What price the ninety-five percent?

22 October 2018

Earlier today, the PM sought to dispel the torrent of criticism facing her by claiming that the agreement with the EU is “ninety-five percent complete”. Here is how we would score it.


1.       Citizens' rights
It is true to say that this was finalised in March and that May is to be commended for making a subsequent unilateral guarantee to EU citizens living here, failing an eventual agreement. Even so, this should never have been a contentious issue and it is hard to believe that its concoction by the EU was anything other than scare tactics, intended to animate the Remain cause with a view to promoting the change of view touched on in [3] below.


2.       Divorce bill
The Treasury estimates this as £35-£39bn, always a cheeky ask by the EU who nonetheless deserve credit for negotiating savvy by getting it agreed in March as a precondition for moving on. Even so, Brussel’s doctrine is ever that “nothing is agreed till everything is agreed”. Despite her Chancellor’s noisy dissent, May has suggested that the UK would revisit this without a deal. In the world beyond Eleven Downing Street, most would feel that paying even a brass farthing is objectionable in the absence of acceptable agreements across the board.


3.       Transition period
This too was finalised in March. The PM has recently upset apple carts all round by ventilating the possibility of a period beyond 21 months. This was one of the EU’s first Trojan horses, originally intended to create time for a change of view in the UK - some believe with May’s connivance. The following item [4] argues that the EU now accepts that this isn’t on the cards. 

Even so, May’s disingenuous claim that economic stability called for a transition period undermined her credibility, makes the UK a rule-taker over the period and paved the way for June’s manufacturers’ ramp and the subsequent debacle of Chequers - see [6] below.


4.       Cyprus, Gibraltar and Northern Ireland
Today, these have been paraded as settled. All do little more than restate existing arrangements. Cyprus was never controversial. Agreement on Gibraltar is more noteworthy, given the obstructive approach originally taken by the Spanish government and the EU; it goes a fair way to illustrate the Trojan horse character of Brussels’ treatment of the “Irish border backstop” -see [5] below. The minor issues now settled in Northern Ireland only became tricky to the extent that they were rolled into the “backstop”. The outbreak of good sense suggests that the EU is beginning to understand how much the latter has misfired.

Although the agreements on Cyprus, Gibraltar and Northern Ireland represent little of substance, they do signal that the EU is stepping back from its policy of relentless obstruction, recognising at long last that Brexit is going to happen. After doing much to foment the “people’s vote” campaign, Brussels has registered its own view of its likelihood.


5.       Irish border backstop
This remains unresolved. It has turned out to be the most damaging of the EU’s Trojan horses, intended to bully the UK into de facto staying in the Customs Union and single market. Instead it has spectacularly misfired, to become a constitutional headache for the UK and quite possibly the rock upon which May’s leaky ship finally founders. The principle should never have been conceded last December and the argument represents the height of mischief by the Irish Republic, the EU and the latter’s cheerleaders in this country.


6.       Future relationship
Any claim May might make of progress on (eg) security, transport and services would be specious. Security is a giveaway from the UK to the EU; transport should be a simple restatement of existing arrangements as serving the interests of all. It is not clear what might be said about services: if mutual recognition, good; if not, questionable.

Generally, however, May’s Chequers plan is disastrous to the UK as cementing rule-taking for goods, preventing FTAs relating to them with third parties; and in any event apparently unacceptable to the EU.


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This makes May’s “ninety-five percent” a pot pourri of concoction, concession and conjecture. Last week, she seemed to have put herself into a position where Barnier was able to force capitulation upon her in wholesale quantities. Thus, an extension of the transition period - objectionable to Leavers in itself as undermining sovereignty and incurring further costs - was offered in return for further fudge on the Irish border backstop - equally objectionable for similar reasons and also unacceptable to Scottish Tories.


Small wonder that much of her party is hopping mad, to such an extent that insiders are no longer certain that she could see off a challenger. Forty-eight letters to the ‘22 can be engineered pretty much at will. Until last week, the argument to the contrary was that this would merely lead to further chaos. No more. You have to wonder: are there still men in grey suits to orchestrate an orderly transition?


May’s performance has become excruciating to watch. It’s not just that her technocratic approach to the negotiations has been ill-advised as to the particulars of policy. Its catastrophic sequella is that she has altogether failed in the essential task of statesmanship in such conditions - binding the nation’s wounds. Instead, her clumsiness and duplicity is having the reverse effect. 


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Later this week, May is to meet her party. It is now for them to make their own score of her ninety-five percent.

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