Whitehall officials believe that Britain will have to pay the EU for access to the bloc’s single market after Brexit. This is nothing new. Switzerland and Norway have been shelling out for it for years.
The idea that the UK could get a different deal is greeted with frank disbelief in Brussels. If you want the single market, you need to pay in, explain bewildered euro-types, especially if you were once the second largest contributor to the EU budget.
Access comes with other conditions. Adherence to EU law and its ultimate arbiter the European Court of Justice. After leaving the EU in a “soft Brexit”, the UK will lose its ability to help craft those laws.
For the single market to work, EU politicians intone ominously, you must respect the four freedoms of capital, goods, services and, crucially, people.
Theresa May has made it clear that Brexit not only means Brexit, it also means controlling immigration.
But the leaders of the European Commission, Council and Parliament have all warned there is no single market without freedom of movement.
“The only real alternative to a hard Brexit is no Brexit,” said European Council President Donald Tusk last night, “Even if today hardly anyone believes in such a possibility.”
May insist the British will wrest a bespoke deal from Brussels’ grasp. Government insiders have whispered the new relationship could be based on CETA, Canada’s free trade agreement with the EU.
CETA was meant to set a new gold standard in trade deals, boosting GDP, giving the eurozone’s sluggish economy a jolt, and removing 98 per cent of tariffs between Canada and the EU.
But, as always in Brussels, it wasn’t quite as simple as that and, like always in Brussels, the deal will only be sealed at the last possible moment.
CETA has been seven tortured, painstaking years in the making and it still isn’t in force.
You could argue that means the EU negotiators aren’t much cop, but that belies the complexity of their task. Every country has its weird and wonderful rules and red lines that have to be overcome or accommodated.
The European Commission has a mandate from national governments to negotiate free trade agreements.
May had to set up a department for international trade because Britain didn’t need one until now. A new crop of green negotiators will be going head-to-head with grizzled veterans. Veterans who work for an organisation which the British have just told to sod off in no uncertain terms.
The Canada deal has, after vigorous “legal scrubbing“, been finalised by both sets of negotiators. They must, by the end of it, have been thoroughly sick of the sight of each other.
That isn’t the end of the story. CETA must be backed by the European Parliament and the national parliaments of the 28-member bloc.
It’s true that Canada won’t pay into the EU budget or sign up to the free movement of people as part of the agreement. But Bulgaria and Romania have won concessions on visa-free travel for their nationals by threatening to veto the deal.
Free Trade Agreements like CETA, and its US equivalent TTIP, face virulent public opposition from those who argue that they drive down environmental, health and consumer protection standards. Protectionism is in vogue in European politics as people struggle with the challenges of globalisation.
There is no reason to think that the UK’s trade deal won’t take every bit as long, or be subject to the same difficulties and horse-trading, as CETA. Trade talks can’t even begin until the UK has agreed its baseline position with the WTO, and it’s unlikely they will happen simultaneously with the eventual Brexit negotiations.
CETA is finally on the home stretch. Justin Trudeau is popping up with European leaders, ahead of the hoped-for final, final ratification later this month, trying to shore up support.
The stress may be getting to him. French MEP José Bové, an implacable CETA critic and convincing Asterix lookalike, was briefly denied entry to Canada on Wednesday. MEPs have been blocked from entering Israel, Morocco and Russia – but not inoffensive Canada.
Only yesterday, Germany’s top court rejected a legal challenge that could have junked the whole deal.
Today, the Canadians were anxiously eying the Walloon parliament, which was voting on the deal.
CETA has been a long, bloody-minded slog, not a golden ticket to the single market.