Forms of words

3 December 2017

So here we are, more than half way through the eight weeks which we have called as the most emotionally-charged period of Brexit negotiations. We revisit the timetable below, but can’t we all simply agree that we’re seeing as much hyperbole as may reasonably be encompassed in fish and chip wrappers? The Remainers are variously bemoaning HMG’s fantasies and crowing at its capitulation; the Leavers are variously bemoaning HMG’s betrayal and crowing at German and Irish disarray. Shall we instead catch a breath?

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What we’re seeing is the emergence of that old diplomatic standby, forms of words. We may explore this by examining the key elements of the negotiations to date. First, Barnier’s three preconditions for moving to trade talks.

Money. The journos tell us that they’ve been briefed about a big headline sum, but what little we divine of the small print tells us that much expenditure will be defrayed over a prolonged period - indeed, at the limit, indefinitely. Forms of words along these lines are worth having if they pave the way to a positive deal on trade. On the other hand, the huffing and puffing from Brussels and its glee-club is intended to cast doubt on any such thing.

Citizen’s rights. This was never really much of a problem. An early deal on reciprocity was prevented only by Brussels’ attempted land-grab on the ECJ’s jurisdiction as a preliminary for being difficult on trade. Once again we are given to understand that this is moving towards a resolution with a form of words. 

Ireland. The character and location of border controls present a thorny problem, amplified by the bad faith of the EU, hiding more land-grabs behind pieties about the peace settlement; posturing from the Republic, falling out of its own political disarray; and whatever additional earache comes from the presence of the DUP in the UK’s governing coalition. But here too, it seems forms of words are emerging which promise to square circles once seen as relentlessly curvilinear. And by no means parenthetically, if this can be fudged, what may not be achieved elsewhere? Now to a couple of topics coming up over the edifying experiences of the last half-year.

Transition. Here, the issues are duration, dispute-resolution and end-state. The last is explored briefly below and is undoubtedly the trickiest, as we haven’t yet agreed where we’re going. This does not, however, justify denying that the UK has set out its own objectives. These are the much-derided “deep and special relationship” to which both sides have devoted a fair bit of effort in their back and forth paperwork. But these objectives may not be attainable. The difficulty is that those saying so most forcibly have squandered their credibility, either transparently parti pris as batting for the other side, or with an unappetising history of schadenfreude in the cause of proving how tremendously right they are.

End-state. The treatment of the UK’s service exports is critical. HMG is relying on the undoubted truth that both sides start in regulatory harmony, but this may mean insufficient to Brussels in a grumpy mood. Indeed, the EU positioned itself for unashamed mercantilism from the outset with its dodgy promotion of the ECJ at every turn. This is disheartening and if kept up could unravel the deals which we are told have already been struck in principle. This said, I now see “no deal” as less likely than I did a month ago: the pressures of the timetable are having their effect on both sides.

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Finally to revisit the house view that the inflamed character of these few weeks is a transient consequence of the deadline operating upon both sides. You’ll recall the argument, that the confluence of the Article 50 period and the annual cycle of corporate budgets combine to prevent the UK extending negotiations into 2018, unless it can offer bankable assurances to the private sector. This makes it far-fetched to argue that the EU has not been as much pressured as the UK. Thus, the heightened temperature and the theatrical breakthroughs. But these very agreements come at the price of volumes of fudge which threaten indefinite national disharmony, as the meaning of one or another form of words is endlessly contested. This ain’t what you want.