Ashley Fox is an MEP for South West England, and is the leader of Britain’s Conservative MEPs.
Here in Brussels, brinksmanship is a standard way of doing business – and cliff edges are a familiar part of the political landscape.
Each year, European Union budget negotiations threaten to collapse until, with financial chaos beckoning, agreement is reached in the early hours of the morning after a marathon round of talks. Important legislation often follows the same pattern, with fierce opposition only melting away at the eleventh hour when miraculous solutions are suddenly pulled out of the hat.
There is no reason to believe that Brexit will be any different. So far the pattern has been entirely predictable, with the European Union holding firm in the early rounds as it tries to secure its key priority – extracting as much money as possible from the UK.
Despite some recent headlines, I am confident we are on course to begin discussions on the implementation period and the future UK/EU relationship in December. If we stop navel-gazing and take time to look at the bigger picture, the signs are clear. While the media concentrated on Michel Barnier’s comments about a “disturbing deadlock” following the October round of talks, they ignored his more important assessment that “there is a new momentum and I remain convinced that with political will decisive progress is within our grasp within the next two months.” He also spoke of his desire to create “a robust, ambitious and lasting partnership” between the EU and the UK.
After the recent European Council summit Angela Merkel announced that she did not have “any reason to believe we are not going to be successful”, while even Jean-Claude Juncker predicted “we will have a fair deal”.
In addition, pressure is growing on the EU to move the talks forward, with Kristian Jensen, the Danish finance minister, and Geert Bourgeois, the Flemish First Minister, the latest to speak of the consequences to their national economies if we step over the cliff edge.
The Dutch bank Rabobank has estimated that a hard Brexit would knock 4.5 percentage points off the Dutch GDP – the equivalent of €35 billion – while the German Foreign Ministry is working on proposals for future EU/UK relations that include calls for a “comprehensive free trade accord”. Key member states are clearly anticipating a future agreement.
That is not to say that a final, all -ncompassing deal is assured and undoubtedly there will be further twists and turns along the way. Central to securing an outcome that safeguards the interests of both sides is the ability to keep our nerve, present a united front and, returning to my original point, learn the art of brinkmanship.
For the EU to push through anything contentious, the cliff edge must be real, the prospect of failure tangible. To that end, we have to start looking serious about preparing for no deal. The problem we face is that the EU genuinely believes we are bluffing, and this impression is not helped by us setting aside comparatively trivial amounts to cope with a so-called hard Brexit.
In his Budget on November 22, Philip Hammond should spend serious money preparing for a no deal scenario. Land needs to be bought for lorry parks in Kent, hundreds of extra customs officers recruited and new computer systems commissioned. If, as I hope and I expect, these measures ultimately prove unnecessary, any money lost will be a fraction of the financial gains from having secured a mutually acceptable deal.
On the other hand, if no agreement is reached, whether it be through intransigence, bloody mindedness or the failure of politicians in either Westminster or Brussels to ratify the accord, the outlay will be a down payment that allows us to get ahead of the game.
Now is not the time to hold back. Britain needs to show it is serious about leaving with no deal even as it steps up efforts to secure one.
We should plan for the worst and hope for the best. To be effective in any EU negotiation, you must be prepared to teeter on the brink of failure to achieve success.