Following the recent decision of EU leaders to accept the Brexit transition deal, talks will finally move on to the decisive phase about the future EU/UK relationship.
To get this far various elephants have had to be shunted to the corner of the room, and the UK has had to step back from previously announced red lines. And the biggest of them all, in the form of the Irish Republic/Northern Ireland border, was put on hold with an agreement to agree later.
Those EU citizens coming to the UK during the transition period will now enjoy the same citizenship and residency rights as those who were already there, although in February UK Prime Minister Theresa May said that those arriving in Britain while it was an EU member state had “certain expectations”. She distinguished their position from that of immigrants arriving later, saying: “Now for those who come after March 2019, that will be different because they will be coming to a UK that they know will be outside the EU. This is a matter for negotiation.”
Obviously the negotiation was short and meant her giving in to previous EU demands – hardly a negotiation at all. And realistically those coming after March 2019 will not be coming to a UK outside the EU. They will be coming to a country with one leg in and one out, slowly moving away but not knowing exactly where its final destination is.
This neither out nor in phase illustrates the nonsense of the transition period, or implementation period as the UK government prefers to call it. Of course untangling the complexities of such a long relationship, and clarifying how and where the joints will meet, is bound to be difficult. But this work should have started with some urgency as soon as the referendum result was known, instead of which there has been talking about talking. Even though the agreement on this period has been welcomed by the UK government as progress, allowing companies and citizens to plan until December 2020, the next step beyond this date is still a large black hole.
Other concessions made by the UK to get this far include an acceptance of current EU fishing rights right through the transition period, to the great disappointment of UK fishermen and a number of Conservative members of parliament with coastal constituencies. Which is another signal that, at least during the transition period, taking back control means humbly accepting that nothing much will change.
The prize claimed as progress by the UK government is the right to sign trade deals with new trading partners during the transition period, although they will not be implemented until the UK has finally departed the EU. On the plus side this gives both parties some time for a detailed negotiation, on the minus it means that potential partners know they have the upper hand dealing with a partner desperate for a deal. And the bumpier the negotiations with the EU for a post-Brexit trade deal get, the harder these partners can push.
Brexiteers choke on transition humble pie
So far, so very one-sided for the hard talking but no longer quite so buoyant Mrs May. Waiting in the wings, daggers at the ready, are unhappy Brexiteers like Jacob Rees-Mogg and like-minded warriors of the Brexit barmy army. As they realise that the EU is sticking together and sticking it to the UK, not having a nervous breakdown about potentially losing British car buyers and wine drinkers, their tone is becoming harsher. Rees-Mogg, speaking just after the deal was announced, seemed to still believe it will come down to money in the end, and that this is still the UK’s trump card.
His view now is that this is a deal he can reluctantly accept because he believes the final deal will restore fishing rights and secure a good overall settlement for the UK. Previously Rees-Mogg had struck a more conciliatory tone, stating after Theresa May’s Mansion House speech that this is not a time for “nit-picking”.
But there is plenty for Brexiteers to nit-pick about. So far they have seen a retreat on citizenship rights, on fishing rights, on the ECJ’s jurisdiction during the transition period and, previously, on paying a large divorce settlement. Publicly at least this recent “package” has paid for the right to sign trade deals and nothing else. Although it would not be a great surprise if an unspoken “fish for finance deal” has already been floated behind the scenes, given the current UK government’s closer affinity to the City of London than the small, and in GDP terms financially irrelevant, fishing industry. Examine any Conservative minister’s DNA and you will almost certainly find a closer relationship to money and the making of, than fish.
Fish and falsehoods
And for some of our European partners the right to continue to factory farm British waters would be gratefully accepted. Suspicion about why the UK conceded so easily on fishing policy is growing. As prominent Peterhead trawler owner Jimmy Buchan mentioned in a BBC interview last Sunday: “I can’t even imagine why a government minister would accept such a deal…….That’s the bit that really intrigues me.”
Perhaps it was to help win the trade deal, or perhaps it was a stepping stone to a half-way house deal on fishing rights post-Brexit in exchange for a reciprocal gift. Either way it is a reflection of brutal Brexit reality – those without influence will see promises broken.
Brexit means Brexit was the simple but meaningless phrase used by Mrs May when slogans were still just about enough but now that the day of reckoning is closer, it’s worth looking at what people were promised and what has happened so far.
350 million pounds a week extra for the National Health Service – rubbished by the UK’s official statistics body
No right to remain for those EU citizens arriving after March 2019 – first breach of “our borders” (control of) as Mrs May backs down
No big payout to the EU to settle “divorce bill” – conceded quickly, dressed up as acting responsibly
No ECJ jurisdiction after Brexit day – meek climbdown, as first pillar of taking back control wobbles
Common Fisheries Policy – fishing rights remain as was, in complete surrender to status quo
Despite all the threats, challenges, sabre rattling and promises, this summary reflects the reality of Brexit so far, and is probably a good guide to the shape of things to come. The high hopes and promised land promises are meeting hard political reality.
Fairy magic needed for fantasy border solution
Then there is the potentially biggest problem: the Northern Ireland border with the Republic of Ireland. The importance of this border existing on a map only, and not as a wall or fence or series of military checkpoints, cannot be stressed enough. For the vast majority of the population of the island of Ireland the Good Friday peace agreement was a welcome transition to normality after years of conflict, and having an open border was an important symbolic and practical part of that process.
A hard border, however carefully handled, would not be acceptable to those on either side. So far the UK government has said it will not accept an open border, will not restore a hard border, will not allow Northern Ireland to remain in the customs union but will come up with an as yet undefined high-tech solution. Yet again the whiff of wishful thinking from London is hanging in the air, with the need for a Ministry for Magic to replace the Brexit Department becoming increasingly likely.
EU and Mrs May could deliver Rexit together
Slowly but surely the EU is showing collective determination, a lack of anxiety about the “walk away” threats from the UK side, and the political will to exact a price from these negotiations high enough to deter potential copy cap offenders at the risk of some damage to its economic stability. One simple fact demonstrated by the current status of Brexit is that 27 heads are better than one.
Taking back control was the goal of the Brexiteers. So far they have not controlled the early stages of the process and have had to concede on many of the red lines they drew. The transition deal has shown who has the upper hand but they continue to dream of a special deal for the UK, a better than everyone else plus deal. But the only cards they have left are access to the UK market and, perhaps as a last desperate measure, refusing to pay up. Neither seems likely to scare the EU, so the tail will not wag the dog. For in the end its determination to keep control of its long-term future seems likely to be stronger than fear of economic threats to its immediate future.
Looking at Theresa May’s increasingly hard line since she took power, presumably intended to keep the hardcore Brexit fraternity in her party quiet, and considering the growing list of concessions she has made, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that for Brexiteers she is, or could become, the enemy within. Perhaps her clever plan all along, as a pre-referendum Remainer, has been to deliver the soft Remainer Brexit a growing majority of the country could live with. To add a new word to the Brexit lexicon we could name this Rexit………………or perhaps not.