BREXIT UPDATE 62: BORIS’S CHRISTMAS DEAL

I really thought he meant it this time.  Every time Boris Johnson bluffs about No Deal, I fall for it.  The previous time was over the Withdrawal Agreement.  In that case, Johnson manoeuvred Parliament into believing his negotiations with the EU were a sham and his real intention was No Deal. MPs in turn thought up stratagems to prevent him from achieving a No Deal Brexit — stratagems which he managed falsely to portray to the British public as an attempt to prevent Brexit altogether.  In October 2019, Johnson achieved a quick, last-minute Withdrawal Agreement by conceding to the EU on the Northern Ireland “Backstop”, creating a border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain while pretending he hadn’t; and he then claimed falsely that an evil, Remainer Parliament was trying to stop his “oven-ready”, “fantastic” deal from passing.   The result of this Machiavellian plan was a massive victory for Johnson in the General Election on the magical slogan “Get  Brexit Done”.

This time, in carrying out the slogan, Johnson has adopted similar though much less complicated tactics.  In recent days he told the British public to “get ready for that Australian option”[1] (ie No Deal), which he called “the most likely outcome”[2]. Then, at the very last minute, eight days before the end of the transition period and the night before Christmas Eve, he effectively conceded to the EU on the major sticking-points.  This time his aim seems to have been to hoodwink the right-wing Brexiteers who put him in office — and also to impress the British public with his steadfastness and strength in fighting for the best deal for the UK — by conveying a message of uncompromising toughness, but conceding right at the end in order to achieve a last-minute deal and rush it through Parliament, which will be reconvened from Christmas recess on December 30 (the day before the end of the transition period on December 31) to ratify the deal.   The document — which runs to over 1,200 pages —  has not yet even been published; all that has been published so far has been a 35-page Summary Explainer.[3]   As Nigel Farage, leader of the far-right Brexit Party, put it in an interview on Christmas Eve :

“We’ve agreed this and announced it on Christmas Eve.  That means almost no proper scrutiny today, tomorrow and Boxing Day.  Then it gets rammed in front of Parliament long before anyone’s even read it.…by the time we get to the detail of the long-term commitment, the vote will have passed.  So I’m afraid I think it’s a very cynical piece of government.”[4]

The two main blocks to a deal were fishing and the “level playing field” (ie alignment with EU regulations on issues such as workers’ rights and the environment).  On fish, the EU’s final offer was that fishing quotas in British waters available to EU coastal states would be cut by 25 per cent.   The UK was asking for them to be cut by 60 per cent.  In the last few days before the deal, the UK lowered its offer to 35 per cent, but this figure was rejected by the EU, which argued that the UK had left out certain species of fish, so the offer was still about 60 per cent.[5]  Then, in the final deal thrashed out during the night of December 23/24, the UK conceded by accepting 25 per cent. [6]

In his triumphal press conference on Christmas Eve,  Johnson called his deal “a Jumbo Canada-style deal”.  But Robert Peston of ITV pointed out that Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the EU Commission, had just said that the EU had got its “level playing-field” (ie alignment of the UK with EU rules, unlike the EU deal with Canada); and the deal stipulates that the UK has to “follow EU rules on subsidies, on worker’s rights”.  Peston also pointed out that, though Johnson had rightly said that tariffs would not have to be paid on UK goods, he had been wrong to say in his speech that “there will be no non-tariff barriers to trade” – on the contrary there will be mountains of paperwork and red tape (a point that Johnson was forced to concede, even though he dealt with the other questions with his usual waffle and bluster). Another question was on the problem that the deal focuses mainly on goods, saying little about services, which are of much more importance to the UK’s economy. [7]

With all these concessions, how much opposition is the deal likely to encounter from the right-wing Brexiteers?  In the Christmas Eve interview mentioned above, Nigel Farage strongly criticised the deal but said resignedly that No Deal was in any case “never a possibility.  There was always going to be a deal and there was always going to be a deal that favoured French fishermen and German carmakers.”  This was surprising, to say the least, since No Deal has been more or less the only policy of Farage’s Brexit Party.  It seems that No Deal, which has for years been held over the heads of the UK public as a terrible threat (though many members of the public have also welcomed the idea), was all the time simply an illusion.  Farage’s attitude seemed to be that, looking at the “big picture”, he had won the war; and despite his many strong criticisms of the deal and the way the UK had been brought out, he could live with the outcome, since his over-riding goal of taking the UK out of the EU had been achieved.  As he put it: “You can win a war but strike a poor peace.  And that’s what it looks like”.  If Farage, the Arch-Brexiteer, takes this attitude, it is likely that most of the other right-wing Brexiteers will follow suit, except for a few who genuinely believed in No Deal and so would be against any deal.  Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party, has said that Labour will vote for the deal, since the only alternative is No Deal. [8]

December 31 marks the end of the transition period, when the UK officially goes it alone.  But this does not mean the end of Brexit, which will probably go on for ever.  The rushed deal is so thin and flawed that there will be many future negotiations, disputes and repercussions.  In her farewell speech, Ursula von der Leyen paid tribute to British culture by quoting Shakespeare: “Parting is such sweet sorrow” – a somewhat ambiguous statement that could be taken as implying the sweetness of relief at saying goodbye to the troublesome British.  Even more enigmatically, she quoted T. S. Eliot: “What we call the beginning is often the end/And to make an end is to make a beginning.”  She meant that both the EU and UK would be beginning a new life after their Brexit divorce: “It is time to leave Brexit behind”.[9]  But the quotation could also imply that there will be no end to Brexit.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/dec/10/boris-johnson-tells-cabinet-to-prepare-for-no-deal-brexit

[2] https://www.lbc.co.uk/news/boris-johnson-no-deal-brexit-most-likely-outcome-talks-continue/

[3] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/agreements-reached-between-the-united-kingdom-of-great-britain-and-northern-ireland-and-the-european-union/summary-explainer

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0aC5lcBWtYw

[5] https://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/europe/brexit-deal-hangs-in-balance-as-eu-rejects-uk-s-latest-fish-offer-1.4444007

[6] https://www.theneweuropean.co.uk/brexit-news/boris-johnson-brexit-deal-fishing-6868912

[7] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Sn4x147Tm8

[8] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/dec/24/keir-starmer-to-whip-his-mps-to-support-thin-brexit-deal

[9] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1D7OUnar1Ps