The dust starts to settle from Salzburg: the tension over Brexit mounts

After the spectacular breakdown between Britain and the remaining EU countries at the summit in Salzburg last week, what is the state of Brexit? The chatter in the media, mainstream or otherwise, is either hopelessly partisan, or hopelessly superficial (the BBC is taking mediocrity in political analysis to new heights). Before taking the plunge on this I wanted some of the dust to settle, and also to see what the more reliable commentators had to say.

For me, these commentators write for the Financial Times. Easily the best on Brexit is legal correspondent David Allen Green. His take on the summit is that the British Prime Minister Theresa May badly misjudged the mood on the EU side, leading to the breakdown. But he still expects the all-important exit deal to be done allowing the transitional deal to come into play on 30 March 2019, while the details of the longer term relationship are hammered out in time for the transitional period's end on 31 December 2020. For an alternative view I went to Wolfgang Munchau. I don't particularly like him as he is prone to getting a bit worked up, but at least he is free of that awful British superficiality of understanding when it comes to the EU. He suggests that it is the EU side that has misjudged things: they think that a no-deal situation would be so painful for Britain that it will buckle before it is too late - underestimating the political difficulties for Mrs May, even if that is what she really thinks. So he thinks that the no-deal situation on 29 March 2019 is all too likely.

Before trying to make sense of this, it is worth highlighting a couple of other things that are emerging from the wreckage. The first is the idea that Brexit can be halted and made to go away. So far talk of this has been confined to ardent Remainers on the margins of British politics. But for the first time at Salzburg some European leaders spoke publicly about the possibility. Idle talk, perhaps - it is nowhere near the official EU position. But perhaps it explains why some EU leaders are unsympathetic to Mrs May's compromise idea. Meanwhile British commentators are in two camps. One side says that there is growing momentum for a further referendum with reversing Brexit as an option. The other says that not only would this be a logistical nightmare, but there isn't the political will to do it where it matters: in the House of Commons. Labour's fudged conference motion to be debated today gives succour to both lines of argument.

Another thing worth mentioning is rising talk of the "Canada option" in British political circles. This refers to the comprehensive trade deal the EU has struck with Canada, which some think is a model that the UK should follow. The idea is not that this would be in place for 30 March 2019, but that it could be negotiated in time for 2021, when the transition period ends. This has the advantage of being completely consistent with the EU negotiating position, and being acceptable to the troublemakers in Britain's Conservative Party (and the hard Brexiteers in Labour too). It has one overwhelming snag, beyond requiring the dismantling of many manufacturing supply chains and the clogging of ports, which hard Brexiteers have never much worried about. It is inconsistent with the stated aim of an open border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Which means, under the current EU offer, a sort of customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Most Britons couldn't care less about this - but it is an existential issue for the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), on which Mrs May's government depends, as well as old-fashioned Conservatives, of which there may be a few left.

So it keeps coming back to Ireland. Here I think there are a couple of issues that don't get talked about enough. The first is that Brexit, especially a hard one, could lead to moves to unify Ireland. This possibility was left in the Good Friday Agreement, but only if most Northern Irish people agreed. Within the EU there was little prospect of that, even as the relative proportion of Catholics is rising (it is said that the UK's more generous welfare state is at the heart of this). But at least one poll showed that this changes in the event of Brexit. Idle speculation? Perhaps: the DUP don't seem to be overly worried about it. But serious political miscalculations happen. A messy Brexit might be resolved by Irish unity - do the DUP really want to risk this?

The other issue is the impact that a hard Brexit, and worse still a no-deal, would have on the Irish Republic: it could be catastrophic, as so much of its trade is either with Britain or through it. Mr Munchau admits that the impact of a no-deal would affect Britain more than its EU partners, but says that the latter's pain theshold is lower. So he advises the British government to hold firm. I'm not so sure about this as a generality (to judge from the way Russian sanctions have been applied, in spite how much they hurt some EU members), but Ireland is surely a weak link. And since Ireland is at the heart of the most awkward negotiating issue, this matters a lot, and gives strength to Mr Munchau's analysis.

