Rethinking Europe

Why Boris Johnson Is Opting for a Semi-Brexit

An exhausted British Prime Minister simply can’t fight on two fronts.

Credit: Prachatai www.flickr.com

Takeaways


  • Boris Johnson still does not understand that in trade talks, EU heads of government never get involved. They leave all negotiations to EU trade officials.
  • The more Johnson briefed against Brussels and EU leaders, the more a sense of panic could be felt in the UK business community.
  • Contrary to pronouncements from the UK government, none of the promises about the future relationship between the UK and EU proved easy to negotiate.
  • Amidst the COVID 19 crisis, Johnson was facing a 2021 opening up with massive 50km queues at UK-EU border ports, shortages of foods and medicines and key prices rocketing as WTO tariffs were applied.
  • Johnson’s strategy on Brexit would have resulted in a signal to the world that Britain was prepared to sacrifice its economy for an ideological fixation against Europe.
  • A Tory Prime Minister is admitting that he cannot break apart the EU and must lead a UK that lives henceforth as a junior offshore neighbor abiding by the wishes of the EU.

The Brexit signals emerging from both London and Brussels are now pointing clearly to a deal largely on the terms that Michel Barnier, the EU negotiator, offered to Theresa May in 2017.

Such a deal is based on the UK trading goods in and out of Europe without tariffs and quotas. It is a simple free trade deal and does not cover services like those sold by the City, lawyers, management consultants, architects or the creative sector.

“Semi-Brexit”

This is best called a semi-Brexit. After all, the condition for obtaining it is that the UK follows EU rules covering trade – something which Brexit purists always rejected.

The reason for this turn of events is simple: The excitement and energy stemming from leaving the European Union which had powered the Brexit referendum result followed by Boris Johnson entering Downing Street and winning a handsome majority 12 months ago has faded.

Pick your calamity: Fight COVID or the EU

The UK government simply cannot fight a two-front campaign on both Brexit and on COVID 19.

All the more so as it is a battle against a virus that just keeps resurfacing no matter how much it is whacked at by different measures (like full or partial lockdowns, incompetent test and tracking procedures or earnest admonitions not to meet friends or family).

At a time of such real troubles, it is simply futile trying to stand up against 27 EU sovereign governments which are remarkably united.

Time and again, they have politely — but firmly — voted and re-voted their confidence in Michel Barnier, no matter how often the UK government tried to opt for splitting maneuvers.

Heroism vs. realism

Even the vaccination excitement of declaring V Day as if troops had entered Berlin in 1945 has quickly faded.

The UK’s National Audit Office (NAO) reports difficulties with the reliability of the vaccine — and there is a massive shortage of trained personnel to administer it.

According to reports from the NAO, the UK will be doing well if just half the population is vaccinated even by the end of 2021.

A listless Tory Party

The Prime Minister and his ministers appear listless with no zip and music in their voices. Boris Johnson has also had to U-turn on his election flagship promise of a major new house-building program.

Anyone who knows the fury that planning proposals cause especially in the wealthier shires of the nation would have advised him to go very gently before taking on the “Nimby” monster that rises up and terrifies MPs who want to keep their votes.

When the ideologue left the boat…

Now, Mr. Johnson has withdrawn proposals about building new homes based on an algorithm devised by his adviser Dominic Cummings, the latter having been ejected from Downing Street shortly after Donald Trump lost to Joe Biden.

Mr. Cummings was seen as the hardest of hard-line Brexit ideologues and his leaving Downing Street seems also to have turned down the temperature of that issue.

Still no understanding of EU mechanisms

Last Wednesday, Boris Johnson came back from an unhappy Brussels dinner with Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, and Michel Barnier, the EU’s Brexit negotiator.

The headlines the next day all proclaimed “NO DEAL” and Downing Street went on to attack President Macron and Chancellor Merkel for not talking to the prime minister.

Evidently after the UK had been an EU member for close to half a century, the British Prime Minister still does not appear to understand that, in trade talks, EU heads of government never get involved and leave all negotiations to EU trade officials like Michel Barnier and his team.

