If Ian Dunt hadn’t got to it first, I could have titled this “Oh sweet Christ not Brexit again.” But yes, Brexit is back in the headlines, with the looming deadline of 31 December for the end of the transitional period that this year has preserved open trade between Britain and the European Union.
Last Sunday was supposed to be the last opportunity for the parties to agree on a trade deal that would keep things moving smoothly beyond that date. For several days beforehand, the word from both sides seemed to be that agreement was out of reach. But at the last minute they recovered at least a fragment of optimism – enough, at least, to decide to keep talking for a bit longer.
The British deny it, but it appears that they were the ones who made a key concession on aligning regulatory standards with the EU. But an agreement is still no certainty, with reports that significant gaps remain on several issues, including the emotionally-laden question of fishing access.
Ursula von der Leyen, the EU’s head of government, said this morning that there was a “narrow” path available to a deal, and that the “next few days are going to be decisive.” (Haven’t we heard that before?) Even if ratification by the two parliaments cannot be completed before the end of the year, it may be possible to apply an agreement on a provisional basis.
One source of trouble for the negotiations, however, has already been removed, although at a possible future cost for the British. Prime minister Boris Johnson agreed two weeks ago to drop his threat to abrogate the provisions of the withdrawal agreement relating to Northern Ireland, ensuring that trade across the Irish border at least should remain relatively trouble-free.
The price of that is that there will definitely be some sort of customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea, putting Northern Ireland in a different category from the rest of the country. That in turn can hardly be anything other than a step towards eventual Irish unity, although how exactly that will play out will depend on the complex politics of the province as much as on the future of the trade talks.
Despite their pose as unionists, it seems that for Johnson and the Brexiters Northern Ireland is very much an afterthought. So, for that matter, is Scotland, where an election in May is expected to give its government a mandate for another referendum on independence. A messy, “no deal” breakup with the Europeans on 1 January would be just the thing that might induce the Scots to jump ship.
But for all the differences in style and rhetoric, and for all that seems to have happened since then, Johnson is in the same fundamental position as was his predecessor, Theresa May, throughout her unhappy tenure. He is simultaneously trying to satisfy both the hard Brexiters on one flank and the demands of a practical working relationship with Europe on the other – and finding that it can’t be done.
It can’t be done because the hard Brexiters want the impossible: to build a prosperous trading nation while giving the finger to their largest trade partner. Johnson is intelligent enough to know that, but so far he has been closing his eyes to its implications. The reality may now be beginning to dawn.
Otherwise, if “no deal” is the outcome this time, there will be short-term chaos at the frontier. But it will not end the relationship; there will be more negotiations next year, and eventually agreement of some sort will be reached. But at each round, Britain’s negotiating position gets worse. The Europeans can cope with the inconvenience for much longer, and have a strong incentive to not allow the British to undermine the rules of the single market.
Just like the post-election shenanigans at the same time in the United States, it’s a lesson in what happens when those in charge of a political party decide that they are not bound by the facts of objective reality and can remake the world on their own whim. It’s exhilarating for a while, but reality catches up with them in the end.