Wednesday, 15 April 2020

The nature of the beast

Today we learned that the UK government as no public intention of postponing Brexit trade negotiations. Personally I'll believe it when I see it. For now the government must hold the line and it has a few more weeks before it must decide.

The view on Brexiter street seems to be that now is the best time to be conducting these negotiations in that the EU being under considerable stress with a looming Euro crisis to rival the last one, the UK has powerful leverage. I still think this misunderstands the nature of the EU and trade negotiations in general. We are not haggling over a commercial contract. This is about principles and procedure, where the goings on as regards to propping up the Euro exist in an entirely separate domain. The Brexiters, oddly, believe the EU will act rationally in its immediate self-interest.

When it comes down to it, for all that Corona is taking its toll on the functioning of the EU, the intent is to return to to a semblance of normality when the dust settles, and the political will exists to ensure the various mechanisms of the single market survive. It will not, therefore, take any action that may undermine it in the future even if that comes with a mid term economic cost.

They also misread the mood in Brussels. There is a sense of weary resignation where they will do all they can to facilitate a deal that satisfies their own criteria but will not allow itself to be messed around by the Johnson administration. The UK is no longer a political priority and Brexit is waaay down the list. If the UK chooses not to play silly buggers then it's a win-win but there is no patience for the UK's parlour games. The UK has some leverage, but not much, and not enough for the EU to compromise its fundamental principles any more than they are already compromised by Corona. They will let us walk if that's the game the UK is playing.

As regards to the practicalities, in a material sense it's not going to matter either way for the time being. There is a manpower shortage on the frontiers while all the normal customs and procedures have gone out of the window as governments prioritise getting supplies where they need to go. If there isn't a deal then eventually the EU will get round to adapting to our new third country status, but for the time being the single market is only a theoretical concept. If, however, we have a deal worth having then the EU is likely to look the other way for longer. It's all going to depend on political goodwill, of which there will be little if the UK chooses now of all times to pile on the distractions, diverting critical diplomatic resource.

The other factor driving Brexiteer belligerence is the belief that the EU is imminently going to collapse. But they always think that any time there is a diplomatic crisis of any kind, yet the EU continues to plod on in its own lumbering way. If it is going to collapse it won't be soon enough to do the Brexiteers any favours. As ever the headbangers have a bad case of wishful thinking.

Regardless of the many sensible arguments for delaying our exit from the transition, it's really a question of where we want to be when the dust settles. Do we want to be outside of the EU and the single market lobbying to restart the talks, having no formal trade relations, hoping the EU is feeling generous, or do we wish to maintain what trade we can within the current construct where the EU is obliged to conclude a deal? It ought to be a no brainer.

The problem with the Brexiteers is they never learned to think like a bureaucrat the same way I did which is why they persistently misread the beast. Moreover, having told themselves that Boris's tactics last time around were a roaring success, there is nothing to dissuade them that their methods are misconceived.

As to Corona, I am quite sure it will rewrite the script on trade but it's going to take a while for the politics to assimilate it and a while longer before the Brussels bureaucracy absorbs what has happened so for a time we are still going to be playing the old game by the old rules. Brussels reality seldom takes actual reality into account. It's the one thing it has in common with the Brexiteers. We therefore have to assume that we will be working toward a standard model comprehensive FTA where events in the real world have little bearing on the proceedings.

Wit that in mind, should we slam the door shut on the current process, we may find the bureaucracy has caught up with reality meaning that by the time we come to talk turkey, we are dealing with a very different animal; one that is not so accommodating and one bearing the scars of a disruptive exit at the worst possible time. Since the UK doesn't have a trade plan B, the EU can take its time while it clobbers us.

In many respects the Brexiter brain has fossilised. It has not adapted or taken on board anything new since 2015 and it isn't going to. The narrative is set in stone and the sea change in geopolitics just doesn't feature for Brexit fetishists. Though the majority now supports a delay, we are still held to ransom by the jihadists. It seems you can't reason people out of something they were never reasoned into.

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