As time runs out for an Anglo-European trade deal, it is important to recognise that things have changed since the 1970s. Today, Britain is not the ‘Sick Man’ of Europe. The EU is!
I avoid commenting too much on national politics on this blog but I was asked about the likelihood of a trade deal on Gateway FM the other day and gave a fairly nonchalant reply, that I thought I should set out and explain.
The presenter, Johnny Jenkins, asked whether or not I thought a trade deal between the United Kingdom and the European Union would be done. I said that, at this point, it did not look likely to me. It is, of course, very hard to tell. There is lots of chatter about the last minute brinkmanship currently taking place between our negotiator, Lord Frost, and his EU counterpart Michel Barnier. There have also been direct talks between our Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, with plenty of claim and counter-claim about the likelihood of a deal being done at the eleventh hour. We shall just have to wait and see.
“For the vast majority of the rest of us, pragmatists on both sides, a trade deal would be a blessed relief after a truly horrendous year.”
Of course, for the phalanx of deranged Remainers who, even now, cannot accept our decision to leave the EU, there will remain a smug sense of self-righteousness whatever happens. If a deal is not done, they will cry that the sky is falling and, even if a deal is done, they will still cry that it is sub-optimal to full membership and probably cheer on Brussels for having made it so difficult for us (such is the level of Stockholm syndrome that now exists among their fringes).
The same is true of the hardcore Brexiteers, who will doubtless accuse Boris of being a “sellout” if any deal is done that does not involve the Commission President having to come to London once a year and crawl across broken glass to kiss the Queen’s feet whilst humming Rule Britannia! For such people simply do not understand the meaning of the word ‘negotiation’.
For the vast majority of the rest of us, pragmatists on both sides, a trade deal would be a blessed relief after a truly horrendous year. Not to mention the preceding three years that we spent tearing chunks out of ourselves over Brexit, and having to endure the spirit-sapping torpor of the Zombie Parliament. It was hoped that the election of the Johnson Ministry – with an 80-seat majority – a year ago would herald an end to the deadlock and allow us to resolve and finally draw a line under our future relationship with the EU. Most of us want a resolution and businesses certainly want the certainty. This desire has only become more acute now that we will also be emerging from this ‘lost year’ thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It has been said, however, and it remains true, that ‘No deal is better than a bad deal’ and, from what I have read so far, the EU only want to offer us a bad deal.”
Unfortunately, while a trade deal between the UK and the EU should have been “the easiest trade deal in history” – given our long-standing relationship with Brussels and the level of preexisting regulatory alignment – it remains true that ‘No deal is better than a bad deal’. From what I have read so far, the EU only wants to offer us a bad deal. They want to continue to over-fish our waters, override our laws, force their regulations upon us, and subjugate us to their courts. To the best of my knowledge, for one party in a trade deal to act as the sole arbiter in disputes, rather than an impartial adjudicator, violates all the usual norms of international commerce. Canada certainly did not have to agree a ‘level playing field’, as dictated by Brussels, to secure their trade agreement. So why should we? In that sense, frankly, it looks to me like No Deal would actually be a good outcome for the UK, given that it would mean we take back full control of our borders, money and laws (which is, after all, what those of us in the Leave camp campaigned on and 17.4 million people voted for).
The big problem in all this has been the consistent failure of the EU apparatchiks to understand the British psyche. The recent conduct of the French President, Emmanuel Macron, and, frankly, a cursory glance at the Twitter feed of Guy Verhofstadt demonstrates that. To be fair to them, they have been aided in their incomprehension by some on our own side. When Lady May and Sir Olly Robbins were foolishly seeking to replicate many of the features of our EU membership through the notorious Chequers Plan, it was implied by Brussels that a Canada-style free trade agreement would be easy to do. Now that the Johnson Ministry is in power, however, Brussels has impeded and prevented such a deal. We also saw the breakdown of good faith when the EU began to make none-too-subtle threats to the integrity of our own UK internal market.
As long as Brussels continues to cleave to the mantra that the UK cannot have access to the Single Market without accepting Brussels suzerainty over our laws, we will remain at odds. This outrageous stipulation is not applied to the rest of the world who currently trade with the EU on World Trade Organisation terms and do not have to obey their laws. I have yet to hear a convincing argument for why Great Britain should be any different.
“‘Ever closer union’ was a noble ideal in the context of a European continent emerging from two horrific world wars but, today, it is an antiquated dogma that seeks to suppress national democracy and stifle economic prosperity.”
The Prime Minister has said previously that a failure to negotiate a deal would represent a “failure of statecraft” and he was right. In this case, the failure will be entirely that of the EU. Let us be absolutely clear; the big losers in a No Deal scenario is not the UK but our neighbours on the European continent.
The EU is already a stagnating basket-case, facing monumental problems on every front, whether it is their floundering economies, plummeting population levels, or simply the internal bickering that is now rife between the 27 member states. Irrespective of any Anglo-European trade deal, the differences between the richer member states – like France and Germany – and the likes of Italy and Greece and the former ‘Iron Curtain’ states in the East, are becoming increasingly stark. I have long argued that the European project is ultimately doomed. In a modern globalised world, these old-fashioned trading blocs look increasingly outdated. The EU’s entire model of governance – essentially a moribund bureaucracy – is a relic of the 1950s and totally unsuited for the challenges of 21st-Century global competition.
