Thursday, 30 January 2020

A new phase, but the same ignorance prevails

What the PM wants and what he is likely to be offered are two wholly separate things. The negotiations are going to follow a very familiar pattern. Like May, Johnson thinks this is a negotiation. You remember how it went last time. Theresa May was instructed as to what the sequencing would be; withdrawal agreement first, trade talks later. But it just didn't register. She toddled off to Florence to tell us all about her deep and special partnership ambitions, whereupon the EU said thank you Mrs May, but that's not how this works.

We spent the better part of an entire year going round in circles as the UK government struggled to come to terms with the fact that the EU calls the shots. The EU was not able or willing to break its own laws to accommodate a departing member. It was sequenced that way for good reason and was decided well in advance.

This time around, though, we do not have a year to waste. But if there is time to waste, we'll waste it. The EU has already scoped out the structure of the future relationship and has probably identified a fallback position if the UK refuses what is offered. The one thing it is not going to do is offer a bespoke deal with unprecedented concessions to the UK.

Being that this will go down like a lead balloon with the Brexiteers, Number Ten will come up with its own fantasy fiction counter proposal that will be shot down within hours. The assumption seems to be that the EU can accept mutual recognition of our standards (which applies exclusively to members of the Single Market - a concession given to no third countries, including Canada, Japan and the US).

Thus when The Times reports that Johnson wants a "Canada-style deal" there is no point reading the runes to discern what that actually means in that Johnson certainly doesn't know and his advisers likely don't either. Nor will it particularly concern them that the actual Canada deal doesn't work particularly well. Or at least not for Canada. Then, of course, there are those MFN clauses on services and investment which is likely to make things interesting. There is no way a "Canada style deal" could be considered adequate. 

And then continuing in the Groundhog Day theme, we will then see Telegraph editorials accusing the EU of intransigence and seeking to prevent the UK from becoming a buccaneering lean, green trading machine. There will be much dithering and a period of stalemate until the time grows short. It will then be decision time for Johnson as to whether he takes what's on offer (thereby infuriating Brexiteers) or throws the UK economy under the bus.

Of course, somewhere in this mix there has to be a tedious row over fishing whereby if the UK realises at any point that we do in fact want to continue selling fish to the EU then there will have to be some sort of concession to EU rules and access to waters. No sane, informed government would consider flushing our services sector down the toilet, but then this government does not match that description. It could go either way. 

I know better now than to make concrete predictions but when you look at all the disparate factors in the round - the EU's inherent constraints, the belligerent, pig ignorant approach from the Johnson administration and the overall technical illiteracy, combined with political pressure from the Taliban wing of the Tories, a viable outcome to this seems improbable. If there is a deal it's not going to usefully safeguard trade.

On Friday Johnson will speak to the nation, speaking of a bold new era in which we all come together. Precisely the sort of anodyne blather you might expect on these such occasions. It will impress nobody but the party faithful and the true believers. It's empty waffle from an empty man. Technically we are in a new phase of Brexit but we are still in the era of belligerent incompetence and hubris. That much will not change on Brexit day - or any time soon, sadly. 

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