Brexit Briefing #130 – an (almost) final look at the UK still trying to have its cake and eat it

This is my last regular Brexit Briefing… though I reserve the right to publish the occasional update over the months ahead.

Because this is the last of the regular (by regular I mean almost weekly) briefings, it is longer than usual. Over the past 5 years I have written about 130 briefings that follow the twists and turns of the Brexit saga, as various UK actors came and went upon the stage, generally full of sound and fury, but often signifying little.

My little offerings were nothing compared to those of Chris Grey or Tony Connelly but people seemed to like them, for all their shortcomings. 

Brexit and Borders

For all the twists and turns, for all the complications, the story of Brexit is a simple story of the UK trying to have its cake and eat it, of trying to have all the benefits of access to the internal European market with none of the obligations. This it has singularly failed to achieve. For the first time since WWII a western European country has decided to rebuild business, trade and travel borders between itself and its single biggest export market in the name of a reasserted national sovereignty.

The extent to which these borders have been rebuilt has been hidden from full view by Covid and the severe restrictions on international travel. But as the tide of Covid recedes, the nakedness of the new restrictions will quickly become clear. Landing at an EU airport British travellers will no longer be in the fast-track “EU citizens” queue and will need their passports to be valid for a further six months.

They may also be asked to show proof of health insurance and the financial means to cover their stay. It will become increasingly difficult to organise last-minute business trips, on which a great deal of services exports depend. Queueing always takes time, eats into your holiday, adds costs to your business trip.

All of this, of course, was a decision the UK was entitled to make. The UK was always sovereign, even if some Brexiteers like to portray EU membership as somehow equivalent to the colonial status that the UK itself had imposed on the many member countries of its former empire. If they were still alive, no doubt, a wry smile would have crossed the faces of Ireland’s Michael Collins, India’s Jawaharlal Nehru, and Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda, all leaders of genuine anti-colonial independence struggles. They knew real colonialism when they saw it.

But now, Brexit is done. The  UK has left the European Union. It is a third country, outside the EU’s political, customs and single market structures, and its legal order. Boris Johnson, the UK’s Prime Minister, ran an election campaign in 2019 on the slogan “Get Brexit Done”.

It has been done.

Has Brexit been a success?

Yes, it has… if leaving the EU’s market structures and legal order is what Brexit has been about.

In the words of Lord David Frost, the UK Brexit negotiator and currently lead on relations with the EU, the UK is now an “independent, sovereign, trading nation”. To borrow some words from an old Irish nationalist song: “… the UK long a province be, a nation once again”. Or four nations, depending on how you look at it. If it can hang together. Which maybe it can’t.

Has Brexit been a political and economic success? Is the UK better off as a result of leaving the EU?

Valid questions, about which politicians, commentators, and academics differ. But these are post-Brexit questions. Too often the questions “has Brexit been a success?” and “what are the political and economic costs of Brexit?” are conflated into one question. They are two, very different questions.

So, let me repeat. Brexit, for the Brexiteers, has been a success. The UK is now fully outside the economic and legal order of the EU – with the exception of Northern Ireland. That a part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (GBNI), Northern Ireland, remains subject, in part, to EU laws, somewhat takes the lustre off the success of Brexit, and is a source of continuing controversy.

So, if the answer to the first question “has Brexit been a success” is an unequivocal “yes”, what about the second question “has the political and economic costs of Brexit been worth it?”.

As Zhou Enlai, a former Vice Chairman of the Communist Party of China, replied when asked in the early 1970s about the success of the French Revolution “too early to say”. Time will tell. But I have few doubts about the matter. You cannot make it more difficult to do business with your biggest trading partner and expect to be better off.

My naivety

I have to confess that when I started writing Brexit Briefings I was somewhat naïve… let me explain.

I was more than familiar with the history of the European Union and of the UK’s tortured relationship with it, stretching back to the days of the Schuman Declaration. When Schuman and Monnet turned the Declaration into reality with their plans for a European Coal and Steel Community the then UK Labour government refused to have anything to do with it. Tracked down to the Ivy restaurant in London where he was having dinner, the deputy Prime Minister, Herbert Morrison, famously dismissed possible British involvement with the line: “The Durham miners won’t wear it.”

When the Treaty of Rome was being negotiated the UK sent a civil servant, Russell Bretherton, to represent it in the talks. France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, the six founding members, sent their foreign ministers. Quitting the talks, Bretherton is famously alleged to have said:

Gentlemen, you are trying to negotiate something you will never be able to negotiate. But if negotiated, it will not be ratified. And if ratified, it will not work.”

