The Corner

The Brexit Mess (Continued)

The failure of Britain’s Tory government to get Brexit right rests (to pick from an enormous range of explanations) on a basic failure of political imagination, an inability to grasp the implications of the political arithmetic of the Leave win (its majority was made up of people with very different ideas of what sort of Brexit they wanted) and a staggering ignorance both of the way the EU works and—to put it bluntly—the basics of diplomacy.

Wishful thinking is not a plan.

One of the most interesting critics of the British government’s approach to the Brexit negotiations has been Ivan Rogers. He was the U.K.’s Permanent Representative (essentially a role equivalent to an ambassador) to the EU until his resignation in 2017. He detected a certain absence of realism in Britain’s approach. He was right.

Since then, he has made a number of speeches on the Brexit process—to dignify that flailing around with a noun that it does not deserve—and they bear careful reading.

His latest was to the University of Liverpool on December 13. It’s a long read, but a couple of points are worth highlighting. As background, Theresa May’s proposed Withdrawal Agreement (“WA”) is the first part of a planned two stage process. The WA governs the terms of the UK/EU divorce. What is meant to come next is a negotiation between the UK and the EU on their future trading relationship. For reasons unmoored in reality, but driven, quite probably, by myth, May has chosen to ignore the possibility (the ‘Norway option’) of joining Norway and two other non-EU countries in the arrangement under which they participate in the EEA (the ‘Single Market’), an arrangement that would have the advantage of being (more or less) off the shelf. Instead she proposes to negotiate a fresh trade deal with the EU once the WA has come into force. Good luck with that…

Rogers:

[J]ust wait till the trade negotiations. The solidarity of the remaining Member States will be with the major fishing Member States, not with the U.K. The solidarity will be with Spain, not the U.K., when Madrid makes Gibraltar-related demands in the trade negotiation endgame. The solidarity will be with Cyprus when it says it wants to avoid precedents which might be applied to Turkey.

I could go on. And on… The Free Trade Agreement talks will be tougher than anything we have seen to date.

As things now stand, the WA is unlikely to receive the necessary parliamentary approval in Britain. Meanwhile, the EU has said that the deal is its final offer. If the UK does not come to terms with the EU on the terms of its withdrawal by March 29, it will crash out of the EU.

Fine, say, Brexit’s ultramontanes, we’ll have a no deal/hard Brexit, something they like to pretty up with the label ‘WTO option’.

And if the UK comes to terms with the EU over a WA (which would lead to a transition period during which the future UK/EU relationship would be hammered out) but fails to come to a satisfactory trade deal before the transition agreement expires, then again, say the ultramontanes, that will be fine. WTO option!

Rogers:

[A]ll the breezy assertions that “no deal” would pose no great problems for aviation, for road haulage, for medicines, for food, for financial services, for data and for any number of other areas – for most of which, “WTO terms” are simply not a safety harness.

No number of repetitions of the grossly misleading term “WTO deal” makes it any more real or effective. Its proponents – or most of them – know this full well, incidentally.

This is not because of Establishment remainer sabotage.

It was because these were always fantasies, produced by people who at the point they said this stuff, would not have known a “trade Treaty” if they had found one in their soup.

Quite.

Sir Ivan appears to have his reservations about ‘Norway’. I am not clear what they are. But so far as I am concerned, the Norway option—the first best hope for a sensible Brexit—is now the last best hope that the UK will avoid signing May’s appalling WA  (a deal that, in my still forming view, may possibly be worse than remaining in the EU, an option, surprisingly, that might still exist) or, alternatively, that it succumbs to the delusions of a ‘WTO option’ that no one should want to take.

March 29, 2019.

Tick tock.

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