No more ‘broad, sunlit uplands’
Eddie Ford agrees with Jacob Rees-Mogg that the final Brexit deal will be a ‘national humiliation’ like Suez 1956
Predictably the Brexit transition deal signed by the European Union on March 19, said to represent 75% of what needs to be agreed, involved a whole series of concessions by the British government, with plenty more to come. Naturally, David Davis, the Brexit secretary, has claimed partial victory - albeit of a Pyrrhic nature: he pointed out that the EU has parked or deferred outstanding disagreements, when they could have refused to budge, and assented to a 21-month implementation period that will last until December 2020.
However, whatever Davis might say, the fact remains that the transition period will only apply if the remaining areas of contention are ironed out by the time the UK and EU parliaments are asked to ratify the whole withdrawal treaty in the autumn - which seems unlikely. British businesses and the City are still anxious and the whole approach of the government has an air of la-la land politics. It has abandoned its right to have a say in EU decision-making institutions - all for the promise of a packet of crisps in the future, when it could be enjoying a three-course dinner now.
In order to secure the transition deal, Theresa May’s red lines have disappeared one by one - or at least become very blurred. With regards to Northern Ireland, the most potentially excruciating climbdown, only a few weeks ago she thundered that no British prime minister would sign up to a text that included a proposition that could “threaten the constitutional integrity of the UK by creating a customs and regulatory border down the Irish Sea”: that is, agree to the EU’s “backstop” proposal that Northern Ireland will remain in the single market and customs union.
But now the UK has gone back to a position it appeared to accept in December that a “backstop” is acceptable or inevitable (plan C) if no technological or legal alternatives are found (plan A and plan B) that would obviate the need for regulatory alignment. Up to now, needless to say, the EU has viewed the UK’s ‘solutions’ as highly implausible - if not “magical thinking” - which means that it is only a matter of time before some sort of confrontation with the Democratic Unionist Party. The only dim ray of hope for Downing Street is that the UK seems to have retained the right to try to come up with an alternative backstop rather than automatically accept the politically toxic EU version - a plan D, if you like. God only knows what that could be though.
Defend our fisheries! Or rather not, it seems. Contrary to the recent promises by the environment secretary, Michael Gove, the UK has accepted that throughout the transition period it will abide by the current common fisheries policy so despised by ‘leavers’. With similar talk of linking ongoing trade access to future compliance on fisheries access, the government is already being accused of betraying the one industry which hoped to be a clear winner from Brexit.
By all accounts, Maywas taken aback by the level of anger over this issue during a meeting with coastal MPs. Downing Street officials had believed, rather ironically, that a promise from the EU for specific safeguards for allowable catch limits - which went beyond simple consultation - would be seen as a “victory” for the UK. Instead, misjudging the mood, she was met with a furious reaction. Expressing his deep unhappiness with the fisheries deal, arch-Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg - chair of the European Research Group - staged a boat trip stunt outside parliament alongside Brexit-supporting MPs and Nigel Farage, which slightly bizarrely saw them dumping dead fish into the River Thames.
In the end, David Davis accepted the 21-month transition period on offer from Brussels rather than the 24 months he once proposed, on the basis that the two were “close enough”. But the absence of any provision to extend the period if the future trade talks are not all wrapped up in time is also something of a setback. Only recently, UK officials had urged that the period last “as long as it takes” to ensure a smooth departure - but no more. Furthermore, Davis dropped his previous boast that trade talks would be mostly wrapped up before the transition phase even began - which now is seen for the pure fantasy it always was.
Other climbdowns are now irreversible, according to the agreed text. Where once Britain imagined it might buy its freedom from EU rules, the treaty will commit the UK to a £40 billion divorce bill stretching out until 2064. ‘Taking back control’ will definitely have to wait as well. Throughout the transition phase, Britain has now accepted it will have to abide by EU rules, particularly freedom of movement.
There is certainty now for EU citizens as a result of another climbdown over whether they will continue to enjoy full rights in the UK during transition - something that Theresa May was initially dead set against - but the EU was never going to concede on this point. And it is still the case that the rights of EU citizens in the UK and those of British citizens in the EU are not entirely reciprocated. Jane Golding, chair of British in Europe - which claims to represent 1.2 million Britons living in other EU countries - said the new text did not guarantee free movement for British citizens. In fact, according to Golding, “the agreement is as clear as mud when it comes to our future rights to move and work across the EU”. She went on to point out that, with 80% of British people living on the continent at working age or younger, “free movement and its associated cross-border economic rights are a necessity” - not a “nice to have” luxury. But, “as things stand” now, she complained, after Brexit “English cheddar will have more free movement rights than we will”.
Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith was not happy with the deal either. He told the BBC that “here does seem to be a real concern”, because “it appears that at least through the implementation period nothing will change” - something “a lot of MPs are very uneasy about”. More straightforwardly, Farage called for the prime minister’s removal on the grounds that she was “Theresa, the appeaser”. As for Rees-Mogg, he thought it “hard to see what points the government has won” in the transition deal - it appears to have “rolled over without even having its tummy tickled”.
