The “extra-extra-time” London-Brussels Brexit histrionics were only to be expected, because Boris Johnson and his right-wing Brexiteers have told British voters for years they would get something impossible: all the benefits we’ve enjoyed for decades within the EU with none of the obligations.
Most of the detailed legal text for a deal has been signed off, leaving the major sticking points, but plenty of confusion in Brussels at what Britain really wants.
The EU offer to the UK was a deal to continue to get full and “unfettered access” for trade if there is continued alignment with the standards of the Single Market Britain has been party to negotiating and respecting for decades.
However if in future, Britain diverges, Brussels will limit access or impose tariffs. At one point last week when Boris Johnson was talking up a No Deal, he was choosing to have no access and full tariffs, understandably leaving Europe’s leaders mystified.
The well-informed commentator Alex Andreou reported on Twitter:
“This has led people to split into two camps. There is one school of thought that Johnson really is utterly clueless. His behaviour at the Thursday Ursula von der Leyen [EU Commission President] dinner (a car crash, apparently), has fed that impression. This makes people not want to do business with this government. The second school of thought is that Johnson negotiated in bad faith throughout. That his aim was always No Deal and he simply strung 27 countries along, at the expense of a huge amount of work, effort and expense. This makes them not want to do business with this government. Note that the conclusion is precisely the same under either theory — that whether idiot or fraudster, Johnson is best kept at arm’s length. Polling in most EU27 shows that being tough with the UK yields a big favourability boost. So, I’m afraid, nobody is riding to our rescue.”
Things changed afterwards when Johnson pulled back and expressed a willingness to keep talking which has since been happening. But even then, he and his Ministers trumpet that the EU has more to lose than the UK. Palpable nonsense since 50% of our trade is with Europe and just 10% of theirs is with us.
EU negotiators find their UK counterparts badly prepared and without any clear strategy except an obsession with not offending Tory Brexit zealots. And they genuinely don’t want a deal because that would mean retaining EU ties and making concessions that offend their illusory dogma about “breaking free” and the UK returning to some sort of Imperial grandeur lost over a century ago.
The other Brexiteer myth is that the EU Single Market rules can be bent to fit the UK’s needs at the expense of its remaining members. Which is simply not negotiable. EU leaders will never concede a deal that is more favourable to the UK than its remaining 27 members. And for one very good reason: each one will start to unpick it in its own interest whereupon the biggest, richest and most successful single market in the world would collapse.
Meanwhile, a senior German politician confided to a colleague of mine that Chancellor Merkel thought it best not to speak to Johnson last week “for fear of damaging British-German relations. It’s like how she managed Trump, by not speaking to him”. Both Merkel and Macron refused last week to take Johnson’s calls. The ultimate Brexit humiliation – for now.
The talks have resumed after near-collapse last week with more positive smoke signals as I write. If they succeed, Boris Johnson will have a high-noon confrontation with the zealots who elected him Conservative leader. But the country will breathe a sigh of relief. That, all along, has been the problem. DM