Brexit is indeed a film, a developing tale over time, not a photo – a state of affairs that will be the same in year ten as it was on day one. So a question that arises about the trade deal which the UK and EU have agreed is whether that story is set to be what the 52 per cent voted for and the 48 per cent can live with.
Once in that referendum, a second time during the Conservative leadership election, and a third time in last year’s general election, Boris Johnson grasped that Brexit would happen in name only if Britain did not take back control – thus satisfying neither constituency. The film would show no real change and the crowd would want its money back.
Or, as the Conservative Manifesto put it, echoing the Vote Leave slogan: “the future relationship will be one that allows us to take back control of our laws”. It is not yet a week since the 1246-page agreement, plus five supporting documents, was published. And MPs will have less than a day to consider the Bill that proposes to put the treaty arising from the agreement into domestic law.
So we are cautious about delivering a final verdict. But it does seem that Boris Johnson, David Frost, Michael Gove, Oliver Lewis and the Government’s team truly have ensured that this deal indeed takes back control, because “the meanings of the provisions are autonomous under international law and do not reference EU law or jurisprudence of the European Court of Justice”.
“Nor does the Agreement provide a role for the ECJ (except for EU programmes which the UK chooses to opt into) and the EU approach of provisions having direct effect is excluded”. Such is the verdict of the European Research Group’s Legal Advisory Committee. This is the heart of the matter and also the heart of Brexit.
This site believes that our nation’s prosperity is not determined by tariff and non-tariff barriers elsewhere, but by the quality of our workforce, the condition of our schools, the competitiveness of our tax system, the quality of business, the state of our infrastructure and, above all, by a culture whose features include strong families, the rule of law, a sense of fairness and a flourishing civil society.
The economic case for Brexit has always been that it potentially allows for “levelling up” – that’s to say, an rebalanced economy based less on the greater South-East, finance, high immigration, an over-valued currency, and parts of the rest of country in near-permanent recession. Leaving the EU excludes none of the factors that we list above, and which are indispensable to such a programme.
Nonetheless, this Agreement really does seem to recognise the primacy of politics above economics, both for the UK and the EU. For the UK, that means escaping the ECJ, because without doing so we cannot take back control; for the EU, it means preserving the integrity of its Internal Market, which is part of its wider political framework.
As our columnist Stephen Booth put it on this site yesterday, there is a price to pay for both parties. For the EU, it is losing one of its biggest contributors, and an important part of its whole. For the UK, it is less easy access to the markets of EU member states. The reason why we believed that a deal was on balance likely is that it seemed that this trade-off could be acceptable to both parties.
If a Soft Brexit is EEA membership, and a Hard Brexit is No Deal, this Agreement leans towards the latter end of the scale, whereas Theresa May’s Chequers plan was nearer the former. As irony would have it, it was May, not Johnson, who in this case wanted to have her cake and eat it – in other words, both to leave the EU and stay close to the Internal Market.
But for all the new non-tariff barriers, there will be no tariff ones – at least, if the two parties can’t settle any future differences through the arbitration mechanisms. That suits the UK well and the EU better, given its trade surplus in manufactures. Remainer diehards will go on to say that we are an economic loser under this deal; leaver ones that we are not always political gainers – pointing to the fishing element.
However, those who declare Britain an economic loser are not necessarily right in the long-term, or always in the short. For example, while the downside of not having a services deal as part of the Agreement will be more complicated access, the upside is not outsourcing regulation of those services to the EU – which that former Remainer, Mark Carney, warned against earlier this year.
Those who say that the fishing settlement will disappoint much of the fishing industry have a point. Nonetheless, the adjustment period ends after five and a half years, and Britain is now an independent coastal state. If voters really want a better deal on fish traded off for a worse one on, say, cars, they can always vote for parties who commit themselves to such a programme.
The deal covers co-operation as well as trade but, rather than probe all its strengths and weaknesses, we want instead to make a point not so much about this Agreement as the one that preceded it – the Prime Minister’s “oven-ready deal”: the Withdrawal Agreement. The political problems with the Brexit settlement overall lie not as far as we can see with this trade deal but its predecessor.
For it was the Withdrawal Agreement which continued the journey which the Anglo-Irish Agreement began – that’s to say, putting a greater distance between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. In a nutshell, Johnson’s version was better for Great Britain than May’s, but worse for Northern Ireland, and so problematic for the Union as a whole.
So while this Trade Agreement takes back control, the Withdrawal Agreement did not entirely do so, and there is the threat of leakage from ECJ jurisdiction in Northern Ireland to the rest of the United Kingdom. But that is done and dusted, for better or worse. The Withdrawal Agreement was the foundation of the Conservative Manifesto. An election was won on it. Tory MPs including the ERG voted for it.
The arrangements for Parliamentary scrutiny are so inadequate – the Commons will have only this morning to consider the Bill – that we can’t encourage anyone to vote for it: there may be gremlins in the text of the Treaty that have evaded even Bill Cash and his colleagues. But the big picture really does appear to be one of a deal that does what it claims.
A slice of that 48 per cent will fight on for a cause that has lost. But more of it has moved on. And most of the 52 per cent will be content, if not profoundly satisfied. Part Two of Brexit is done and the film is rolling. The odds seemed to be against Boris Johnson getting a Withdrawal Agreement settled, but he got one. They were against him gaining a general election. He did it, and won huge.
Once again, he has pulled it off. Whatever you think of this new Agreement, that’s a personal coup. He has managed the politics of the EU issue where Theresa May, David Cameron, John Major and even Margaret Thatcher failed. Churchill walked with destiny. Today, the Prime Minister, in his serio-comic way, is winking at it.