On her head, they keep falling. Nothing seems to fit. After last year’s late agreement, the negotiation has taken a turn for the worse. The EU’s draft withdrawal agreement wants the European Court of Justice to be the ultimate arbiter of any dispute with the UK. There is no provision for our Government to have a say during transition on matters that affect us. Data protection, Euratom, public procurement: all are unresolved. Above all, the draft suggests that the answer to the Irish border question is either for the UK to stay in the Single Market and Customs Union, or for it to be effectively divided, with Northern Ireland remaining in both. Michael Barnier complains that David Davis should be in Brussels negotiating. The Brexit Secretary says that the Government may refuse to pay the EU money. Raindrops keep falling on May’s head, they keep falling. She should do her some talking to the Sun.
It could well be that, having declared that “necessary progress” has been made, thereby allowing both parties to take a few tottering steps down the road towards trade talks, the EU has now decided to throw up a roadblock. Perhaps December’s deal was a feint, designed to give the Government just enough hope for it to be lured into talks for a little longer, thus corroding any prospect of “preparing for WTO”. Maybe the EU is planning to keep the barrier in place – thus sparking a market panic sooner rather than later, complete with a collapsing pound and investor panic. Perhaps the Irish Government really does believe that the moment for a united Ireland is nigh. Or else that it save those foolish Brits from themselves, and keep the whole UK in the Customs Union and Single Market. Maybe the EU is willing to risk a Government collapse, the ousting of May, a possible election and a Corbyn Government.
Certainly, the EU is seizing its moment. The Prime Minister’s speech this Friday is likely to develop her position on the Customs Union. Pro-Soft Brexit Conservatives have tabled an amendment to the Trade Bill which would effectively seek to keep the UK in it. There is no fully-operational Continuity Leave campaign to fight back. The same cannot be said of Continuity Remain. Andrew Adonis is howling at the moon, sorry, the Lords. Tony Blair has popped up with (another) dossier. Jeremy Corbyn is torn between the high road of his lifelong Euroscepticism and the low one of sticking it to the Government. Today, John Major recommends the free vote on any final deal that he would never have applied to the Maastricht Treaty. With so much surface turbulance, this might be not a bad moment for the EU to push Brexit in the direction if not of Norway, than at least of Turkey – if not to collapse the referendum result altogether, or try to.
This account of developments is plausible. But that does not necessarily make it persuasive. Yes, most EU member states regret Brexit. But it does not follow that they are somehow plotting to stop it. There will even be a belief among the keepers of the federalist flame that it will burn brighter without those pesky Brits trying to dampen it down. Yes, Germany is dismayed and France rather less so – but both could be forgiven for thinking that, now the UK has plumped for Brexit, it must get on with it. The EU will surely not want uncertainty on its north-west border. Yes, the Commission and the EU27 could make a collective decision to risk the collapse of the talks, followed by that of the May Government, and maybe “a disorderly Brexit”. And, yes, Ireland could chance the consequences thay might follow for its country’s agriculture, about half of which is exported to the UK.
But there is reason to think that these are not the Commission’s preferred options – let alone those of, say, Denmark or Poland. To say so is to trust less to hope than to experience. The EU had the opportunity last year to undermine May and perhaps engineer a crisis in the markets. It could have declared that “necessary progress” had not been made. It chose otherwise. The agreement that was reached was in many respects obsure but in almost none offensive: had it been otherwise, our survey would not have found seven out of ten Party members in favour. On money, the Government and the EU seem to have met more or less halfway. On the ECJ, the draft kept it out of everything bar an advisory role on matters relating to EU citizens. It is true that May backed down on some matters, such as some of the language about alignment – just as she now seems to be doing on the rights of EU nationals post-transition.
None the less, what emerged was a fudge acceptable to both parties. And the most likely development still is that, after the requisite name-calling, blame-mongering, crisis breakdowns, emergency dashes and mutual brinkmanship, the two parties will reach a heads of agreement (at the last possible moment). The negotiation will roll on into the transition period. The latter brings real dangers for Britain – not least, the danger of being marooned within it if our systems are not “Ready on Day One” (that is, for the end of transition, in the event of a deal), or if Soft-or-anti-Brexit campaigners whip up another campaign against “this new cliff edge”. None the less, the present playing to the gallery by London and Brussels has a ritual element about it, not unlike the staged dramas, theatrics and pantomine villainy of all-in wrestling. Meanwhile, real life goes on: yesterday, Toyota announced 3000 new jobs in Derbyshire and North Wales.
Tracking the negotiation is rendered all the more difficult by the way in which British journalism works. Our trade is well set-up to put Westminster under a magnifying glass. Brussels coverage is neither so inquisitorial nor so exhaustively resourced. But it can be hazarded that the biggest obstacle to a deal is not the UK/Irish border. In the last resort, its problems can be fudged, given enough technological innovation, mutual regulatory recognition and turning of blind eyes: after all, the island of Ireland is no stranger to fudges. Rather, the main peril to an agreement comes from that familiar factor: the unexpected – miscalculation, over-confidence, chance. May’s Government is besieged and her own position beleaguered. But that doesn’t mean her eyes will soon be turning red. She knows only too well that she’s never going to stop the rain by complaining.