BREXIT Watch is starting to resemble the months before October 31 last year. Any extension to the UK leaving date had been ruled out. The UK was definitely leaving the EU and lorry drivers were reminded about the new cross-Channel documents needed. Prime Minister Johnson was making speeches rejecting a future relationship with the EU of vassalage, saying that the WA/PD was dead. Then suddenly he caved in and signed the WA/PD with trivial alterations, and signed the Irish Protocol economically sundering Northern Ireland from the UK, breaking a direct promise he had given the DUP the previous year. Though hailed as a victory, it left the UK in a very bad negotiating position for the next phase. Surely he had read and digested this toxic WA, thrice rejected by the Commons? Why had his officials let him sign it? Why had Dominic ‘Take Back Control’ Cummings agreed to this unnecessary self-imprisonment? We do not know, but the PM blinked when faced with a no-deal Brexit.
Once more the PM insists that there will be no extension to the leaving date of December 31. Once more the UK is resisting the annexation of UK fisheries, this time on the principle of sovereignty, as well as ongoing EU regulation – the ‘level playing field’ which would negate Brexit but which the EU continues to insist on.
The UK is arguing that Article 50 entails no such EU controls over a state choosing to leave, and that it is merely proposing the same terms and conditions as with Canada and Japan.
The UK is now saying talks need an extra impetus and that it needs an endpoint in October to prepare for the exit on December 31; in turn the EU is denying this is possible. Though talks with the US have finally started, they are in danger of being sabotaged by the farming lobby and DEFRA, who, fearing competition, are deploying what look to be mythical and unscientific smears on US production methods.
What is the likely outcome? The EU is fairly sure that all this is theatre for the UK audience and that the PM will cave in just as he did last year, despite all his robust promises to the contrary. In a fascinating report for RTE, Tony Connelly reprises last year’s UK quick surrender to the ‘dead’ WA ‘vassalage’ following a phone call from Chancellor Merkel to Johnson:
‘On 7 October last year, there was a defining phone call between Boris Johnson and Angel Merkel.
‘It had been a turbulent week. The EU had rejected Johnson’s plan for a hi-tech customs border on the island of Ireland. A no-deal exit was just over three weeks away. Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, accused Johnson of engaging in a “stupid blame game”.
‘But it was how a Downing Street source had characterised the phone call that sent the political temperature soaring.
‘The source had told journalists: “Merkel said that if Germany wanted to leave the EU they could do it no problem, but the UK cannot leave without leaving Northern Ireland behind in a customs union and in full alignment for ever.”
‘Blood was boiling. The DUP leader Arlene Foster accused the EU and Dublin of wanting to “trap” Northern Ireland. Officials in Brussels and Berlin questioned whether the notoriously circumspect Merkel would have used such language. A Downing Street source suggested a deal was now “essentially impossible, not just now but ever”.
‘However, senior sources close to developments that week say Merkel’s intervention was pivotal. Ireland, the European Commission, and other member states had been insisting Johnson’s plan – a blend of customs processing centres near the Irish border, streamlined by technology and derogations from EU law – was not acceptable. Now the German Chancellor was telling Johnson directly it would not work. “It has a different type of weight when it comes from Merkel,” says one key source. “It played a role, definitely.”
‘The role it played was to force Johnson to abandon his Irish border plan. Three days later he met the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Thornton Manor near Liverpool. To considerable surprise, they emerged after 90 minutes proclaiming a “pathway” to an agreement.’
The worry is that Merkel will succeed in bullying Johnson into surrendering the UK again into the vassalage he’s so famous for decrying, and that the PM is just not up to holding his ground late in the battle. He needs to accept that the long-term interest of the UK as an independent coastal state means walking away from EU regulation economically, politically and indeed militarily.
Alexandra Phillips and Ben Habib, both former Brexit Party MEPs, also worry about the PM bottling it when the denouement comes. They worry that Monsieur Barnier has the UK in ‘a grotesque grip’, using at every opportunity the Political Declaration which Johnson dismissed as not legally binding.
Their devastating account sets out the catastrophic surrender that Johnson’s signing of the WA/PD was. and how it handed control of the negotiations to the EU again, with the Political Declaration shepherding the UK towards ongoing EU regulation. They say: ‘Following the resumption of face-to-face parleys at the start of the week, indeed the mood music coming from the Prime Minister is undaunted, uncompromising and unapologetically advocating full-fat freedom. But we’ve been here before. Peel back the swashbuckling spin and what lies beneath is the same wretched set of arrangements Boris Johnson once protested as vassalage.’
Meanwhile Barnier simply has to keep banging home his ‘level playing field’ – a field that will be even more tilted to EU unfairness, it seems.
Everything hangs on Johnson’s nerve. Has he the nerve to walk away and to make the necessary WTO preparations for this? For all his patriotic rhetoric, is he a Chamberlain not a Churchill? Given the passive-aggressive remainer inertia from the governmental support machine, witnessed a year ago in Sir Mark Sedwill’s dire Project Fear warning letter on a no-deal Brexit, the pressure will be on Johnson to cave in. Worried that this will happen, Nigel Farage threatens to fire up the engines of his Brexit Party again.
I fear it will almost certainly be needed.