Downing Street's Brexit tweets are about preparing for failure

The government has adopted a new, belligerent tone on Twitter – and the audience is domestic, not foreign.

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The Brexit talks are about a lot of things, but one of the things they aren’t about is what is “fair” or not. That’s true for trade talks in general – the bigger bloc sets most of the terms and the smaller one largely ends up with a take-it-or-leave-it offer. That’s the essential truth that meant that the first generation of Eurosceptics – from Peter Lilley on the Conservative side to Jeremy Corbyn on the Labour side – opposed not only membership of the European Union and its customs union but also TTIP, the mooted US trade deal.

The choice in the Brexit talks – and indeed in free trade agreements in general – is fundamentally about the level of freedom that you’re willing to give away to secure a greater or lesser level of market access. Boris Johnson has made a clear choice: to pursue a low-access, high-freedom form of Brexit – a trade relationship analogous to the one that Canada has, rather than the low-freedom, high access trade deal that Norway has.

But the big division is that the European Union’s member states think that the UK needs to pay a greater regulatory price than Canada. This trade-off wouldn’t go away if we opted for a Norway-style Brexit: while Norway, like the UK, is on the EU’s immediate borders, it is a significantly smaller country. Whatever form of trade deal the UK wants, it will end up having to sacrifice more sovereignty than its equivalents, because it is larger than the other economies nearest the EU and nearer than the other mid-sized economies that have struck trade deals with the EU.

You can make as many arguments as you like about the “fairness” of this, but ultimately, that’s international trade negotiations for you. You decide whether the price that the bigger bloc is offering is worth paying or not. What matters in trade talks is the size of your market – which is why the US, China and the EU get to dictate the terms when they negotiate with smaller countries and, indeed, with corporations. Talking about whether the EU’s requirement that the UK sign up to a deeper level of regulatory alignment than Canada to get the same level of market access is fair is a bit like talking about whether a hotel charging you separately for Wi-Fi is fair:  you can have as many arguments as you want, but the question that really matters is “can you live without the Wi-Fi or can’t you?”

The government knows this full well: what’s interesting about the use of their social media channels and public events to argue about the “fairness” involved is that they aren’t arguments designed to persuade the EU – they are arguments designed to win support here in the UK should the talks end in failure.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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