And then into this brew we must add the state of British politics. If the EU does bend, and Mrs May is able to put something like her current proposals (referred to as "Chequers" after the place where it was forged with her cabinet) to parliament. Will she have a majority and what happens if she doesn't? The current suggestion is that there will be a sizeable Tory rebellion amongst Brexit hardliners, and Labour will vote it down, which makes Mrs May position look hopeless. But what then? Labour hopes for a General Election: but Mrs May is unlikely to concede it with her party in such disarray. She may then try to resolve the impasse with some form of referendum. If she is cunning, this will simply be between her deal and a no-deal, with no option to remain. Labour is badly split on the latter. Whether there is a Commons majority for an option to remain is questionable.

But the possibility may be enough to make hard Brexiteers, both Tory and Labour, think twice. The cleverer amongst them have already realised that Mrs May's compromise is a sensible staging post to where the want to go. Once the country gets past 29 March, the Remain coalition will start to wilt as there would be no easy way back in. And there is enough ambiguity in the SNP position for them to be persuaded to sit on their hands. A majority for the compromise position may yet be conjured up. If Mrs May was a more skilful politician I would say that with more confidence.

So my prediction is this: Mrs May will stand firm and the EU will start to bend, though it may take until December. Some kind of deal will be negotiated, which still leaves many issues about 2021 unresolved, but which will be enough to get to avoid the cliff edge on 29 March 2019. She will then succeed in getting this through parliament. Ultimately Britain will get a camouflaged Turkey-style deal, with a customs union of sorts in goods and no freedom of movement. So much the same as I was predicting before.

What could change it? If EU governments start to club together to offer the UK a way out of Brexit, that could just change the political dynamics in Britain. Or if a political miscalculation leads to a new General Election, and hence a two month stasis in the negotiating process, then that do raises the odds of a no-deal, whoever wins. So the tension mounts.

One thought on “The dust starts to settle from Salzburg: the tension over Brexit mounts”

  1. I too found Munchau’s piece illuminating, much as I don’t like his somewhat absolutist positions. He reminded me of the Brexiteers’ point that Germany has a lot of commercial interest involved in their trade with the UK; a point which May has so far signally fail to cash into concrete concessions.

    Might it be worth looking at the underlying causes of the breakdown? One is that the original exchange of letters between the UK and the EU in which Britain triggered the Article 50 procedures was based on the concept of a deep, ambitious and bold free trade agreement. However, the concept of a free trade agreement is in my view outdated; it hails from the immediately post-war era. The reality these days is that to have the free flow of goods which complex manufacturing requires, you must have a customs union – otherwise border checks are required as to whether goods have really been manufactured where they purport to have been manufactured; and common standards are required, since otherwise there must checks at the border that goods will be safe to use in their destination country. Without something like the European single market and the customs union, modern ‘just in time’ supply chains are impossible; implying that there is no such thing as a deep, ambitious and bold free trade agreement, as previously envisaged. So we have to either incur some checks at the border, or keep uncomfortably close to remaining within the EU in economic terms. As the EU rightly thinks, a chequers-type compromise would be too complex to work, and its loopholes in enforcement would be liable to leave UK firms with ways to steel an unfair competitive advantage.

    So we are in for a complex ride ahead while this situation unravels. Perhaps we might see the 31 March deadline followed in one way or another by a standstill for a period, while we work out in more detail which supply chains are at stake and how much importance we attach to them? Perhaps even there might have to be a referendum on the real choices, if Parliament cannot agree on any solution?

    Which brings me to the Lib Dem position. To my mind, the Lib Dems lack credibility in the present political climate, because they rightly believe in more EU cooperation, and this is seen as involving more whittling away by stealth of British Sovereignty. So if they – we if you like – are to regain credibility on European affairs, we need to say loud and clear that any new moves in European cooperation should be based on a model other than the supra-nationalist one. More defence cooperation – which is highly desirable – should be based on the NATO model, or on that of the Swiss defence cooperation in early modern Europe, and not on the supra-nationalist model of the EU institutions. In other words, the institutions should be the basis of an incipient confederation, rather than an incipient Federation. The Federalists can be consoled with the thought that it is always possible to move from a Confederation to a Federation: as the Swiss did in the 19th century

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