Meanwhile, a few days after the transition deal was signed off, the EU approved guidelines for the negotiation of future relations with the UK after Brexit - the text on trade, security and other issues apparently being agreed in “less than half a minute”. The new guidelines give EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier the mandate to talk directly to the UK about the future relationship - and, whilst welcoming the “positive momentum” so far, remind Britain that there is no legal certainty (including over the transition deal) until the whole agreement is ratified. For example, last-minute wrangling by Spain has led to the inclusion of a reference to the EU’s position on Gibraltar: Spain and the UK will have to reach a separate deal over the scrap of land - a further complication.
The EU’s big offer is a “close future relationship” based on a free trade agreement with no tariffs on goods and a close partnership on security and defence, both of which the UK desperately wants. However, the guidelines note, the UK’s “red lines” will limit the closeness of this future relationship. What has been dubbed the ‘evolution clause’ also indicates that the EU will reconsider its offer to Britain if the UK government compromises on those “red lines”, such as by remaining in the customs union. The EU is demanding a “level playing field” - including ways to prevent potential undercutting on tax, environmental and labour standards.
The guidelines also warn Theresa May she has less than three months to resolve the problem of avoiding a hard border in Ireland - so get your finger out.
In response to the transition deal, shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer has said Labour will table amendments to the government’s EU withdrawal bill, aimed at preventing the UK from crashing out of Europe without a deal, if parliament rejects the outcome of the Brexit talks. Starmer pledged to work with MPs from other parties to try to amend the bill.
Labour is keen to regain the initiative on Brexit after Jeremy Corbyn sacked Owen Smith as shadow Northern Ireland secretary for calling for another referendum on the final deal, thus breaking the shadow cabinet line. The Brexit secretary, David Davis, has repeatedly promised to put the withdrawal agreement to a “meaningful vote” in both houses of parliament, but ministers have heavily suggested the only option if the government loses will be to leave the EU anyway without a deal in place - something that Starmer described as “totally unacceptable” and “the worst of all possible worlds”. Labour would like the bill to say that, if the Brexit deal is rejected, MPs should pass a motion setting out the government’s next steps, which for Starmer would include going back to the negotiating table in Brussels.
Unsurprisingly though, No10 quickly confirmed it will oppose the proposed amendment. It declared that the government’s position is “very clear” - “there will be a meaningful vote on the Brexit deal, where parliament can choose to either accept that deal or we can leave without a deal”. But, either way, come hell or high water, the UK “will be leaving the European Union on March 29 2019” - apply for your Franco-Dutch-produced blue passports right now.
Last week, Tony Blair continued his crusade against Brexit, urging parliament not to allow the government to evade the question of Britain’s future relationship with the EU until after March next year, arguing - quite correctly in many ways - that “as time goes on, it will become crystal-clear that the government’s original negotiating position was built on sand”. Hence, said Blair, “they will realise that they are in mortal danger of putting a proposition to parliament which will not pass” - meaning “the government will turn to fudge”. But it is a strategy that parliament “has a duty to foil”, he argued - it must demand a vote which can only be “meaningful” if “it is on a proposition which allows us to know with precision what our future path looks like before we take it.”
Meanwhile, Rees-Mogg worries that the transition deal will become a “permanent state”. If so, “it would be one of the greatest failures in our island story”. Indeed, he claims, “this would be a humiliation on the scale of Suez” - when “the establishment decided that the only option for them was to manage decline, that there were no more broad, sunlit uplands and that by our own efforts we could never succeed”. He adds that “the embarrassment of Suez was caused by a plot hatched in secret and then only followed halfway to its conclusion”.
Well, Rees-Mogg is right on here. In 1956 Israel, France and Britain connived to invade Egypt, Britain doing it on the usual basis that Nasser was a terrible dictator and another Adolf Hitler - how many times have we heard that one? - and that the Suez canal was British property. But a very irate president Dwight D Eisenhower got on the phone to Anthony Eden, the British prime minister, and demanded that his forces immediately cease hostilities and withdraw - the final pull out happened in 1957.
As everyone realised straight away, this was the United States announcing itself in charge of the world and that Britain was now its poodle. All the absurd pretence of the British ruling class, having lost India, about rebuilding the empire in Africa and Middle East, disappeared almost overnight. The US also demanded decolonisation and that Britain join the then European Economic Community (which took a while, as French president Charles de Gaulle rightly knew that Britain was joining in order to act as a US agent and prevent “ever closer union” between France and Germany. De Gaulle was determined to keep Britain out and the US was equally determined to get Britain in to weaken the European project.
In terms of present negotiations it does seem that the EU has the strong hand, to put it mildly. Almost certainly, Britain will end up accepting EU diktats on this or that - but with no MPs, commissioners or a vote. Welcome to Brexit, Tory-style l