Richard North, 10/04/2017  

I've been meaning to do this for a while, but other things have intervened – and not just computer issues. On that front, though, all my software has been reinstalled, some of it updated, and I'm working through my recovered files.

Meanwhile, life goes on, and part of that was an article in The Times last Friday by Simon Nixon. He is the chief European commentator at The Wall Street Journal, self-important and often wrong. But it sometimes takes an external observer to see parts of the game others can't see – and that may be the case here.

Here, he is writing under the heading: "Brexit means Brexit? It may mean being half-in, half-out of the EU", pointing out something which, to many readers of this blog, has been obvious for some time.

Despite Mrs May's promise that "Brexit means Brexit", ruling out "partial membership of the European Union, associate membership of the European Union or anything that leaves us half-in, half-out", he writes, senior pro-EU Conservatives are increasingly optimistic that what may yet emerge from the negotiations is "associate membership in all but name".

Indeed, he says, "Mrs May's goal of a 'deep and special partnership' covering everything from trade to security sounds a lot like an Association Agreement of the sort that the EU already has in place with many neighbouring countries".

Nixon points to Ukraine, which concluded an Association Agreement with the EU that covers security and foreign policy, as well as a deep and comprehensive trade agreement. The deal allows Ukraine tariff-free access to much of the EU single market for goods in return for compliance with EU rules, overseen by a bilateral commission.

It isn't part of the customs union, allowing it to strike its own trade deals and, while Ukraine and the UK may not have much in common, this agreement provides a template of sorts for a post-Brexit deal. 

Unsurprisingly, Nixon believes reaching such a deal won't be easy, but he notes that Mrs May has already demonstrated over the past week a willingness to compromise. She appears to have dropped her demand for parallel negotiations, accepting the EU's insistence (Nixon says "European Commission" – one of his many errors) that "significant progress" is made on the Article 50 settlement before any trade talks begin.

She has made clear that the Great Repeal Bill won't in fact repeal a single EU rule - and that UK judges will continue to take European Court of Justice rulings into account when interpreting EU-derived laws.

She has agreed that the UK will continue to respect EU freedom of movement rules right up until it leaves the EU in 2019 (which was necessary anyway) and she has accepted that the UK's new trade deal with the EU may not be within two years. Yet she is signalling that the UK will continue to abide by its EU obligations during what may turn out to be a lengthy transition.

Nixon thinks that the outcome will mean "very little may change" for either businesses or citizens over the next five years - and may not much even after that.

He's wrong there – and that's another error. Almost the entire establishment is failing to understand that, come what may – with or without a deal – the UK will become in the EU's eyes a "third country", with all that that entails. Whether we can get a temporary abeyance during the transitional period is a matter for negotiation, but that is our eventual destination.

On top of all that, the EU has already made clear in its draft negotiating guidelines that it will seek commitments from the UK over fiscal, employment and environmental legislation to safeguard against what it calls "social dumping".

For her part, Nixon continues, Mrs May has conceded that UK companies will be bound by rules over which the UK has no control, at least when trading with the EU. Furthermore, she won't do anything to weaken employment rules.

In reality, any new partnership between the UK and EU is bound to have at its core a mechanism to ensure the UK remains dynamically compliant with evolving EU rules overseen by a body to resolve disputes. In other words, much of the British economy may end up continuing to abide by EU rules, Nixon says.

And here's the rub. Such a deal – when the "Ultras" finally realise what is going on - is bound to run into opposition. Those who were hoping for an immediate bonfire of EU regulations, a shutting of the borders and a return to imperial measures are going to be disappointed.

The government hopes that they can be persuaded to fall into line because the UK will have formally left the EU, allowing them to claim it is once again a "sovereign self-governing nation" that has "taken back control".

The only thing, of course, is that the idea of sovereignty is a chimera and, as for "taking back control", this was never going to be. We live in a world where globalisation has progressively redefined the idea of national sovereignty and our freedom to act. Leaving the EU, in that respect, makes very little difference.

Nevertheless, Nixon tells us, Ministers also believe that Conservative Brexiteers ultimately will back a deal that allows the UK to pursue its own independent trade deals, allowing them to claim that quitting the EU has paved the way for a more "global Britain".

Generally, they're not wrong – but for different reasons. When it comes to a choice between principles and power, Tories usually go for power. One expects the general election to focus minds and, just as happened with Maastricht, when MPs put party before country.

Against that, cutting immigration - the supposed big prize for many Leave voters - has been quietly downgraded to a vague commitment to ensure democratic control.

Nixon then thinks that many erstwhile Remainers will be frustrated by a Brexit that results in a slightly worse version of what the UK had before in terms of access to EU markets. Here, he (and possibly they) will be deluding themselves. Access will be incomparably worse, while the new "freedoms" will be minimal. One (unnamed) cabinet minister says the UK would be sacrificing influence for the illusion of sovereignty.

Many will be sceptical that the UK on its own will be able to secure more advantageous trade deals offering only access to its national market than the cumbersome EU is able to negotiate by offering access to its far larger market.

There is an irony, too, says Nixon, in a Brexit where the supposed primary gain is the ability to strike independent free trade deals. Until recently, Brexiteers – or so we are told - used to say that the EU's customs union was the one bit of the EU they wanted to retain.

There cannot be any serious Brexiteers who actually said that, even if their frequent complaint was that "we thought we were only joining a common market". But there again, that's another of Nixon's errors. This was mainly the Tory legend that enabled the party to live with the fact that it had led the way on European integration.

For all that, Nixon actually believes that the direction in which Mrs May now appears to be heading "points to a better outcome than had seemed likely a few weeks ago" when she was setting out seemingly unachievable red lines and talking of "no deal being better than a bad deal".

Actually, anything is better than "no deal", which illustrates the extent of Mrs May's incompetence. She has put us in the position of having to choose between no deal and a very bad deal, with "no deal" being so bad that virtually any deal is better.

For most businesses, says Nixon, the alternative of crashing out of the EU without a deal would be the worst possible outcome. What remains to be seen, he says, is whether she can deliver, given the obstacles on both sides of the Channel - or whether her apparent conversion to a half-in, half-out model already enjoyed by other countries can settle the debate over the UK's relationship with Europe.

And there lies the ultimate delusion. Too many of our Brexiteers are so wrapped up in themselves that they barely understand what is happening. But once they do realise that what Mrs May is working towards amounts to a betrayal, we could see some serious political disturbance.

The thing is that Mrs May has got herself into this position and there is no obvious way out. She has to tough out the consequences because she has no alternative. All that stands between her and political annihilation is the weakness of the official opposition – the Labour Party.

An interesting characteristic of the Tories, though, is that when the opposition is weak, the party splits to create its own opposition. When Mrs May's "betrayal" becomes more widely understood, we shall see whether there is a re-run of Maastricht or whether that opposition becomes permanent.

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