One of ConservativeHome’s leitmotifs is that our media colleagues, like us, are not well set up to probe Britain’s EU interlocutors. Newspapers have slashed their foreign budgets. Foreign affairs specialists get less space. The rise of the English language seems to march in step with a lack of curiosity about our common continent. Why, even the Guardian, that flagship of Remainerism, is expanding ambitiously…in America. Were the close-knit cultural ties of the Anglosphere ever more aptly proved? Brussels correspondents tend not to bite the hand that feeds them – with some notable exceptions – while lobby journalists will snap Ministers’ arms off given a quarter of a chance. British MPs pronouncement are probed and ridiculed; Commissioners’ scarcely even examined.
For these reasons and others, the media, Parliamentarians, Ministers and, above all, voters had very little idea at all of how the European Commission, in the public form of Jean-Claude Juncker and Michel Barnier, would respond to the breakdown of the Brexit negotiations last Monday.
One theory doing the rounds in the absence of hard information was that Barnier was itching to tell the European Council that “sufficient progress” had not been made. This news would sink the pound, panic the markets, spook investors, provoke banks into relocating jobs, and whip up hardline Remainers into a gibbering frenzy. Theresa May, stuck between wanting to progress the negotiations and being unable to do so, would fall. A general election might be avoided, but a new Prime Minister would take over. It would either be Mr Boris Gove, who would opt for the WTO route, or Ms Amber Hammond, who would go for the EEA one, or perhaps seek to cancel Brexit altogether. Either way, the Conservatives would probably split, and a poll become inevitable, in a disaster that would out-Suez Suez.
Some Ministers are sceptical of claims that a declaration for WTO would spook the markets; they say that the crucial element is whether the Government can persuade them that it’s prepared for it. But whatever the truth may be, there was no sign whatsoever yesterday that the Commission has the slightest interest in collapsing the Government – let alone in reversing Brexit.
Perhaps the reason is that they want that £39 billion or so. Perhaps they don’t fancy Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister at all – and Boris Johnson in the post even less. Perhaps they are not as deaf to the concerns of those German car-makers and French wine-exporters as some claim. Perhaps they are sensitive to the devastating effect that no deal would have on Irish farmers. Perhaps, above all, they have enough turbulence within the EU to cope with as it is. Poland is refusing migrant quotas. So is Hungary. So is the Czech Republic. A disorderly Brexit on the EU’s north-west doorstep would be an unwelcome distraction. Perhaps it is all these reasons rolled together. Better to move to the next stage (and the next row).
One view will be that the Commission was happy to do so because it got everything it wanted . A weird alliance of Remain fanatics, Irish patriots, Labour politicians and UKIP leftovers say so. But it does not follow that because Ministers mess up on a lot of things, they mess up on everything, including this entire negotiation.
Yes, the EU will get that £39 billion – but not the £60 billion it briefed out to some papers, let alone the £100 billion it cited to the Financial Times. Yes, the ECJ will have a role for eight years – but at the request of British judges (“due regard”), and only on EU citizens’ rights. Yes, there will be “full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union” between Northern Ireland and Ireland in Belfast Agreement-related matters. But look at that wording closely. It doesn’t say “regulatory alignment” which, as Gisela Stuart wrote on this site yesterday, is a form of words for rule-takers, at least in the EU’s view. It is ambiguous, doubtless deliberately so. The entire section on the UK/Ireland border is a great big steaming pile of fudge.
You can claim that the EU is the clear winner on points; or counter that the UK has dragged it to a standstill. But the one certainty is that “sufficient progress” has been declared. Ireland wanted the border fully sorted before the green light was given. This hasn’t happened, which is hard to square with claims of a triumph for Irish diplomacy.
Above all, a question lingers: if “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”, what status does this deal have if talks go belly-up? Different people are giving different answers, but one view high up in the Government is: none. According to this take, the Prime Minister has achieved her aim – namely, to get past the triple hurdle that the EU had erected and into trade talks. This is undoubtedly so. But what will her aims be when they start? Let us suppose that the EU offers a table d’hote Canada deal – trade access; no services. Will a British push for a la carte alternative succeed? Or does May prefer a Swiss-style alternative, with closer alignment? Is it really possible, as she suggested in her Florence speech, to pick and choose – and can she take her Cabinet with her, either way?
Perhaps the negotiation from now on will be all sweetness and light. We doubt it. It is far more likely to see the EU push for trade-offs. The closer Britain seeks to be to the Single Market, the easier access for services may be made. The further it tries to be – by restricting EU migration, for example – the harder the EU will seek to respond. As Michael Gove hints in this morning’s Daily Telegraph, the Cabinet must finally debate and decide which route it prefers. A few years ago, many Tory Brexiteers would have embraced a Swiss-type settlement. Now, most favour Canada plus, including this site.
Either way, two fundamentals apply. The first is that, as John Longworth writes on ConservativeHome today, transition must be time-limited – and not drag out into a kind of EEA membership-lite. The second is that while the Government must work for the best, it must prepare for the worst. We have long urged that Ministers must be Ready on Day One, deal or no deal. And, yes, a bad one would be worse than none at all. So part of getting a good one, paradoxical as it may seem, is preparing for WTO.