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Brexit: a war of words

2020-02-02 07:45:40

In his Brexit-day home video, addressed to the nation, Johnson grandly declared that he wanted our departure from the European Union to mark "the beginning of a new era of friendly cooperation between the EU and an energetic Britain".

Barely hours later, the fanboy gazette was headlining the news that their favourite son was "to impose full customs and border checks on European goods", in a move that was said to be "a radical departure from pre-election planning".

"We are planning full checks on all EU imports - export declarations, security declarations, animal health checks and all supermarket goods to pass through Border Inspections Posts", a senior Whitehall source is cited as saying, helpfully adding: "This will double the practical challenge at the border in January 2021".

It is impossible to estimate how much of this is simply hyperbole, intended for domestic consumption, and one can take with a pinch of salt the idea that all "supermarket goods" will go through a BIP.  But the Telegraph suggests that this is a "ramping up of pressure on the coming EU-UK trade talks", designed to give UK negotiators greater leverage against Brussels.

If the strategy is to pressurise the EU into giving the UK a better trade deal though, it is unlikely to be treated as a credible threat. In the short to medium term, the UK is in no position to set up inspection systems which could handle the volume of goods coming in from EU Member States.

Predictably, UK trade groups are unhappy with these developments and are warning that the border plans risked creating huge logistical bottlenecks, supermarket shortages and price rises.

There is no argument that in some of the key ports, such as Dover, there simply is neither the room to install the necessary infrastructure, nor the space for expansion. The volume of incoming goods through these ports would have to be curtailed, either by reducing imports or by diverting goods to other ports, at extra cost, reduced flexibility and with increased transit times.

In some cases, there simply will be no alternative but to reduce the volume of imports, such as the 20 million or so tonnes of fresh vegetables trucked in from Spain, about which I wrote last year.

Any disruption would be bound to damage the UK economy, not least for its effect on just-in-time deliveries and other logistics systems which currently rely on the "frictionless" trade which we enjoy via the Single Market, to the extent that no sane government could countenance playing this card as a mere negotiating ploy.

However, no sooner are we coming to terms with this news than we are regaled by the lead story in the Sunday Telegraph which headlines: "Boris Johnson 'infuriated' as EU reneges on free trade deal". He apparently believes that "Brussels has unilaterally been 'changing the terms' of the deal he agreed last year".

The report itself goes on to tell us that, although both sides "set out to work towards an ambitious and deep trade agreement", the UK is no longer wedded to a Canada-style agreement. Instead, we are told, Downing Street negotiators are now willing to pursue a much "looser" trade deal while simultaneously signing agreements with countries that make up 13 percent of the world's GDP.

Referring to the terms of the deal agreed, this is the revised political declaration which, as the recital states, "establishes the parameters of an ambitious, broad, deep and flexible partnership across trade and economic cooperation with a comprehensive and balanced Free Trade Agreement at its core".

But when one comes to the detail, Article 17 refers, where the parties agree "to develop an ambitious, wide-ranging and balanced economic partnership". This partnership, says the Article, "will be comprehensive, encompassing a Free Trade Agreement, as well as wider sectoral cooperation where it is in the mutual interest of both Parties".

Invariably, though, there is the small print. The Article adds:
It will be underpinned by provisions ensuring a level playing field for open and fair competition It should facilitate trade and investment between the Parties to the extent possible, while respecting the integrity of the Union's Single Market and the Customs Union as well as the United Kingdom's internal market, and recognising the development of an independent trade policy by the United Kingdom.
And, where Johnson has already made it clear that he rejects any idea of "ensuring a level playing field" and is scarcely intent on "respecting the integrity of the Union's Single Market and the Customs Union". As such, sitting in his rather fragile glasshouse, Johnson is really in no position to throw stones.

Furthermore, tucked into Article 135 is provision for the parties to act in "good faith", a provision which is hardly satisfied when Johnson intends to truncate the negotiations when there is an allowance for extending them for a further two years.

The principle of "good faith" is, in fact, deeply embedded within customary international law and, while the political declaration is not a treaty and has no legal effect, it is germane to note that the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties makes great play of this principle.

What this looks like, therefore, is Johnson setting up his alibi for the failure of the talks, getting his blame game cranked into gear before the EU can react. Thus, as the EU prepares to publish its draft negotiating strategy tomorrow, the prime minister is planning to deliver a speech in London to business leaders, ambassadors and think-tank representatives.

With the contents leaked to the Sunday Telegraph - and now covered by multiple news providers - we are being told that he will say the UK must be treated as an "equal". He will make it clear there will be "no alignment, no jurisdiction of the European courts, and no concessions" with Brussels. He will also reiterate that he has no intention of extending the transition phase past 31 December.

Needless to say, a "senior EU source" has rejected the idea of reacting to Johnson's plan to impose import controls. "We saw similar threats from Theresa May" he says, "but frankly we never believed them. And if the UK is actually ready for border checks - which are indeed coming - then so much the better for both sides".

In this war of words, however, the Sunday Times is also weighing in with a report that British diplomats have been ordered to make an "immediate break" with their former EU colleagues, with instructions that officials should "sit separately" from them at international summits.

In a telegram sent to UK overseas missions last week, Dominic Raab has told diplomats to ditch any ideas to "seek residual influence" with EU countries and "adopt a stance as a confident independent country". He also asserts that, "We do not accept that the EU can prevent us from speaking or clear our interventions" if the UK takes up different foreign policy positions during the transition phase.

It appears, though, that some sense still resides in Whitehall. A senior civil servant is cited by the Sunday Times as saying that the entrenching of positions on both sides could lead to Britain leaving without a trade deal. "That is dramatically underpriced", he says.

Certainly, this bellicose language can do us no good at all and one wonders what Johnson thinks we have to gain by it, apart from keeping the clapping seals in his own party happy and setting up his alibi. But are those really good enough reasons for destroying the economy?