Naval battles anyone?

Then Johnson announced the Royal Navy in all earnestness would be mobilized to board small French boats fishing for scallops and crayfish. The nation was agog at the idea of the once mighty Royal Navy sending its warships to crush boats of a NATO ally.

And yet, the more Johnson and No. 10 briefed against Brussels and EU leaders, the more a sense of panic could be felt in the UK business community.

TV and radio news programes were filled with economic actors from all sectors – farming, fishing, automobile, the City, truckers, scientists – all issuing a joint and very loud cry of alarm at the idea of No Deal.

Empty promises: “Easy to negotiate”

Remarkably, these protests no longer came from the camp of the old Remain campaigners, but from middle and money-making Britain.

Many of these people had voted “Leave” — but on the basis of promises in 2016 from Johnson and others that have now proven erroneous.

Realizing that the UK cannot keep unfettered access to the single market and that UK citizens cannot retain travel and residence rights on the continent, they changed their personal and political calculus.

Contrary to the cocky pronouncements from the British government, none of the “sure-fire” promises about the future relationship between the UK and EU proved easy to negotiate. In fact, the EU 27 resolutely declared them non-negotiables.

When realism sets in

Suddenly late last week, realism about what deal was to be had with the EU finally settled in. Brexit enthusiasm died away.

More pressing issues were to be dealt with: Serious COVID 19-related problems emerged, especially over the idea of relaxing social distancing rules as Boris Johnson’s Christmas gift to the nation.

Amidst the COVID 19 crisis, Johnson was facing a 2021 opening up with massive 50km queues at UK-EU border ports, shortages of foods and medicines and key prices rocketing as WTO tariffs were applied.

The effect of Biden’s election on Brexit

As if the consequences of a hard Brexit weren’t bad enough, Johnson’s long-time strategy on Brexit would have resulted in a signal to the world — and especially to Joe Biden — that Britain was prepared to sacrifice its economy for an ideological fixation against Europe.

Johnson did not want to give this gift to the opposition Labour Party nor guarantee a big win for the pro-EU Scottish Nationalists in the election to the Scottish Parliament in May 2021.

This would open the Pandora’s box of Scotland leaving the UK in the closing years of the Queen’s reign and precipitate Britain’s biggest constitutional crisis in 300 years.

Johnson cutting his losses

So, he temporized and ordered UK negotiators to start making concessions. He withdrew a proposed law that would allow the UK to break any agreed deal.

He made clear the UK-controlled region of Northern Ireland would stay under EU law and rules for trade purposes. He agreed that the UK would abide by EU laws and rules on workers’ rights and the environment.

It was a major U-turn or pirouette as if Johnson was auditioning for a role in a political version of the Christmas Nutcracker ballet.

Tory MPs, themselves exhausted by COVID 19, so far are quiescent in front of Johnson’s capitulation to Barnier. Some anti-EU excitables will protest, but few MPs doubt that if Johnson brings home Barnier’s deal it will be voted through.

End of the Brexit all-brawn no-brains show

Thus ends five years of Brexit Sturm and Drang. The deal will have been done. But it does not cover vital areas of the relationship between Britain and the EU – from data processing, to security, to the rights of British citizens working or wanting to live on the continent.

These issues will continue to plague the British government and people all across Britain.

Conclusion

One important result, though, is in the box now: A Tory Prime Minister is admitting that he cannot break apart the EU and must lead a United Kingdom that lives henceforth as a junior offshore neighbour abiding by the wishes of its bigger neighbor.

Brexit is over — but Brexiternity is just getting under way.

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About Denis MacShane

Denis MacShane is a Contributing Editor at The Globalist. He was the UK's Minister for Europe from 2002 to 2005 — and is the author of “Brexiternity. The Uncertain Fate of Britain” published by IB Tauris-Bloomsbury, London, October 2019. Follow him @DenisMacShane

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