A Wrecking Ball in the Name of Sovereignty

Michel Barnier and Ursula von der Leyen announce the Deal – Source: Author

So Parliament has overwhelmingly passed the EU (Future Relations) Bill. Can we stop talking about Brexit now?
Hell, no.

At the end of a successful negotiations journey I normally feel joy, but today I only feel quiet satisfaction and frankly speaking relief.

Ursula von der Leyen

The clock is no longer ticking.

Michel Barnier

I can’t be complicit in what is a wrecking ball in the name of sovereignty.

Meg Hillier MP.

Who’d have thought that taking back control would prove so false so soon?

Liz Saville-Roberts

I have spent the last 40 years involved in international negotiations of one sort or another, and I have never seen a British government perform worse than they did in the four years of negotiations that concluded with the Christmas Eve Brexit agreement.

Jonathan Powell

Tidings of comfort and joy?

The deal is done and signed into law.  Of course we are entitled to share in Ursula von der Leyen’s relief that there is a deal at all. It feels as if it was a long time in the making, with the repeated permeable deadlines and the tentative ‘will they / won’t they?’ resumption of often tetchy negotiations. In truth, of course, 11 months is no time at all to negotiate a comprehensive trade deal. After all, with Canada, it has taken about eight years and counting. The argument that we were starting from a position of congruence does not hold any water. These negotiations were about trying to achieve divergence with minimal damage, always a tall order and becoming taller. And what has emerged is a pointless mess.

Has Boris Johnson managed to “get Brexit done”? A resounding “No”. We should of course welcome the fact that there will be tariff-free trade in goods. It will be good news for our Oxford neighbours, BMW. For now they can feel there is a future, even if their just in time philosophy will need some rethinking. We can be glad that a partial solution has been found to the problem of “Rules of Origin”. It is to be welcomed that UK hauliers will not, after all, require special permits which are in short supply. Planes will continue to fly. And there will be continued if modified participation in Horizon Europe, Copernicus and Euratom. Perhaps the most important, if less tangible, benefit is that both sides remain on speaking terms, the atmosphere between them is still vaguely amicable, and negotiations can continue.

The City of London – Source: Author

The City of London is reliant on trade with the EU in services. Will the lights stay on?

And make no mistake, negotiations do need to continue. 80% of the UK’s trade is in services, not goods, and that is something which is sadly lacking from the deal. The UK is very much in the hands of the EU27 as they decide how much of our previous access they will choose to hand back. The Prime Minister and Home Secretary have been unable to provide any evidence to support their reassurance that security cooperation will be as good after 1 January as before. Manifestly it will not be. It was always clear that the UK would leave Europol, and, despite the best intentions, access to European databases such as SIS II (Schengen Information System) will be clunky at best (pigeon post perhaps?). So BJ is right in one thing: Brexit presents new opportunities – for the criminal fraternity. Freedom of movement is gone, to the disadvantage of both sides. Short term work permits, as for those in the creative industries, will become a problem. And many, many day to day implications remain unresolved.

Touring with Turing?

The Erasmus programme is one of the casualties of the deal, and this is something which will be deeply missed by as many as 15,000 UK students per year. Johnson assures us that something called the Turing scheme will take its place and allow UK students to travel around the world. Perhaps, but it will take years to get running. And it will be inferior. It is not reciprocal, so this change will be a big blow for UK universities such as Oxford, for whom Erasmus students from Europe have been a part of the landscape for years. I wonder what Alan Turing would have thought?

The loss of mutual recognition for professional qualifications for doctors, nurses, architects, dentists, pharmacists, vets, engineers will be hard.  It could cause enormous problems of recruitment to the NHS and to the many new veterinary vacancies which the rules on agricultural exports will create. So this is an area where it is essential that we achieve improvements.

New customs barriers will cost business £7bn, with a need for 200 million new forms per year, and 50,000 new posts to fill. The Prime Minister in his press conference and in parliament barefacedly denied non-tariff barriers, and when he tries to mislead on something as obvious as that, it is difficult to know how much else of what he tells us we should believe.

BJ claims to have done the impossible, by achieving a have-your-cake-and-eat-it deal. On the contrary, he has managed to prove what we have always said, that it is impossible.

Brexit In Name Only (BINO)?

This is a thin deal. Inevitably, we think as much about what is missing as what is in it. It really does not bear comparison with what we had before. As Michael Heseltine put it, the relief we feel is that of a condemned man who has had his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment. But relief it is nonetheless. The deal has been welcomed by Farage and the ERG, whose legal advice was that it was ‘sovereignty-compliant’, whatever that means. Should that worry us? Very possibly, when they get into the substance of what has been agreed, they will no doubt do the expected and talk about a “BINO”. After all, the type of Brexit they hanker after was never going to be possible. The Prime Minister has tried to sell it as such. But then again a year ago he said the same about the Withdrawal Agreement, and that looks a lot less shiny now. The reality in both cases is that the UK thought it was negotiating as a ‘sovereign equal’ with a far larger and more powerful neighbour who had far less to lose than it did. And even then as Powell says, it played its cards badly.

Does this deal justify the refusal to seek an extension? The fact that it took until the last minute highlights just how tight the time scale was. But of course the consequence of all this is that it has had to be rushed through the UK Parliament, and the European Parliament will have to vote after it has been implemented. That may of course have been the intention but it is a travesty of democracy. Nor is there time for implementation, either by government or business. It is not good enough simply to blame businesses for not being ready – until a few days ago they did not know what they had to get ready for, and even now there is a lack of clarity about the details.

Labour Pains

And as for Labour? It should not be so, but Brexit has turned into as painful and divisive an issue as it is for the Tories. Keir Starmer has followed a possibly enlightened policy of letting the Tories dig their own hole. This deal failed to meet even one of the 6 tests he set in 2017. In line with this, abstaining would have seemed to make sense, the deal would have passed even without Labour support. Many party members feel queasy at the decision to vote for the deal, as that leaves Labour at least looking complicit, and they will find it hard to challenge aspects of the deal when they need to. In the event Labour support resulted in the deal being passed with 521 votes. This will be quoted again and again by BJ whenever he is challenged about the wisdom of the deal.

So our ‘No to no deal’ campaign is history. Where to now?

So many promises have been made around the deal. So many have already been broken, now that we know what it looks like. So many more can still fall victim to the creative ambiguity which is baked in. The first thing we can do is to use social media to hold our elected representatives to account, with the hashtag #baddeal4britain. We would like if we can to focus on issues where there is realistic scope for improvement, such as education (especially Erasmus), security, professional qualifications, and human rights (including those of EU27 nationals in the UK).

Seasonal Goodwill

At this time of transformation, it is as much in hope as in expectation that we wish for a Happy New Year. May 2021 bring better things than 2020.

Manston Airfield in Kent – Source: Author. Let us hope that the trucks at Manston Airfield last week are not a foretaste of life after 1 January!

Ed: This article is updated from a blog on the Oxford For Europe website. The views stated here are the personal views of the author.

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