It’s devious, shameless and calculating. It could work too. Indeed, it already has once.
Now that Britain has left the European Union we get to the tricky bit. That’s right, the last three and a half years was the easy bit, as hard, and possibly depressing, as that it is to believe for anyone that followed every twist and turn of the political drama that has been Brexit.
There’s always been a dilemma facing the Brexit project in respect of the UK’s future relationship with the European Union it leaves behind.
A close relationship means greater access to the world’s biggest trading block but little divergence with EU rules and regulations (that the UK no longer has any say in). A distant relationship means we can rip up all those workers’ rights and environmental protections (people disagree about whether this is desirable or not) but have less tariff-fee access to the 500 million citizens of the EU.
Part of the difficulty in getting the British Parliament to vote to implement the referendum result and pass a law to withdraw from the EU was that the withdrawal was tied to the future relationship. While there was a majority in Parliament in favour of making Brexit happen, it was impossible to get a majority for a single version of Brexit.
While the 2019 General Election result took care of that, the split described above is still there and still poses a political problem for Boris Johnson and the Government and indeed for the whole country. According to most economists, less tariff-free access to the European Union market means less growth. But if we end up with a close relationship, why did we leave in the first place?
A further problem for Johnson is a decidedly political one. Most of his dedicated supporters want a distant relationship but it may hurt the economy and many voters’ views of him. This may prevent any deal at all being agreed with the European Union.
So after Britain leaves the EU it can have a very close trading arrangement or a much more limited agreement, as well as a range of options in between. Many on the political Right, who have campaigned for Brexit for a long time, want a looser agreement so they can cut regulations, including environmental protections and workers’ rights. Others want a much closer deal to safeguard environmental protections and workers’ rights, this is even more important with a huge Tory majority following the 2019 general election. The only way of effectively protecting those rights may be through an agreement with the EU.
Deal or No Deal
In all the talk of ‘deal or no deal’, it’s important to remember that there are two distinct deals as there are two stages to Brexit. Even if the second bit is split over several mini-deals, it’s one overall deal but I will leave a more detailed explanation of that for another time.
- The withdrawal deal
- The trade deal
The recently agreed withdrawal deal lasts for the transition period which ends on 31st December 2020 (unless there’s an extension agreed).
The next crucial stage of Brexit is the trade deal. There will be a deal or there will be no deal and Britain and the EU will trade on WTO terms which most economists argue will severely damage the British economy.
Boris Johnson has a plan for how to resolve this next crucial stage of Brexit and it will be much the same as how he got the deal for the last stage. But we will come back to this.
The withdrawal deal
The withdrawal deal was about 1. getting the British parliament to enact the referendum result and 2. the withdrawal agreement with the EU — this covers the transition period. Under the agreed withdrawal deal Britain still enjoys many of the benefits and many of the responsibilities of EU membership while not being a member. This will expire at the end of the year and be replaced by a new trade deal.
Why the need for a stopgap deal? The EU doesn’t allow itself to negotiate a deal with a member before it leaves. For a good reason too; it would be negotiating with itself.
The Trade deal
Trade negotiations are defined by two things — complexity and self-interest. They famously take many years. The Canada — EU trade deal took seven years to negotiate. Trade deals cover every facet of vast intricate economies.
They are also about raw economic self-interest. Trade arrangements are fundamental to geopolitical strategy. They determine who is rich and who is poor. Richer countries and bigger markets have a crucial negotiation tactic — they can walk away and suffer less of an economic hit than the smaller market.
Will Johnson choose a close or much more open economic relationship? We don’t completely know. Johnson purportedly wants maximum access to the European Union trade market while undercutting the regulations that the EU has so that British companies have a competitive advantage (no matter if workers lose out).
The European Union isn’t going to agree to this of course. Not only would they lose out, but it would also undermine the whole point of the EU — access to a single market in exchange for agreeing to the same set of rules.
