Stanley Johnson is a former MEP and parliamentary candidate.
Pascal Lamy’s recent speech at to a packed meeting organized by the Henry Jackson Society in Committee Room 9 in the House of Commons, chaired by Suella Braverman, was both invigorating and illuminating.
If any man knows his oignons as far as the EU is concerned, that man is Lamy. When Jacques Delors became President of the European Commission in 1985, he brought Lamy with him to Brussels as his Chef de Cabinet. In that position, Lamy was one of the most influential personalities in the Delors Commission.
If the Common Market evolved, as it did during the 19080s, into the Single Market, it was because of the clear understanding that Lamy and his colleagues had that you could not have frictionless trade between the member states of the EU (then the EEC) without a degree of regulatory alignment in key sectors (transport, agriculture, industry etc).
The concept of ‘harmonisation’ provided much scope for journalistic parody (one-size-fits-all condoms, straight bananas, lawn-mower noise etc) but the Delors Commission (supported by the Thatcher Government and by Britain’s Trade Commissioner, Lord Cockfield) was tough to the point of ruthlessness.
The mechanism which enabled the Single Market project to progress as rapidly as it did was the introduction of Qualified Majority Voting in the Council of Ministers. In that context, of course, the issue of ‘sovereignty’ rapidly became more salient and, in some quarters, toxic. As Lamy wryly observed last night, the real Brexit negotiation seems to have been taking place not across the Channel but within the UK itself.
And those internal dilemmas still have to be resolved.
Lamy was quite clear about it. The UK politicians who seek to deliver Brexit face a choice. They can ‘unplug’ or they can ‘unscramble’.
He admitted that ‘unplugging’ – the ‘clean break’ concept; would involve a degree of disruption. On the issue of the Irish border, for example, it was – as he saw it – inevitable that problems would arise, if two separate countries, in this case the UK and the Republic of Ireland, headed off on different regulatory trajectories.
The alternative to ‘unplugging’ was ‘unscrambling’. The idea that the UK could negotiate a fully-fledged trade agreement with the EU within the time-frame of the so-called ‘transition period’ was far-fetched. As a former Director-General of WTO, Lamy knows a thing or two about negotiating trade agreements. And he pointed out that a successful negotiation, however long it took, would most likely have to be succeeded by a possibly equally long implementation period. We are talking years, not months.
Lamy did not exclude the possibility that the Withdrawal Agreement, the necessary first step in the long unscrambling process, might be adopted in the next few weeks. Speaking from the floor, I put it to him that the chances of the agreement being approved by the House of Commons might be considerably improved if the EU took the Brady Amendment seriously on board and agreed to drop the Irish Backstop from the Withdrawal Agreement, remitting the Irish issue to the post-Brexit ‘negotiation’ period where it properly belonged.
Lamy prudently avoided giving a direct answer to that question, referring instead to the EU’s time-honoured practice of ‘stopping the clock’ in order to allow time for a last minute compromise. We must wait and see.
Whenever it happened, there would be consequences. “You can’t get the egg back out of the omelette”.
He also wisely refused to express an opinion as to whether a Second Referendum was a good idea. “That is a matter for you” he said firmly.