These remarks, whether they were ever said, have always seemed to me to sum up the UK’s attitude to the European Union – the European Union should not exist because it is an “unnatural entity” and even if it does exist it will implode sometime soon. Today, you can read articles to this effect practically every week in the Daily Telegraph.

Over the years I have read detailed accounts of the UK’s reluctant decision to apply to join the then European Community, the serial rejection of that application by De Gaulle, the terms of entry eventually negotiated by Edward Heath, Harold Wilson’s first referendum on EU membership in the 1970s, Thatcher’s “we want our money back” demarche in the 1980s, then how she and Arthur Cockfield then worked with Delors to create the Single Market, before she fell out with Delors over his social policy program.

I followed “live” the debates in the House of Commons over the Maastricht Treaty, when the then Prime Minister, John Major, had his life made miserable by Eurosceptic “bastards”.  His word, not mine.

Along the way, as European integration deepened, the UK negotiated opt-out after opt-out. It opted out of the Schengen passport-free travel area and, more importantly, refused to join the Euro, preferring to keep the UK pound.

I knew my EU and I knew the UK, whose politics I have followed closely since the 1960s.

So, why was I naive when I began writing about Brexit?

I had watched with interest the debate in the UK leading up to the 2016 UK referendum. Like many, I had assumed that the people of the UK would not be so unwise as to end their involvement in the European Union and would vote, even if only by a narrow margin, to stay on the terms negotiated by David Cameron.

Of course, I was wrong and the UK voted 52/48 to leave, through Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the big UK cities voted Remain.

I was naive because I assumed that the victorious Brexiteers had a plan, a worked-out blueprint on how the UK could leave the European Union. After all, they had told us how easy it would be.

Remember the quotes:

David Davis: “There will be no downside to Brexit, only a considerable upside” (10 October 2016)

Michael Gove: “The day after we vote to leave, we hold all the cards and we can choose the path we want” (9 April 2016)

John Redwood: “Getting out of the EU can be quick and easy. The UK holds most of the cards” (July 17, 2016)

Liam Fox: “The FTA that we will do with the EU should be one of the easiest in human history”. (20 July, 2016)

Douglas Carswell: “I think we could very easily get a better trade deal then we have at the moment” (8 June, 2016)

Gerald Batten: “Trade relations with the EU could be sorted out in an afternoon over a cup of tea”. (17 February, 2017).

The assumption underlying all of these comments was the belief that the EU would be so weakened by the UK’s decision to “Brexit” – an assumption made explicit by Michael Gove in a speech shortly before the referendum (See our Brexit Briefing A tale-of-two-speeches/) – that it would gladly agree to the UK’s terms for leaving. Shortly afterwards the EU would implode, leaving the UK to lead a new Europe of free-trading national states.

In that speech Gove was explicit about his Brexit beliefs:

What will enrage, and disorientate, EU elites is the UK’s success outside the Union. Regaining control over our laws, taxes and borders and forging new trade deals while also shedding unnecessary regulation will enhance our competitive advantage over other EU nations. Our superior growth rate, and better growth prospects, will only strengthen. Our attractiveness to inward investors and our influence on the world stage will only grow.

Not only will the UK leave the EU, it will, in Gove’s view, become a competitor to the EU, economically and politically outstripping the EU. He went on to argue that while the UK’s “success” would provoke both angst and even resentment among EU elites, “it would send a very different message to the EU’s peoples.”

They will see that a different Europe is possible. It is possible to regain democratic control of your own country and currency, to trade and co-operate with other EU nations without surrendering fundamental sovereignty to a remote and unelected bureaucracy. And, by following that path, your people are richer, your influence for good greater, your future brighter.

So, yes there will be “contagion” if Britain leaves the EU. But what will be catching is democracy. There will be a new demand for more effective institutions to enable the more flexible kind of international cooperation we will need as technological and economic forces transform the world.

It was, in its way, back to Russell Bretherton. The EU should not exist because it was intellectually impossible that it should exist and, if it did exist, Brexit would lead to it ceasing to exist.

The plan was to have no plan

However, within days of the Brexit vote, the EU adopted a common position: no negotiations without notification. The EU would only open negotiations with the UK when the UK notified the EU of its intention to leave, in accordance with the terms of Article 50 of the EU Treaties, thereby setting a two-year clock ticking.

Further, the negotiations would be phased. Phase 1, the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement. Phase 2, the terms of the future trading relationship. No overall package deal, no free trade agreement in return for the UK paying its outstanding EU bills. No buying future benefits by agreeing to pay past liabilities.

