Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. Brexit
3 February 2020

Why the big row in the next stage of Brexit talks will be over geography

The differing views of the European Commission and the British government on distance are at the heart of division over the level-playing field.

By Stephen Bush

The UK’s Brexit debate is fundamentally over whether or not geography matters. The victorious faction currently believes that it doesn’t; thinking that you can make up for the erection of barriers to trade with your nearest neighbours by increasing trade with faraway countries at a greater or equivalent rate.

Both the defeated faction – which includes not only committed Remainers but also many longtime Brexiteers who privately think there is no point in leaving the customs union – and the EU alike believe that geography does matter: that trade between the UK and the EU will always outweigh that between the UK and nations further afield.

This disagreement is at the heart of the big policy argument that the UK and EU will have in the next phase of the Brexit talks. Everyone agrees that trade negotiations are about sacrificing regulatory autonomy for increased trade; the debate is about how much of one you are willing to forgo to gain the other.

The British government thinks that because geography doesn’t matter it should be able to enjoy the same trade arrangement with the EU as Canada, which has a measure of regulatory alignment but a greater level of market access than that proposed by the European Commission for the UK.

The European Commission believes that, because geography does matter, negotiating a trade deal that gives the UK the same terms as Canada would be lunacy. There’s a far greater threat to the European Union’s own economic prosperity if a neighbouring mid-sized economy can depart from EU regulations on workers’ rights and state aid than there is if a mid-sized economy more than 4,000 miles away does so.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. Your new guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture each weekend - from the New Statesman. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

It will be the distance between those two positions – and how much economic activity the Conservatives are willing to forego in order to maximise sovereignty – that defines the next year of talks.

This is what is missing when commentators say, “Hur de hur, Leavers think that the government is right while Remainers think that the EU is.” The case for the type of Brexit being pursued by Boris Johnson lives or dies on whether you think the British government is right to believe that distance doesn’t matter, or if the European Commission is right to think that it does.