The bluffs, gambits, instincts and bottom lines of Johnson’s approach to the EU trade negotiation

Christel Deskins

Boris Johnson wants a deal.  Remain diehards will claim that he’d be happy not to have one, because he would then blame the EU, pitch for the patriotic vote in Red Wall seats especially – and settle for what he calls an Australia-style deal, i.e: No Deal, content that it […]

Boris Johnson wants a deal.  Remain diehards will claim that he’d be happy not to have one, because he would then blame the EU, pitch for the patriotic vote in Red Wall seats especially – and settle for what he calls an Australia-style deal, i.e: No Deal, content that it wouldn’t be all that different from the more Canada-flavoured deal that he wants.

Like so much that they say about the Prime Minister, this is wrong.  He wants a deal because the fewer obstacles to trading as an independent country, the better.  He wants one because he will not wish to grapple with the disruption of No Deal at the same time as he must so do with the problem of Coronavirus – and so much else.  He wants one because not having it wouldn’t be an electoral plus in Scotland.

Talking of which, we know above all that wants an EU deal because he has form in getting one.  It was his summit with Leo Varadkar that delivered a Withdrawal Agreement that could win public support and get through Parliament.  In a nutshell, it was better for Great Britain than Theresa May’s version, but worse for the Union, because it left Northern Ireland closer to the EU than the rest of the UK.

This is why we are just a bit resistant to the repeated briefing from the Government that it will walk away from the negotiating table if a deal is not agreed by mid-October – and that it will offer no concessions.  Consider, by way of example, the row over Downing Street’s plan to legislate in relation to the Withdrawal Agreement’s Northern Ireland protocol.

Johnson doesn’t seem to preparing a withdrawal from the Agreement – much though some Eurosceptics, clustered around the new Centre for Brexit Policy, wish that he would.  Rather, he appears to seeking to exploit ambiguities in the Northern Ireland Protocol, on matters about which his Government and the EU have never fully resolved, in order to minimise the role of the European Court of Justice and recover the Union’s position as much as possible.

This takes us back to the point about concessions. One of the three main issues at stake is tariffs.  Under the terms of the protocol, EU tariffs could apply to goods going from Britain to Northern Ireland if they are “at risk” of entering the EU market via the Irish Republic.  This provision reflects the stress that some players on the EU side, such as France, put on protecting the integrity of the Internal Market.

But there is no agreement on what “at risk” goods might be.  The Government proposes that UK ministers be given the legal power to rule unilaterally on what these are – an insurance policy in the event of No Deal.  That would ease barriers between Great Britain and Northern Ireland (as well as reducing the potential scope of the Court).  We suspect an eventual compromise – with some arbitration-type body similar that in Article 174 of the Agreement.

Which points to the other half of the truth.  Yes, the Prime Minister wants a deal.  No, he doesn’t want one at any price.  For the reasons we set out above and for others, Johnson sees No Deal as desirable.  But undesirable isn’t the same as unacceptable.  A core commitment of his Conservative leadership election campaign last year was that a Conservative Government must be prepared to walk away from any deal if it is to be taken seriously.

What happens next?  On paper, a trade deal ought to be easier to strike than a Withdrawal Agreement – given the British, Irish and Northern Ireland knots that the Agreement had to untangle in order to be reached at all.  On fishing, the Commission seems to understand that member states will have to accept that there will be a lessening of their fishermens’ access post-transition.

On state aid, the Government should accept that it will have to publish proposals sooner rather than later.  We appreciate the enthusiasm of some in Downing Street, including Dominic Cummings, for maximum space for targeted investment in post-Brexit Britain.  But government in Britain has a poor record when it comes to picking winners, and Whitehall’s creaky response to Coronavirus doesn’t suggest that much has changed.

On the Northern Ireland protocol, the Irish Government’s prime aim has always been to prevent a hardening of the Northern Ireland border.  The integrity of the Single Market is a less visceral concern.  That’s an encouraging sign.  Our suspicion is that a trade deal will be struck.    But just because a Withdrawal Agreement was eventually reached, it doesn’t follow that a trade deal will also take place on time.

When Johnson compromised over the Withdrawal Agreement, he had no Commons majority.  Now, he has one of 80.  Then, he had no real record of engagement with Northern Ireland’s affairs.  Both now and then, he had fixed ideas about a post-Brexit Britain not being a rule-taker.  There are limits to the Johnson/Cummings continuum’s willingness to bend.

Furthermore, there is no single player on the EU who holds the key to a solution as Veradkar did last time round.  Different member states have different interests and approaches.  They have been preoccupied with Coronavirus, and much else.  Don’t be surprised if an agreement slips between the cracks.

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