Britain has just budged on Brexit

PUBLISHED: 22:57 19 June 2020 | UPDATED: 22:57 19 June 2020

An electronic display showing a 'Get ready for Brexit' Government advert in London. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA.

An electronic display showing a 'Get ready for Brexit' Government advert in London. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA.

PA Wire/PA Images

ANDREW ADONIS on how, almost imperceptibly, the tectonic plates of Brexit have shifted.

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Back in Brexitland, the real story isn’t Boris Johnson’s theatrical refusal to apply for an extension. It was his announcement last week that there would be no customs regime for imports from the EU when the current ‘stand-still’ ends in December and customs tariffs and inspections become liable.

This is untenable. It either leads in the autumn to a last-minute extension of the stand-still ‘transition period’, called by some other name. Or it leads to a quick economic deal which, because this is the only deal which the EU will do quickly, maintains the status quo on things that matter to the EU (low or zero tariffs on physical exports and imports between the EU and Britain) while allowing Britain greater leeway to depart over time from EU single market regulatory rules on business and financial services and to tax them.

The key point is that the net gainer from a deal on these lines will be the EU, since the balance of trade is heavily in the EU’s favour in physical goods but heavily in Britain’s favour on business and financial services.

Oh and if there is a deal, most of the media attention will be taken up by fish. The deal will contain lots of references to ‘freedom from the Common Fisheries Policy’ while Johnson agrees to broadly the status quo.


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So from now on, ignore the language of ‘extension’, ‘deal’ and ‘no-deal’. Be mindful of what Humpty Dumpty said “in a rather scornful tone”: “‘When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’”

The reason why there has to be a deal on these lines, or some renamed extension, is very simple. A hard border for physical goods, involving customs duties and checks, simply can’t be introduced by the British state in time for the end of December.

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It doesn’t matter whether Johnson and Cummings want to have such a border. If they tried to decree it, it wouldn’t happen because there isn’t the administrative and organisational capacity in Whitehall to make it happen amidst Covid-19.

“Who stirs?” are to my mind the two most significant words of King Lear. The enfeebled king, shorn of his domains, barks instructions but there is no one to implement them. This is the position Johnson and Cummings are now in, as the lockdown approaches its fourth month and the British economy disintegrates.

Without customs border infrastructure there can’t be ‘no deal’, because ‘no deal’ can’t be implemented. But equally, under international trade law there can’t be zero EU tariffs by unilateral British decision unless all equivalent tariffs to other countries are also reduced to zero. This undermines future trade negotiations with the US, China and the rest of the world, since we will already have surrendered our negotiation position.

“Overall this is the most extreme position that Johnson could take, and I cannot quite believe he means it,” says Alan Riley, an EU trade expert at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank. “That’s why I think I am missing something or this is a bluff.” He isn’t missing something and this is a bluff.

Meanwhile, in the real world, the major European country which has handled Covid-19 best is Angela Merkel’s Germany, and the one which has handled it worst is Johnson’s Britain. France is somewhere in between.

This isn’t just a matter of historical interest. It will vitally affect the economic, diplomatic and political standing of the three foremost European states for the next decade and more.

Its effect will be to make Britain a supplicant to Germany and France, particularly if president Biden takes office next January. It may lead to Brexit being reversed sooner than the conventional wisdom now thinks.

When I pointed this out last week, one of my Twitter followers replied: “How come the Germans do everything better, and when all we have to do is copy them, we fail?”

Therein lies one of the most profound questions of modern British politics.

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Almost four years after its creation The New European goes from strength to strength across print and online, offering a pro-European perspective on Brexit and reporting on the political response to the coronavirus outbreak, climate change and international politics. But we can only rebalance the right wing extremes of much of the UK national press with your support. If you value what we are doing, you can help us by making a contribution to the cost of our journalism.

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