Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Melanie Phillips: Yes, it's Brexit

Four days after the trade deal was signed between the UK and the EU, few people, if any, have yet ploughed through the deal’s 1200 or so pages of dense legal text and annexes, and most of us never will.

Maybe in due course some buried horrors will emerge. But at present, it does look as if Boris Johnson really has delivered his country from the grip of the EU and restored its ability to govern itself as an independent country.
That’s principally because the deal frees the UK from the European Court of Justice, and thus from the power of the EU to impose its will through laws that bind the British parliament. So the UK is now able once again to create its own laws and policies in accordance with the democratically expressed wishes of the people, as well as trade with the EU without tariffs or quotas.

That’s not to say there aren’t significant concerns and reservations about this deal. The small print of the fisheries section suggests worse terms for British fishermen than seems appropriate or fair for an island nation.

More concerning still is the undertaking to stick to EU standards and the ability of the EU to impose a tariff where it claims unfair competition. While many such standards are entirely reasonable, and any possible claims of unfairness will operate equally for both sides, there is potential scope here for serious trouble ahead.

Disputes will be arbitrated by an independent tribunal composed from both sides and with a chairman chosen by both. It remains to be seen, however, quite how independent this will be in practice. And the battle over the UK’s all-important financial services is yet to be had, the issue having been inexplicably parked unresolved.

The crucial point about any such future clashes is this. What enabled the British government to regain its independence from EU jurisdiction and control was the unswerving focus by Britain’s chief negotiator, Lord Frost, on the unbreakable red line of British sovereignty.

The most important reason why the UK had found itself in increasing difficulties with the EU over the years was that previous governments ignored or denied the absolutely critical importance of Britain’s ability to make its own laws and policies free of EU control.

Successive prime ministers, whether they were EU enthusiasts or simply assumed that EU domination of its member states was irresistible, allowed the Eurocrats to walk all over them. Faced with EU intransigence and bullying, the UK meekly submitted and progressively surrendered its independence to the constitutional salami-slicers of Brussels.

This time it was different, because Boris Johnson had properly understood the seismic revolt that took place when the UK voted in the 2016 referendum to leave the EU.

Unlike many others, Johnson correctly understood that the core issue for those voters was regaining the UK’s freedom to make its own laws and policies — the key characteristic of a free country but which had been eroded by EU membership.

Johnson also understood that the reason he won last year’s general election so handsomely, largely due to the formerly tribal Labour party voters of the “red wall,” was that those voters trusted his pledge to restore their nation’s sovereign independence; and that if he were judged to have betrayed that pledge, not only would he be political toast but the Conservative party would be out of power for the foreseeable future.

As far as one can see, he has indeed kept that pledge. And that’s a truly formidable achievement.

What he has signed with the EU is therefore more akin to a conventional treaty between states (or in this case, the UK and the EU “super-state”) which has an exit mechanism and which future governments can therefore renegotiate or reverse.

With that in mind, it may well be that in its flawed aspects this is no more or less than a bad treaty, with the British side either having given away too much stuff in trade-offs or set the stage for bruising battles down the line.

In which case, the concern is this. With the removal of the pressure that kept Boris Johnson honest — potential Brexiteer fury over any “betrayal”— and, no less crucially, since neither Johnson nor his successors will ever again be able to leverage the threat of leaving without a deal, the British government may once again take the path of least resistance in any future negotiation with the EU and sell British interests down the river.

Of course, the newly stiffened British spine may now enable both Johnson and his successors to continue to face Brussels down. But the instinct for appeasement displayed by successive prime ministers as a political default does not inspire overwhelming confidence.

Which is why I always thought the only good deal would be no-deal. Of course, no-deal risked serious problems for the UK. However, we can see that what gave Boris Johnson his victory in regaining British sovereignty was the Eurocrats’ fear that he might indeed be entirely serious about leaving with no deal.

That was because, just as we committed Brexiteers had always said, the potential cost of no-deal was always going to be far greater for the EU than for the UK.

And so if Britain had indeed just walked away, the EU may well have been forced into a subsequent deal, or a number of deals, on the UK’s terms; and the British government would not now be facing possibly bruising battles with the EU without any such overpowering weapon in its now necessarily depleted diplomatic armoury.

We’ll never know, of course, whether leaving without a deal would indeed have drawn the EU’s negotiating sting, or what the true costs of no-deal would have been.

But the deal that has been done is very much better than the Brexiteers had anticipated, in that sovereignty has been regained. The UK has taken back control of its own destiny. Now we’ll see whether it will exploit or squander the opportunity. 

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist, broadcaster and author - you can follow her work on her website HERE

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