Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Chocks away

I chuckled at the BBC TV news cock up that showed footage of a Spitfire over Sophie Raworth talking about Theresa May's next mission to Brussels. But, thinking about it, it's not a bad idea: May needs to dart in, hit some precision targets and get straight back out again, leaving Barnier and colleagues in no doubt, despite all their protestations, that they will have to budge. After all those earlier trips when May was humiliated - smacked across the face with a wet fish as I put it - Parliament has given her a hand of cards which are just strong enough to play. So far she's been tough with Parliament and soft with Brussels. There's one last chance to do it the other way round.

All she needs to say is:
  • The backstop has to be changed. You say you have no intention of locking us in indefinitely so make it time limited. We are only asking for something that is standard in treaties and commercial deals: an exit clause
  • Your own chief negotiator says other solutions will work. Your own policy documents have technology-based solutions as the aim for controlling trade across borders  between the EU and other countries. So there is no reason for an enduring backstop; you are playing games
  • If, as you say, you have no intention of using the backstop, why risk failure at this stage by intransigence?
  • The change must be legally binding and watertight
She needs to make clear that, as I've been proposing for many months, we will not introduce a hard border in Ireland whatever; any border will be theirs. I've read that this prospect has only just dawned on the Irish and is causing some panic. If so, they are rather weirdly confirming to jokeish stereotyping of their own nation.

Would the above approach work? The newspapers are carrying stories that it won't, the EU will let the clock go to March 29 and expect us to blink. But the eurozone economy is, in aggregate, closer to recession than any other major trading bloc or the UK. As Jeremy Warner said* "we think of Britain as in a profound state of political crisis, but the position scarcely looks any better across the water. It's a political tinder box that could blow apart at any stage". When you think of the gilets jaunes in France, the oddball coalition in Italy with it's dodgy banks, Greece still in dire financial staits, Merkel a lame duck coming to the end of her time and with parties of the right looking ominously strong in Germany and to points east, the EU is not looking particularly stable. A bodged Brexit could be enough to precipitate a very difficult situation for the EU, with Trump tariffs a further wild card that could come into play.

There is a reason why I think it is important for us to insist on a legally binding change to the backstop. Yes, of course I have always been concerned about being trapped in Hotel California. But, since I realised that need not happen - in the situation where the backstop would come in to force we just breach the agreement and walk away - there is another, more important reason. Firstly, if things pan out that way we'll have paid the EU more money than we should. I'm not one of the flat-earthers who think that no deal means we don't pay a penny of the £39 billion divorce deal. We do have obligations but they wouldn't add up to £39 bn and the EU would have to wait for the cash while the wrangle was resolved, maybe for many years. So there is no point in deferring no deal till 2020, it would be bettter done straight away.

But secondly and, for me, more importantly, we have one last opportunity to show the EU that we won't be bullied. We are going to be negotiating with these people for decades and caving in first time round would set entirely the wrong precedent.

The backstop is not acceptable to the UK parliament. It is not necessary. It must be changed.

Yes, I worry about no deal but I don't buy the more extreme Project Fear scenarios. Yes we get most of our lettuce from Spain but did we notice when their production was severely hit by flooding in Murcia last year? No, we didn't.  But if they do have lettuce to sell, do they want to sell it to us? You bet. Blocks on our exports? Well, we'll just go back to getting lettuce from elsewhere then.

Before walking out to get back in her Spitfire all May needs to do is to quietly and apologetically say she hoped to be able to get the deal ratified but she can't. So it needs to change. And she won't be changing the 29 March "Independence Day" date, so it needs to change now.

Then we can get on with negotiating the trading arrangements which will mean the backstop was all a load of hot air anyway.

* Warner's column was in the Daily Telegraph on 1 February

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