The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union David Davis has written a worryingly Panglossian article in the Telegraph about his plan for Brexit this year, headlined: “How we will deliver the best Brexit in 2018”.
It reads more like a fantasy than an honest plan, so let’s have a closer look at what it really means:
Headline: How we will deliver the best Brexit in 2018
The wild optimism of this piece is summed up in the headline. Yes, Brexit talks are set to finish in October in order to deliver the draft final deal in time – but 2018 does not mean the end of it all. For example, the EU could decide that the transition period isn’t long enough, and vote to extend it (although this is unlikely), and the EU has suggested it could take up to 2020 to decide trade terms.
First paragraph: “In December we reached an important milestone in Britain’s negotiations to leave the EU. So, what next?”
Hang on, Mr Davis. You can’t get away with it that easily. Let’s think about that “important milestone” for a minute. It’s a reference to Phase One of the negotiations being tackled (including settling the Brexit bill, setting out the rights of EU citizens in the UK and vice versa, and the Irish border question), which was agreed by both sides, who decided they could move on to the second phase.
But it was Davis himself who angered Ireland and the EU by claiming this agreement was “more a statement of intent than it was a legally enforceable thing” after it was reached – and had to scramble to win back their trust (telling Guy Verhofstadt: “Let’s work together to get it converted into legal text as soon as possible”).
And the Irish border question remains. The agreement is a fudge: it just tries to guarantee no hard border by saying it will reach a trade deal to make this happen. But it doesn’t say how. Instead, it just states that if it can’t do this, the UK will “propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland”. After the deal was done, Theresa May reiterated, “specific solutions to what are the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland” would still need to be found.
So this “important milestone” could be more of a millstone around the British government’s neck.
On the transition deal: “…a [period of around two years] is in the economic interests of both sides, meaning agreement by March is doable.”
Two years will not be enough time to sort out a bespoke trade arrangement with the EU. It took the EU and Canada seven years to come up with a free trade deal – and Davis himself wants a more extensive deal (“Canada plus plus plus”).
And Davis used to be even more optimistic than this; there was a time when he didn’t think a transition period was needed at all. In December 2016, he still believed a trade deal could be done within the Article 50 period (ie. before March 2019).
No wonder he’s always inexplicably smiling.
Workers’ rights and animal welfare: “Whether it’s the Prime Minister’s commitments to workers rights, or Michael Gove’s determination to uphold animal welfare standards, this Government believes the UK’s future lies in a race to the top in global standards.”
And although the cabinet has been fairly insistent on upholding food standards following the chlorinated chicken row (when ministers suggested they wouldn’t rule out imports of chicken washed in chlorine), the House of Lords subcommittee on EU Energy and Environment found last year that animal welfare standards could be threatened if farmers come under pressure from an influx of cheap imports outside of the EU.
Trade deal: “We start from the uniquely trusted position, closer than Canada or Japan, bigger than Norway, and more deeply integrated, from energy networks to services, than any other trade partner.”
The size of a country and its proximity to the EU has nothing to do with the quality of trade deal it can secure. What matters is how much control it is willing to concede, and is worthwhile conceding, for a close relationship with the bloc.
As Davis writes in this article, he wants “to take control of our borders, our money and our laws” – a level of sovereignty that will come with a price in terms of its deal with the EU. Indeed, Michel Barnier says Britain can only hope for a Canada-style deal – ie. poor access to markets – if it isn’t willing to water down its red lines on free movement or the European Court of Justice.
And as for boasting about the UK’s degree of integration – isn’t that just an argument for being a member of the EU in the first place?
Financial services: “Given the strength and breadth of our links, a deal which took in some areas of our economic relationship but not others would be, in the favoured phrase of EU diplomats, cherry picking.”
This is Davis taking a pop at Barnier, arguing that Britain should be allowed a deal on its financial services rather than a Canada-style arrangement that applies mainly to goods rather than services. Barnier has announced that there can’t be special allowances for the City if the UK insists on leaving the single market.
“My objective is that services can be traded across borders, from highly regulated sectors like financial services to modern ones such as artificial intelligence.”
This is wishful thinking on Davis’ part. He is essentially asking to pick and choose which of the EU’s four freedoms (of goods, services, labour and capital) Britain will follow. Angela Merkel has repeatedly insisted that the UK must observe all four of these principles if it still wants the same quality of access to the EU’s market.
Phase Two: “The negotiations about the future will not be straightforward. They will generate the same public thunder and lightning that we have seen in the past year.”
At least he’s right about something.