Brexit game has changed but fudge is still on the menu

Chris Johns: Will the fragile truce in the Conservative party last?

Reduced access to EU markets for service businesses is the quid pro quo to be offered to the EU for an ending of free movement of people.

Reduced access to EU markets for service businesses is the quid pro quo to be offered to the EU for an ending of free movement of people.

 

Friday’s Brexit UK cabinet meeting was the one they should have had before triggering Article 50.

The British government has finally adopted an agreed opening negotiating position. All of the nonsense of the last couple of years has been exposed: Brexit can now be seen to have a narrow definition, one that is now clearer, and the Brexiteers, not a bunch known for their love of detail, have never had anything more to say than ‘just leave’.

Gove, Johnson and the rest of them have been revealed as nothing more than bluffers, blusterers and blowhards.

Red lines

Theresa May’s famous red lines are now several shades of pink. The scope for further changes of colour is obvious: an opening negotiating position does what it says on the tin.

It allows negotiators to talk and to reach compromises.

The scope for both sides to meet somewhere in the middle is there but whether or not that arduous journey can be successfully completed remains to be seen. My guess is that there is enough on the table for both sides to get to the point where the transition, better described as standstill, deal can be triggered: yet another fudge will push most or all of the hard talking into the period between next March and December 2020. Nothing much will change for the next two-and-a-half years.

If all of that sounds positive, there is much to dislike about the new Brexit dispensation. Not least the simple fact that 80 per cent of the British economy, its service sector, has been thrown under a bus. Workers in that service sector – and anyone in manufacturing processes that these days blur the line between physical and virtual production will wonder why their jobs have been put at unnecessary risk.

We have to keep reminding ourselves that all of this has, so far, had little to do with financial or economic logic and everything to do with identity politics. The debate is purely emotional with all reason suspended. The hope is that cold logic might just be about to gain the upper hand.

Another negative aspect to all of this is way the UK government communicates: the 12 point video presentation released by Downing Street in the wake of the cabinet meeting was presumably an attempt to assuage Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Theresa May must be hoping that nobody in Europe speaks English or uses the internet: that little video was an exercise in nastiness that will in no way increase trust in British intentions.

Single market

Reduced access to EU markets for service businesses is the quid pro quo to be offered to the EU for an ending of free movement of people.

The latter is the large bone being tossed to the Brexiteers for their cooperation. It is a small positive that the British recognise the need for trade-offs: giving up something in exchange for a reciprocal concession is a very different negotiating stance to expecting to ‘have cake and eat it’.

But, to mix the metaphor, it runs straight into the EU’s aversion to cherry picking the single market. The EU now has a very big call to make about the colour and consistency of its own red lines.

Free movement of people will be at the heart of the wrangling. The principles agreed last week included a commitment to its ending but went on: “[Brexit will involve] a mobility framework so that UK and EU citizens can continue to travel to each other’s territories, and apply for study and work...”. The scope for fudge here is endless: imagine something like an online ‘application form’ that takes a few seconds to fill out and be approved - will that look enough like free movement to satisfy Brussels? We will see.

For the first time in the Brexit process the pressure and spotlight have shifted on to the EU. How will they respond? So far they have been model negotiators: their own opening position was well known even before the referendum.

The day after the result they turned up at the table, repeated that position and have consistently stuck to it ever since. The British will now be hoping for the first signs of shift.

One rather obvious option for European leaders is to stick to their guns: it has been a very successful strategy until now so why change it? An absolute insistence on no cherry picking of the single market would give the British only two options: concede further and accept full single market and customs union (including services) or crash out next March with no deal.

Huge gamble

That route would represent a huge gamble for Angela Merkel but I imagine it has its attractions.

British commentators often fail to grasp the legal structures underpinning the EU – it is a collection of evolving laws rather than a nation state – and the integrity of those laws, most manifest in the existence of the single market, is paramount. Too much is sometimes made of the various ways the EU seemingly reaches late night compromises and fudges in the midst of one crisis or another. More often, the EU simply applies its laws.

For now, the British cabinet has stopped negotiating with itself. Fragile truces can easily be broken but for as the long as this one holds the nature of the game has changed.

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