A Formal Warning
At last the fourth round of Brexit talks has got underway, after a short delay to allow the Prime Minister to say some things in Florence. She said a lot in Florence, but none of them added very much to anything. The big news was the revelation that she was considering a ‘transition period’, to allow the EU (and, she admitted, the UK) to catch up with all the tricky things that might need doing before Brexit could happen. But that, obviously, would have to happen after Brexit.
How this works is a matter of current debate, as there is nothing about transition periods in Article 50. But there are a few ideas in the EU’s negotiating guidelines. One of which, under section II.6, is a ‘prolongation of the acquis’. Or, at least, the possibility of the EU27 considering such a thing, should it be proposed. At this stage, it hasn’t been proposed. Not in so many words. But it looks like that’s what’s going to happen.
In which case, lots of Brexiteers, and possibly Tories, might start spitting feathers. Prolongation means that, after the UK withdraws from EU membership, on or before April 2019, it will then continue to behave as a member, obeying all the EU rules and paying all the contributions, until it has sorted itself out. The only real difference is that it won’t have any MEPs or any votes at meetings. May didn’t set it out exactly like that, presumably because there’s a party conference coming up, but the implications are clear. Not only will the UK not ‘take back control’ of anything, it will have to spend pots of money on EU contributions while, back home, spending pots more making all those necessary preparations. It’s less like fixing the roof while the sun shines and more like replacing the hull mid-Atlantic.
Since then Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, has visited No. 10 to deliver, in effect, a formal warning. Since the last round of negotiations (the third). back in August, Leo Varadkar, the Taoiseach of the Republic of Ireland, has said he doesn’t think sufficient progress has been made on the core negotiating issues – those of the financial settlement and citizens’ rights – to allow the British to start negotiating a trade deal. It seems President Tusk has now delivered that message. Whether this will make any difference remains to be seen. The EU have been clear, since April, what the core issues were, and what they consider progress to look like (they have published a score-sheet), so this comes as no surprise. And, once again, the core issues are all there are on the agenda for the fourth round.
The British position has evolved, as Tusk acknowledges. The old obsession with having a cake and eating it has gone. What we have now is a determination to have pudding before potatoes. It is not an edifying or admirable position. But it is sensible in one regard. For one of the main obstacles is the border between the Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The British currently have a woolly idea that the people of both areas will be able to move happily and unhindered between the two, as if it was a single, common travel area. Which is what it is now. Goods, on the other hand, will be properly inspected, accounted for and, where appropriate, have tariffs levied on them, by means of a virtual computerised system. So far so good, if lacking in detail and plausibility. But then, to throw a metaphorical spanner in the hypthetical works, come services, which magically tie both people and trade into a knotty blancmange of perplexity.
In short, the border problem has no solution. The rational response to this would be to call the whole farrago off and apologise profusely. But Her Majesty’s Government will not do that. It is not, after all, a strong government, and has to play the percentages which, at least for the moment and at least in Westminster, are forcing it to play at Brexit, albeit with no cards.
And so it continues, with the chance of ‘no deal’ seeming to inexorably rise. Theresa May might have conceded that Britain won’t be prepared for Brexit, but that concession doesn’t move anything else forward. Britain’s preparation, or lack of it, is of little interest to other nations and, however much they might like a deal, it won’t make them relish a bad one. And that’s where we are now. The Prime Minister once claimed that no deal was better than a bad deal. Now she should be frightened that the EU is thinking the same.