‘Ever closer union’ was a noble ideal in the context of a European continent emerging from two horrific world wars but, today, it is just an antiquated dogma suppressing our national democracy and blocking economic growth. In truth, we should probably have left the EU the moment the single currency was introduced and we decided not to join. We were right not to do so, as it has robbed those countries that did of their sovereign ability to control their own fiscal policies. The fact that the EU is now seeking to lecture Britain over its ‘rules’ is quite the irony, given that it ran roughshod over its own rules, most notably in admitting debt-laden Greece into the Eurozone, with catastrophic results.
“Britain, itself a slumbering lion, must awaken and become a truly global trading nation once more.”
We can also see in the sanctimonious attachment to free movement, a determination to create a concept of ‘European citizenship’ akin to ancient Rome. But the consequence of that policy has been that they have emptied Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean states of so many of their working-age people and left them encumbered with ageing populations and declining birth rates. The result has been massive social upheaval and their creaking welfare states buckling under the pressure – not to mention created a strong impression in countries such as ours that we simply have no control over our borders.
There are, of course, plenty of criticisms that can be leveled at the UK Government’s handling of the Covid pandemic and many of these may be well-founded. But it certainly seems unlikely that our Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, could have reacted as deftly as he did to the emerging situation had he needed to consult 27 other finance ministers first. It is no mystery how Britain became the first nation in the world to roll out mass vaccination for Covid. It was a direct consequence of our regulatory authorities having being freed from the dead hand of the EU’s sluggish regulators (the EU’s own response to the pandemic has been, by most accounts, pretty appalling).
But, to get back to the money, the simple fact is this: the EU bureaucracy will be losing around a fifth of its annual budget as a result of our departure. That is a devastating blow to their bloated finances and means, inevitably, that the rapacious eye of the Brussels behemoth will be looking ravenously to the chancelleries of Western Europe – in Berlin especially, and The Hague – to pick up the tab. Honestly, it is this inflexibility and their addition to welfarism that will do for them in the end. It leaves them so weak in the face of the oncoming challenges. Not just the wakening tiger economies in Asia, like Japan, South Korea and Singapore, but the insidious powerhouse that is the People’s Republic of China. On its current path, Europe will be eaten alive. Britain, itself a slumbering lion, must awaken and become a truly global trading nation once more.
“Oh, I have no doubt the EU will crawl along for a few more decades but I believe its days as an institution are numbered.”
What do we get from the EU in response to our rapidly changing world? Political correctness. Self-loathing. Bleeding-hearts bleating about the historic iniquities of European civilisation, reducing themselves to blubbering pools of wokery!
Oh, I have no doubt the EU will crawl along for a few more decades but I believe its days as an institution are numbered. ‘Pride cometh before a fall’ and the sheer arrogance of the Brussels apparatchiks, in assuming that the Germans or the Dutch are just going to carry on forking over the cash, particularly when, as I am sure they shall, they see the success of a Britain freed from the shackles of EU interference. We may be the first country to leave the EU but I doubt we will be the last.
The phrase ‘sick man of Europe’ did not actually originate as a description of Britain in the 1970s. Lord John Russell coined the phrase in the 1850s to describe the Ottoman Empire – the 19th-Century’s answer to sprawling, unwieldy, stultified and ultimately doomed political edifice. Like the sultans and their viziers, Frau von der Leyen and the EU mandarins are focused on every bit of triviality except the fundamental changes necessary to save them from oblivion. When the UK has left, Brussels will no longer have us to kick around. They will no longer be able to blame London for ‘holding them back’ and ‘blocking progress’.
“Any attempt to keep us locked into the ever-moving goalposts of Brussels’ stifling and befuddling regulations after Brexit should be resisted to the last.”
The UK has unhitched itself from this sinking hulk not a moment too soon. There may yet be a deal to be done and, unlike Nigel Farage and his fellow headbangers, I will not go loopy if the PM makes some reasonable concessions in the broader interest of doing a deal, possibly in the area of fisheries. Our fishing fleet does not have the capacity to catch all the fish in our waters anyway! So I could live with some compromise there. But there can be no backsliding on this ridiculous Corbynite notion of ‘dynamic alignment’. Any attempt to keep us locked into the ever-moving goalposts of Brussels’ stifling and befuddling regulations after Brexit should be resisted to the last. Does anything think it likely that emerging economic powerhouses like India are going to meekly kowtow and allow their hands to be tied just to keep the likes of Ursula von der Leyen sweet?
Trade deals are nice to have but not essential. Taking back full control of our money, laws and borders is. This country needs the uncertainty of an extension to talks with the EU like it needs a hole in the head. Brussels have spent four and a half years offering us a rotten, totally self-defeating ‘deal’. If there is a reasonable deal to be done – and some movement on fish might be a worthwhile compromise in exchange for tariff-free access to the Single Market – then, by all means, let’s do a deal. But on 31st December, if that deal is not there, Boris and Lord Frost should walk away with their heads held high.