, which is not in our interest as it cancels at least three national votes including two elections, let us follow international law to the letter and revoke the Withdrawal Agreement. 

As for the Political Declaration, it’s a wish list, a statement of good intent, but nothing more and certainly not a binding international treaty. That’s the EU’s mistake and the British team should drive a coach and horses through it.

As someone who spent from late 1971 to spring 1974 in a team dealing with the worst time of the Troubles, it seemed madness to let the EU loose on the Belfast Agreement to which, thank the Lord and the Americans, it was never a party. They are meddlers trying to save their own pockets with the Germans clumsily pulling the strings. 
This leaves the only two questions that matter for us in this hall of mirrors: Will the UK PM capitulate to EU at the 11th hour under the guise of another Victory Won (as with the WAPD this time last year) but in reality a trade deal of the sort that is crippling Switzerland? And which all my business friends say is death by a thousand negotiations.

Or will the Germans (the real antagonists in the negotiations) overreach themselves? They have been milking Europe since the euro was adopted. Helmut Kohl thought we would soon join and the Swiss within a decade. We didn’t. Now they’ve got all the bills for their greed and they’re desperate to pass the buck. They can’t pay for France let alone Italy, Spain and Greece plus Portugal. Should the European Central Bank’s bluff be called, all the long-suffering German voters’ post-war wealth will vanish in a puff of smoke. Mutti will be last month’s flavour. There is everything at play for them in these negotiations.

The Prime Minister and his chums only have to start realising this and we’re a country again. If he climbs down on this he must know that he’s finished. But Frau Merkel and Ursula von der Leyen know this as well; which is why they’ve taken charge and are pushing. They have no option. In their place I would be doing the same. No trade deal, no Withdrawal Agreement, Darfur keine Geld (no money for it).

That is why we need to cheer Boris Johnson on. No deal is the best solution and he can indeed rip up the Withdrawal Agreement. It was always a deliberate trap.

The British problem is that the Germans regard Johnson as the weak link in the chain. Their evidence is his giving in to Varadkar over the Northern Ireland Protocol. Surely that breached the Belfast Agreement because the Republic are effectively imposing laws and taxes on the Northern Irish people without their consent or having any say. 

My impression remains that Mutti and Ursula are going to have one last heave to overthrow Johnson and the government in the hope of paving the way for a Remain alternative. There’s no stopping them – it’s in that plan!

The Express claims that von der Leyen is willing to ditch Barnier and Frost – but even if true, that’s really so she can remove Dave Frost from the negotiations because he is obviously doing a first-class job. For all the doubts I believe he has been quite right to play the long game – waiting until an increasing number of British voters tire of the EU’s arrogance and tantrums and say to themselves that the less they have to do with the EU the better.

Ms von der Leyen is following what the German book of instructions calls ‘tripping up the other team’s centre forward’. What I have seen across all the MSM outlets over the last few days is a lot of EU briefing. The Times has been packed with Project Fear Three. The Government’s ministers too easily fall for it.

The hint that we might charge more for their cheap money is far more effective than countering each rumour and David Frost’s interview in the Mail four days ago is the right approach. I do hope Johnson has got the message. If the EU succeeds in shafting Frost – and thereby us – the Tories are dead in the water for thirty years. 

Please tell Boris Johnson, anyone close to him who reads this, if you do meet Ms von der Leyen, you must take David Frost along with you and let him do most of the talking. She’s a smart German lady, she’ll get the message – and you might even reach a deal.

And take her to see the Household Cavalry. Ask them to put on a show. She’s a big fan of dressage and an accomplished competitor. That’s her relaxation. Exploit it.

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Adrian Hill
Adrian Hill. Former soldier and diplomat, afterwards member of CBI Council and author.

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