That the EU is a political project, and that ideology must therefore trump pragmatism, is a cornerstone of Eurosceptic belief. It was this view that, according to Lord Ashcroft’s research, drove the EU referendum result. The main reason why the British people voted to leave was that they believed “decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”.
Maintaining the integrity of the European project, rather than seeking maximum economic benefit for both the EU and the UK, has duly driven the EU’s approach to Brexit. Article 50 of the European Constitution is consistent with discussing both withdrawal and trade arrangements simultaneously. Indeed, some argue that the sequencing of talks is in breach of the article.
None the less, that sequencing has taken place, and the deal agreed between the EU and the Government envisages the Political Declaration, which covers those trade arrangements, being finalised after the Withdrawal Agreement, rather than simultaneously. The EU’s negotiating approach has not to date been driven by the desire to protect sales to Britain of German cars, French wine, Italian prosecco, and so on.
This background is worth bearing in mind as the Conservative leadership election continues. Both Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson claim that a new deal is possible before October 31. Hunt believes that the Withdrawal Agreement can still pass through the Commons if the backstop is changed. Johnson wants to “disaggregate the elements of the otherwise defunct Withdrawal Agreement”.
He suggested on Saturday that the EU should receive the £39 billion agreed under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement in return for a free trade deal “that we’ll negotiate in the implementation period, after we’ve come out on October 31st”. His critics have not been slow to point out that if there is no Withdrawal Agreement, there is no implementation period.
As matters stand, this is correct. But what Johnson seems to be referring to is a new deal along the lines of the second proposal within the original Malthouse Compromise. In crude terms, that would offer money from Britain in return for the trading status quo, for two years (hence his reference to the implementation period). The legal vehicle for this “zero for zero” temporary arrangement would be GATT’s Article XXIV.
There is learned argument back and forth about whether this is possible in theory. But let us cut to the chase by asking – on the presumption for a moment that it is – whether or not the EU would agree it in practice. For it to do so, the EU would have to elevate mutual economic interest above established political doctrine – and the expression of it in the “backstop within the backstop”, that’s to say, within the proposed arrangements for Northern Ireland.
The joint instrument and unilateral declaration reduce, in our view, the likelihood of this backstop being applied indefinitely. Today’s report by the Prosperity UK Alternative Arrangements Commission, chaired by two former Remain-backing MPs, Greg Hands and our columnist Nicky Morgan, sets out means by which it could be brought to an end sooner rather than later by alternative arrangements – and without, please note, new technology.
The beauty of the Commission’s proposal is that it could be applied either under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement or under those of some other deal. But regardless of the Commission’s plan, the hard question that remains is: on the evidence of this negotiation to date, is the EU really likely to abandon the present deal and drop the Withdrawal Agreement within six months?
Our illusionless take is that there is some room for manoeuvre around the backstop, but that no-one ever got richer by betting against the EU’s attachment to ideology. Some of our Brexiteer friends have done otherwise. Remember the claim that Britain would definitely leave the EU on March 29th. Or that Salvini would veto an extension. Or that Orban would do instead. Or as well as.
The most sensible course for Brexiteers to take is to prepare for No Deal on October 31st, rather than take comfort in designs that are unlikely to fly. There has been ambiguity about whether Johnson is really ready to take Britain out without a deal on that date. He told the European Research Group that he would do so during hustings before the first Parliamentary ballot of the leadership contest.
In public since, he has been less clear, saying in last week’s BBC TV debate that a deal by the end of October is “eminently feasible”. In his Daily Telegraph column today, he swings back in the other direction. “We are going to come out of the EU on October 31, he writes. “We can, we must and we will. [Our italics.] The “we must and we will” formula is repeated further down the column, just in case the reader missed it first time round.
That seems unambiguous. We hesitate only because, with Johnson, one never quite knows: it’s his public policy stance, not his private life, that is worrying us. But all in all, the EU’s negotiating stance to date, plus Johnson’s words this morning, make a No Deal negotiating outcome at the end of October all the more likely. That, in turn, means the Commons moving to block it. In these circumstances, a general election would almost certainly follow.
As we argued last Friday, Johnson will therefore need to form a Cabinet completely committed to No Deal if necessary. The pressures on him, if and when he wins, will be huge. On the one hand, dismissing opponents of No Deal to the backbenches will be perilous; on the other, not doing so would be fatal. In the meantime, Brexiteers should pay the EU the compliment of understanding its negotiating stance – and taking it seriously.