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Brexit Talks – a Matter of Perception

free trade agreement
Written by Caroline Bell

The gulf between the UK and the EU after another round of trade negotiations is as wide as ever. Both sides seem to agree on this; but perceptions of how the current situation will evolve are very different.

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To anyone who understands the British, why we voted for Brexit and the sea change in policy introduced with a Johnson victory in last December’s general election, it has been clear for some time that an exit from the transition period on WTO terms at the end of the year remains the most likely outcome.

In Brussels, however, they seem to think they are still negotiating with Theresa May’s ardent Europhile team. Britain has made it quite clear that it seeks a basic free trade agreement as an independent state, and that if such a deal is not forthcoming, it will be ready to trade on WTO rules. Brussels persists in believing that the UK is ‘desperate’ for a deal, and that we will therefore give in to their outrageous demands on fisheries and control of vast swathes of our economic life, in order for them to be able to keep their huge trade surplus with us tariff-free. There is a perfect English description of a ‘deal’ like that – a pig in a poke. British consumers are always very wary about buying one.

Arguably one of the biggest mistakes the EU made during the whole tortuous process was to remove the iniquitous backstop from the Withdrawal Agreement. This they did only to avoid a no-deal Brexit last October and because they expected Boris Johnson to lose the subsequent election. But without the backstop, their leverage to force us to sign up to permanent satellite status is gone. Brexit has now happened. That battle is lost, but you wouldn’t think so from the rhetoric in Brussels. EU officials talk as though they are dealing with a dependent colony in extended transition or backstop hell, rather than with a sovereign country which can say no in however many languages it takes to convince Michel Barnier that when David Frost says he wants a deal which respects UK control of UK laws, borders, and waters, he actually means it.

Mr Barnier’s appointment as chief negotiator is undoubtedly the EU’s second biggest mistake. Having talks led by a Frenchman almost guarantees that there will be no agreement, and not simply because the British and the French have diametrically opposed notions as to what the word negotiation means. For the French, you set out the conclusion you wish to reach, and that’s it. The final text is not expected to vary by more than a few punctuation marks from your starting objectives. There is no room for discussion or for movement or working out creative solutions. It is the French way or the highway. For such ‘negotiations’ it is essential to be able to keep a gun (or a backstop) at your opponent’s head. Without it, you start looking like the emperor with no clothes, especially when the other side decides to call it a day and agrees to disagree. Mr Barnier’s failure to represent the interests of all EU27 members is another manifestation of this rigid approach. He shows little interest in addressing the very different trade issues of those who do not have a sea border with the UK. A startling example is his rejection last week of a very generous offer by the UK on road haulage, which would have preserved cabotage rights in the UK for EU hauliers (who carry a totally disproportionate 85% of goods from the EU into the UK) in return for continued cabotage rights for UK hauliers in the EU. This is a matter of small concern to France, but is rather more important to Ireland, Poland, Romania and other member States who stand to lose a lot of their UK business. From the disdainful way our offer was rejected (‘there is no à la carte access to the Single Market’) one might suppose we had suggested something quite heinous. The only concern from this side of the Channel is quite how generous we have been. A marked difference of perception indeed!

Barnier’s tone unfortunately also grates badly on British ears. He sounds more like a hectoring schoolmaster chastising an unruly pupil than an experienced diplomat negotiating with a foreign government. One has to admire his dogged adherence to such a wrongheaded approach, since it is likely to save us from a last-minute charm offensive to agree a disadvantageous deal. This patronising and admonitory tone, more than anything, betrays the fundamental error of perception about Brexit in Brussels. The EU does not understand the reason we voted to leave, the desire for independence nor how its own officials – with their constant jibes, insults and homilies – contributed so magnificently to our departure. That they are still ploughing the same furrow four years later, when circumstances have totally changed, shows the depth of our mésentente and why Brexit was probably inevitable.

So why bother to negotiate when we seem unable to agree even on what a basic free trade agreement should contain? We could walk away from talks now, as some Brexiteers keep urging. However, that would generate a lot of unnecessary heat and political pressure at home, as well as shattering any remote chance of an equitable agreement being reached. Brussels undoubtedly views continued talks as a sign of British desperation, and it might be just as well to let them think that. It is the EU which will look foolish when, having boasted that they could stop Brexit – or failing that, that they could turn us into a colony – we slip out without fanfare at the end of the year with no agreement, no alignment, no judicial oversight by the ECJ, our fisheries intact and their exports to the UK facing tariffs for the first time since 1973, competing on equal terms with goods from the rest of the world.

‘Caroline Bell’ is a civil servant.

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Caroline Bell