2 July 2018
My version of May’s speech to the European Commission struck chords with many readers as pointing to the key issues. Too bad that in the event she only had time to focus on one element, security; though over the last 24 hours HMG has also sent up smoke-signals about preparation for no deal - see final section. But my test as to her intentions was stymied by her truncated time-slot. Otherwise, I get the other messages from the volume of feedback: monthly intervals are on the long side; the Tory psychodrama may be inescapable but what about Europe itself? and how about my original stance that a breakdown in talks is more likely than not? Here’s my response as best I can deliver it: after three blogs over two months here are three in one go.
Huffing and puffing
This reinforces a familiar theme. Forget the huffing and puffing from the professional briefers: friends of Cabinet Ministers; anonymous Downing Street officials or Berlaymont fonctionaires; let alone self-serving manufacturing exporters (sanity-check on this last: as proportions of 2017 GDP, motor vehicle and aircraft exports to the EU stood in at 1.0% and 0.4% respectively). All are less vessels of truth than barkers from the carney - no, not you, Governor! The reports we read of them crying their wares are filtered by journalists whose business it is to tease out quotes to meet the house stance and daily deadlines.
Only inadvertently does anything useful slip out. This might include the bureaucratic mechanic that Cabinet papers containing options are being prepared for circulation (this is news?); or that Irish PM Varadker takes comfort from his fellow EU members (which means he’s feeling a bit lonely); or that Barnier continues to call for clarifications of the UK position (read this as fishing for concessions); or that last week’s meeting of the European Commission was dominated by psychodramas altogether excluding Brexit (which does the UK no good - see next section). Then again, this Friday’s overnighter at Chequers is certainly worth taking seriously. And so to…
Sovereignty vs integrity
The negotiations between London and Brussels have been dominated by two obdurate truths. May is said to keep a close eye on the polls tracking opinion on Brexit, but she will have seen nothing by way of an alteration in sentiment sufficient to challenge the referendum result. Surveys show that although views on the headline topic are as divided as ever, respondents are forthright that the popular decision should be honoured: for details see final section. Such data obliges May (not to say, Corbyn) to continue to take the referendum seriously, notably its demand for sovereignty on immigration, trade and regulation.
In unhelpful symmetry, the EU’s members remain united behind the mandate they gave Barnier last year, placing priority upon maintaining the Union’s institutions and prerogatives - the “four freedoms”, the aquis and generally its integrity, with scant scope for give. There’s a sense in which the EU is given to principled recklessness: the Euro and Schengen can certainly be seen in this light. These signature policies are in disarray, with the Union now also within sight of losing one of its key members, as well as squaring up for an unwanted trade-war.
But Leavers would be mistaken to chortle at Brussels’ chagrin, as this simply gives Barnier more room to manoeuvre: the Member-States lack the bandwidth to micro-manage him even if they wanted to. Nor do the EU’s problems with immigration from overseas open up room for a concession to the UK on the movement of EU citizens. On only two scores might Barnier be feeling something of a chill: his principals would be hopping mad if no deal with the Brits meant that the promised €40-50bn went up in smoke; and the EU’s reputation among its trading partners, never lustrous, would be further compromised by another high-profile failure. Which in turn takes us to…
Fudges are always possible: forms of words, transition periods - we know the score. But at present - and notwithstanding the earache from the cheap seats - nothing is diluting the superglue attaching the UK to sovereignty, the EU to integrity. May’s trademark doggedness could run out of road on Friday evening. Remainers believe they have reason to hope that she’s orchestrating one or another kind of BRINO: maybe an ultra-soft deal, with the UK still contributing, in the Customs Union and signed up to some free movement; or maybe a never-ending transition-period. Those of this mind argue that the alternative - crashing out with no deal - is so chaotic as to be unconscionable.
Looking at things another way, it is true that May could have been tipped a wink from Brussels - most negotiations have an element of shadow-boxing to them. But have they given her anything she can sell back home? that her party can get behind to take to the country with a spring in their step? If not, her days are numbered. But then we’ve said that before!
What happens if we crash out? Unconscionable chaos seems hyperbolic, but instances of disruption can’t be ruled out. For once, the monolith of British healthcare is proving its worth by stockpiling medicines against regulatory hiatus, not the worst contingency-planning for no deal. The NHS is in good company: the most noteworthy result of YouGov’s "Second Anniversary" poll, published 23 June) is that the public is prepping itself for just such an outcome: 54% of respondents saw a failure of current negotiations as likely (vs 29% to the contrary).
What happens if we do get a deal? If this means the sort of BRINO for which Remainers hope, we could be in for a torrid time. Half of YouGov’s respondents agreed that it would be illegitimate for MPs to vote against Brexit going ahead (vs 29%); and 45% agreed that there should not be a second referendum (vs 37%). When it comes to details of negotiating outcome, 44% of respondents replied that staying in the single market would not honour the referendum result (vs 31%); 42% said the same about concessions on the border with Ireland (also vs 31%); as did 39% about freedom of movement (vs 36%). Ardent campaigning for the Customs Union has not so much obtained traction as blown smoke (35% each way as to it honouring the referendum result, with 29% don’t know).
On their face, these are not fertile fields for a volte-face. This means that if May ends up on the skids following the weekend, her successors will face identical problems. They must adjust attitudes equally stubborn among the British electorate or within European corridors...
...or prepare to walk out. Collision course indeed.