A year ago Brexit dominated the headlines to the point of utter tedium. Now, of course, it’s the Covid-19 pandemic, which is too deadly to tolerate boredom. But Brexit is mounting a comeback, with a vengeance.
Even though Britain formally left the European Union (EU) on 31 January, its departure will only really come into effect at the end of 2020.
The European Commission and Boris Johnson’s government have been conducting desultory and, so far, utterly inconclusive negotiations on an agreement about the future relationship between Britain and the EU.
After the latest round last week, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier complained, “So far, the UK has not engaged constructively.” His British counterpart David Frost hit back in an interview with the Mail on Sunday.
It reverentially described him as “a former diplomat who rose to become the UK’s ambassador to Norway” and then became a whisky lobbyist.
“We are not going to be a client state,” Frost told the newspaper. “We are not going to compromise on the fundamentals of having control over our own laws. We are not going to accept level playing field provisions that lock us in to the way the EU do things.”
And now the government is introducing a bill on the UK internal market that threatens to renege on the laboriously negotiated deal on the Irish border.
There will probably be much huffing and puffing over the terms on which EU fishing boats continue to get access to British territorial waters. But the key issue is trade.
The EU insists that if Britain wants to continue to sell goods and services tariff-free into the European Single Market it must commit itself to maintaining essentially the same trade regulation regime that governs this market.
This is the famous “level playing field”. Boris Johnson committed himself to achieving it in the Political Declaration that accompanied the Withdrawal Agreement between Britain and the EU last October. The EU is adamant that he sticks by his word because it doesn’t want a “Singapore on Thames”—a big neighbouring economy whose firms are allowed to undercut their continental counterparts.
It therefore wants London to continue to enforce the EU ban on state subsidies to industry. But, as the Financial Times reported in July, leading Brexiteers in Whitehall, headed by Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings, support “a minimal, light-touch regime for state aid for British business after Brexit”.
According to the Mail, Cummings “wants to plough £800 million into ‘high risk, high-reward British research’”.
A way round this conflict could be reached if both sides really worked at it. After all, the attention of London and Brussels has been elsewhere, on managing the pandemic. We shouldn’t forget that, after nearly a year of paralysis, Johnson did renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement and got it through the House of Commons last autumn.
And, despite Johnson’s and Frost’s bluster, they have good reasons for avoiding a no-deal Brexit. It would seriously disrupt the supply chains connecting British firms to the EU just when a flare-up in infections might be deepening the economic crisis.
Moreover, a sharp break with the EU would be a gift to Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon in her drive to hold a second independence referendum.
But the political calculus is complicated. Johnson’s descent into government by perpetual U-turn draws constant attention to the callous incompetence with which he has mishandled the pandemic from the start.
After the most important U-turn, over the A Level results, the Spectator magazine’s Isabel Hardman commented, “Boris Johnson only really has a notional majority of 80.”
But Johnson offers his ministers and MPs one solid thing onto which they can hang— the assurance of a real break with the EU. He has remade his party by purging or silencing its pro-EU wing, and now he must deliver what he promised.
This doesn’t make a no-deal exit inevitable. Barnier endlessly repeats that the clock is ticking, but as the deadline draws closer this may push the EU into a serious effort to reach a compromise. But if Johnson believes a hard break with Brussels will save his premiership, he won’t hesitate.