Johnson’s argument is clearly absurd and won’t work. Many people will claim it is because Johnson doesn’t understand how trade negotiations work, what the point of the EU or that he is a bit thick. None of that is true. Johnson knows exactly what he is doing.
Boris Johnson’s plan
In the days after Britain’s departure from the EU, we have seen Johnson and other senior members of the British government complain that the EU is being ‘unfair’ and ‘unreasonable’. Even more, they have said that the British position is fair and reasonable. One presumes the British plan will be more advantageous to the UK than the EU.
Blaming the EU was a tactic of British politicians for the entire 44 years of its time in the EU. Fishing, immigration, economic issues, you name it.
The British passport is a good example of this. To the horror of many newspapers, the British government repeatedly said that they had to get rid of the famous blue British passport in favour of the EU-standardised red passport. It’s completely untrue. Several countries chose to have a distinctly non-red passport and Britain could have had one too, it chose not to.
Not only were there a range of issues that were blamed on the EU, the UK specifically had a range of opt-outs that other EU members didn’t.
Most of the press never reported the facts to do with passports or anything else. As supporters of the Conservative Party, they were happy to repeat Tory claims. The newspaper billionaires have consistently adopted an anti-EU position and those stories also made for good headlines, year after year.
Most of the press will continue to happily lay into the EU and repeat Conservative talking points. It not only makes for good stories but it reinforces the message the press has given for years; that the EU is rubbish and we shouldn’t be a member of it, no matter the economic pain.
Johnson has calculated that blaming the EU will be popular with his supporters and will reinforce his popularity.
But crucially, by blaming the EU, he safeguards against both possible outcomes — deal or no deal.
If there’s ‘no deal’ he can blame the EU, and if there’s a deal — he can blame the EU? How?
There will only be a deal if at the last minute Johnson backs down. Months and months of blaming the EU will both create the idea that he tried his very best AND that a concession was kind of inevitable.
If there’s no deal, then months and months of blaming the EU will both create the idea that he tried his very best BUT that a concession was needed that he wasn’t prepared to make.
How do we know this? It’s exactly what happened with the withdrawal agreement. An apparently immovable deadline for leaving the EU was declared over and over again, about there being no delay and no agreement to an economic border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK as a backstop. Categorical commitments were made — “We’re leaving on the 31st October”, “I’ll die in a ditch before agreeing to a delay” and “There’ll be no internal border”. The deadline was missed and the backstop agreed to, yet there was no political price paid by Johnson. None. He even went on to win a massive majority in the general election (though other factors were at play). Why?
In the age of Trump and Brexit, right-wing populists have learnt you can just say something over and over again, nothing has to actually happen. Trump said he was going to build a wall and get Mexico to pay for it. During the Brexit referendum, it was claimed leaving the EU would allow an extra £350 million to be spent, every week, to the NHS. This was repeated and repeated. Here’s the thing — even when people pointed out this was rubbish, all people heard was the claim itself. Simply mentioning it, even negatively, reinforced the underlying idea. Some people would never agree to it, but for those who minded towards that position, it reinforced their commitment to go out and vote for it.
Before the withdrawal agreement, Johnson repeatedly said he would not compromise — he’ll get a deal that doesn’t put an economic border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK as part of any backstop. In the end, Johnson climbed down. There will be a border. But Johnson portrayed this as a triumph. All people remembered where the claims and not the outcome.
There is cultural politics at play. Some people want their sentiments and their values expressed, loudly and often, on TV and in the newspapers they read. If the fine details don’t match up, it turns out many people don’t care.
Johnson will back down at the last minute or there’ll be no deal, and it will be entirely Boris Johnson’s fault. Not only for the bad faith negotiation but for the unrealistic possible future Britain was told during the referendum could be ours if we left the EU.
The truth is that the best deal with the EU was the one we had. Anything that replaces it will have to choose some major trade-offs. Johnson will hope to avoid responsibility for the consequence of those trade-offs. If the withdrawal deal is a guide, he may get away with it again.
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