Brexit fudge proves to EU that UK is an incompetent negotiating partner

Chris Johns: Boris Johnson must now be thinking about Dunkirk rather than D-Day

Given the typical age profile of the average Brexiteer, it is ironic that one of the more arcane details of Friday’s agreement is that most of them will be dead by the time the European Court of Justice is no longer involved in British affairs.  Photograph: Getty Images

Given the typical age profile of the average Brexiteer, it is ironic that one of the more arcane details of Friday’s agreement is that most of them will be dead by the time the European Court of Justice is no longer involved in British affairs. Photograph: Getty Images

 

The old cliche is apposite: the best strategy in the world rarely survives first contact with the enemy. One of the many problems facing the British government is that it did not – and still does not – have a Brexit strategy. “Cake and eat it” doesn’t count. So it wasn’t much of a contest, not so much a first contact with the enemy but more a chaotic retreat. Boris Johnson, so fond of wartime military metaphors, must be thinking about Dunkirk rather than D-Day.

Johnson has repeatedly told the EU to “go whistle” for its money. This week he said he wouldn’t use that offensive phrase again. And then he repeated it. And then he agreed to a £50-£60 billion payment.

The first of many lessons that the EU will draw from this first phase of talks is that the UK government is an unserious, mendacious, incompetent and untrustworthy negotiating partner.

Trade negotiations are difficult and technical at the best of times. Brexit is about more than just trade, of course. Anyone looking for proper engagement with the complexities of the process will not find it in Westminster.

Nobody seems willing to do the hard yards necessary to understand the principles underlying the customs union and single market. So we get senior members of the British government cheerfully stating that if there is to be a border on this island it will only be because the Irish choose to erect one.

These same people also consider a hard Brexit, whereby the UK reverts to World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules, is both possible and maybe even desirable. Rules and facts are inconvenient things, but the WTO would not allow the UK to have unfettered (non-WTO) trade with Ireland while at the same time applying WTO rules and tariffs with everyone else. Just one of many inconvenient truths that Brexiteers steadfastly refuse to recognise.

Given the typical age profile of the average Brexiteer, it is ironic that one of the more arcane details of Friday’s agreement is that most of them will be dead by the time the European Court of Justice is no longer involved in British affairs. That’s taking back control, I suppose.

Vague wording

The British have agreed, using appropriately vague wording, that there will be no hard border. When listening to one of the Brexiteer senior shop stewards Michael Gove describe his hopes for what happens next it is clear that there is, perhaps, at least a half-baked plan.

He expressed the desire for a comprehensive deal involving total free trade in goods and services. Should one of those appear there will be no hard border. Job done. The trouble is that no such deal is on offer.

Even if the EU were remotely interested in having a chat about one it would be on the basis that such a bilateral deal has never been attempted. And would take years, lots of them, to conclude.

In any event, the only deal that the EU is prepared to talk about is the “Norway” option or a Canada-style free trade agreement. The British have already ruled out both. “Norway” means accepting the rules of the single market, while the Canadian option doesn’t cover most of the British economy.

Even learned commentators can get tied up in knots over what customs unions and single markets actually mean. So, some of them have recently travelled to observe in person what actually happens in places like the Swiss and Norwegian borders with the EU. It’s an attempt to cut through the arcane details and actually observe what the borders look like.

Leo Varadkar did it earlier this year at the border between Canada and the US - a frontier between two members of a free trade area (NAFTA). In all cases there is the infrastructure of a customs border: checkpoints, queues (often very long ones) and officials looking at documents.

Screaming blue murder

One way there will be no border is if the UK stays in the customs union and, maybe, the single market. It won’t do this formally. But Brexiteers already sniff a betrayal: the UK stays in some or all of the necessary arrangements – via “alignments” –but pretends it has left. That’s why Nigel Farage and Aaron Banks are right now screaming blue murder.

If there is to be no border on this island there will have to be a fudge of this kind. Any kind of material divergence – non-alignment between the UK and the EU – logically and legally implies this.

If there is to be no border there has to be alignment between the North and the Republic. Which means full alignment between the North and the EU. We now know that can be no non-alignment between the North and Britain. Which means full alignment between the UK and the EU. That’s a lot of alignment, a lot of fudge.

The Government has been pilloried on both sides of the Irish Sea for being “naive, Brussels dupes who are interfering in British affairs”. This is all nonsense.

Varadkar and Coveney have played their hands brilliantly. They defended Irish interests in the only way they could. This is new politics playing by new rules.

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