The British government has been making a significant effort to present the video conference between the Prime Minister and the Presidents of the European Council, Commission and Parliament on Monday as constituting something of a breakthrough in the negotiations over the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union, one which could (with the apparently essential admixture of “oomph”) allow the outlines of a comprehensive trade deal to be concluded by July and signed and sealed by the end of this year. That the British government also, at the same virtual meeting, finally set in stone this demanding deadline is presented as proof of such a positive prognosis.
The key development is claimed to be a weakening of the European negotiating mandate with regard to fishing. Hitherto the EU had insisted that post-Brexit its access to British waters should remain unchanged and that the UK should continue to participate in, and abide by, the multi-year fishing quotas of the Common Fisheries Policy. Now, the EU is supposedly ready to negotiate both access and quotas with the British on an annual basis: the arrangement it currently has with Norway and Iceland. To the surprise of many, especially economists, both the EU and the UK had insisted on the pre-emptive importance of fishing, a most marginal component of their respective GDP, in the negotiations. It is becoming apparent that this may have been, on the EU side, to allow Mr Johnson a presentational victory in return for securing its true objectives: the destruction of London-based euro-denominated financial and European commercial legal services, and the safeguarding of tariff-free entry for EU goods into the UK market. As to the UK side, Mr Johnson may indeed be prepared to accept this outcome, and restrain the recognition, easily conjured in his classically-trained mind, that it resembles nothing so much as a “Carthaginian Peace”, because such a course constitutes the only way for him to have at least the possibility of proclaiming he has “got Brexit done”, in accordance with the platform upon which he won last year’s general election, without the extreme damage and thus danger falling out of the transition period without any agreement at all. He knows the iconic place fish had in the rancid garum of rhetoric with which he won the 2016 referendum, and so still has amongst his bedrock anti-European constituency. In particular amongst Unionist communities in Scotland, and to a much lesser extent, in Northern Ireland. For most Conservatives, including the Prime Minister, recognise that preserving the Union has become critical to preserving Brexit and the Conservative Party.
However, this is not the only thing which is fishy about the interpretation of the present state of relations between the UK and the EU we are presently being invited to accept. Even with the greatest good will in the world, the end of this year is an impossibly short timetable for concluding any form of comprehensive trade deal. The most that can be realistically anticipated would be some form of detailed heads of agreement. The Covid-19 crisis has increased the readiness of the EU to accept the limited damage it would suffer from a no deal departure by the UK: indeed its potential gains from the on-shoring of supply chains currently located in the UK comfortably exceed the loss of the British market for EU manufacturers, whilst the chances of the UK successfully substituting EU-sourced food imports for products from other suppliers on any scale remain remote.
Paradoxically, the pandemic has also increased, or rather confirmed, the convictions of Mr Johnson’s principal advisors on Brexit that a no deal departure is in Britain’s best interests. Those formidable masters of mendacity and mystification, formerly of the Vote Leave campaign, believe the pandemic offers the perfect opportunity to conceal from the public the true costs of a no deal Brexit and to create a climate in which a radical free-market, small state restructuring of the British economy would enable a much closer, even a satellite/fifty-first state style relationship with the United States. For only the clearest and most complete of breaks with Europe is consistent with such a strategy. And this has always been the most intellectually coherent form of British anti-Europeanism (not a high hurdle).
Mr Johnson’s ruling out of any extension to the transition period, and setting a new deadline at the end of July, only really makes sense if leaving without a deal is indeed the British government’s intention, since the remaining months to the end of the year would then be clear for the necessary preparations. But this leaves Northern Ireland, where no preparations can avoid the most serious consequences a “no deal” departure from the EU would entail. The British government may think that inducing the EU to impose its external border across the island of Ireland is a fine spoiling tactic in the short term, setting Dublin against Brussels. But they would quickly find this contradicted completely their intention to conclude the most comprehensive trade deal possible, as soon as possible, with the Americans. Perhaps Mr Johnson’s dedicated advisors envisage a bolder and more brazen version of the trick executed last year to secure the withdrawal agreement: abandoning Northern Ireland completely to the EU by enabling re-unification with the Irish Republic? If so, it is impossible to imagine this being accomplished smoothly or in such short order as to satisfy the requirements of a politically and economically sustainable solution to Britain’s post-Brexit status, to say nothing of the status of this Conservative government. In particular, where would it leave the Union with Scotland?
These must be the considerations now weighing upon the Prime Minister, as he prepares to take his immediate bow for defending the interests of the fishermen of Scotland and Northern Ireland. But to what substantial purpose serving the general national interest is this puffed up performance? Of course, that is the question which can, and will, shortly be asked about Brexit as a whole.