The EU did not implode and there was no rush by other countries to follow the UK out. Rather than being a new “leader of the pack” the UK was on its own. The good ship  Brexit was holed below the waterline before it even left harbour.

History is full of “I wonder what would have happened if….”. How would Brexit have unfolded if Michael Gove had not stabbed Boris Johnson in the back in the Tory leadership race after David Cameron had resigned? How would Brexit have unfolded if Theresa May had not become Prime Minister?

As it turned out the Brexit plan was to have no plan for leaving the EU because any plan would have split the Brexit coalition. One part of the coalition wanted a protectionist, anti-immigration “drawbridge Britain”, while another part wanted a buccaneering, global free-trading Britain, shredding tariffs and regulations.

So, when May became Prime Minister she was faced with a blank, Brexit page. The UK had voted to leave the European Union but there was no plan for what that involved, still less a road map for the journey. After all, if you do not know where you are going it is pretty difficult to work out how to get there. The Brexiteers had all piled into the family car, got to the roundabout at the end of the road with multiple exits, and then began to argue about which exit to take. That argument still continues.

If you want to know what happened next, go back and read our  Otherwise, this Briefing would become a book.  Indeed, I may one day write about Brexit as an object lesson in how not to approach a negotiation.

So, we are where we are today. Brexit is done. The UK has left the EU. The price of exit is only beginning to become clear. Have a look at the posts on the UK in a Changing Europe website here (or this). An aside. I have often thought that UK in a Changing Europe is somewhat misleading, as if the UK was immutable while the EU was changing. As the UK frays as a result of Brexit, with the push for Scottish independence and refired talk of Irish unity, maybe that title should be changed to Little Britain in a Changing Europe.

Johnson and Frost

After the ousting of Theresa May, when Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, he appointed David Frost as his point man on EU negotiations. Frost is now Lord Frost. Brussels is not the only capital with “unelected bureaucrats”.  Unlike the “unelected bureaucrats of the European Commission”, appointed for 5-year terms by national governments of the 27 EU Member States, Lord Frost is now in the House of Lords for life.

Frost first negotiated the Withdrawal Agreement, including the Ireland Protocol, which allowed Johnson to run a general election campaign in 2019 on the basis of his “oven-ready deal”. Frost now says that he did not fully understand what he was signing up to when it came to the Irish Protocol. In an Irish Times article (here) he writes:

The rules by which we do this are set by EU law. Nevertheless, given the extraordinary nature of this agreement, and the delicate political situation, we expected to be able to administer them sensitively in practice. We assumed that the requirements to facilitate trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, and to try to avoid checks and controls at Northern Irish ports, both spelt out in the protocol, would be meaningful. We expected that the protocol’s injunction to minimise impact on everyday lives in Northern Ireland would be fully reflected. But it isn’t working out like that.

“We assumed”, “we expected”, our underlining.

Why “assume”, why “expect”? Why not ask? It is Negotiations 101: “How do you see this working in practice? How will it play out? Walk me through what you think we have agreed? Let’s make sure we are on the same page.”

But no. Johnson and Frost were in too much of a hurry to “Get Brexit Done”. They set their own negotiating deadlines. As any half-way decent negotiator will tell you, put yourself under pressure and the other party will take advantage of it.

Then, in the midst of a pandemic, they did the same with the Trade and Withdrawal Agreement (TCA). They put themselves under renewed pressure. They refused to extend the transition period when an offer from the EU to do so was on the table.

The consequences of the TCA are just beginning to play out. Business sector after business sector is feeling the pain. Scottish shellfish fishers found they could not send their “mussels to Brussels”. Truck drivers have gone AWOL (here).

Elton John has complained that the “piano man” can no longer tour Europe, even if it is “five o’clock in the evening”. Sorry, that’s Billy Joel. Mixing up my old, balding, piano men (there may be more than two). Seriously, while Elton has the resources to organise European tours, younger musicians do not. The costs of visas and work permits more than outstrips any money they might make from a gig.

As I write this an article pops up on The Local (here) with the headline “EU citizens only: Why Brits are at the back of the queue for ski season jobs in France”

 Working the ski season in France has long been popular with young Brits, but in the first full post-Brexit season, many job adverts are specifying that only candidates who have EU passports or residency will be considered.

And probably the same for jobs on the Spanish Costas. Not to mention how difficult it will become for Bob and Jane from Sunderland to buy that €80K apartment in Alicante when he retires.

And the pain goes on across all business sectors, as Peter Foster in the Financial Times continually documents (here)

Brexit means borders. Borders always make life and business more difficult. But that is what the people of the UK voted for, and that is what their politicians have delivered.

Now, we all have to live with it.

Maybe I will write that book.