New EU-UK Political Declaration Is No Guide to Future Relationship

Published on 23 November 2018

By Denis MacShane

1)   It is too early to say how MPs, business and the voting public will react to the latest words in the political declaration about future relations between the EU and UK. There is a summary here form the UK Institute for Government It is worth contrasting this fairly friendly account with the almost universally hostile reception from MPs in the House of Commons I cannot recall a major Prime Ministerial statement on government policy being so universally attacked on its presentation to the House of Commons.

2)   The possibility of a Commons rejection is now serious. The government is briefing that if MPs rejects the deal this will actually be helpful if it creates a sense of crisis with the pound and markets  falling dramatically and the fears of endless frontier queues and problems with travel between the UK and continent creating waves of panic and fear that force MPs into a U-turn. This politique du pire – the worse the better – is unprecedented in British parliamentary history. It may work. The hardline pro-Brexit politicians and press fear that such a crisis could lead to a new referendum or a new election. Both could be fateful  to their obessions with a Brexit that fully amputates the UK from Europe.

3)   There is no sense in the declaration that the Government wants to stay with today’s access to the Single Market. It is implied that detailed arrangements will be negotiated as in similar free trade agreements between the EU and third countries. These can take years. Every single one of the 27 member states will want to see their interests protected, and their national industrial, agricultural, and other economic lobbies looked after. There is no mention of space, satellites or Galileo for example. Either Britain goes it alone in massive government expenditure to create a national space industry or Britain is out of space exploration and economic activity.

4)   Until now, the EU27 have been content to leave the Commission in charge of the relations with the Brexit UK. From 1 April 2019, the interests of the 27 national governments and their economic actors and public opinion forces will come to the fore. We can see an inkling of this in the reports in El Pais on Gibraltar. The declaration does not mention Gibraltar. This despite the insistence by Spain’s socialist prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, who heads a minority government and cannot afford for domestic political reasons to make concessions to the UK, that he would seek to veto the Withdrawal Agreement unless the earlier pledge to make clear that Gibraltar’s future would be a matter to be solved bi-laterally between Madrid and London with no involvement by the Gibraltarians themselves was part of the EU-UK Brexit deal.

Most probably a form of words will be found before Sunday which mentions Gibraltar. But anything that satisfies Madrid will provoke fury in the strong cross-party Gibraltar lobby of MPs in the House of Commons.  Along with fishing rights which are of high symbolic priority for Scottish MPs, the issue of Gibraltar is symbolic of the scores of small issues – small in the overall EU list of priorities but very BIG for British MPs, press and public opinion – which can explode into major differences and make impossible any final agreement going into the 2020s.

5)   The Political Declaration has added a further 19 pages to the 7 pages published last week. It is like a Christmas Tree on which the parents have to add ever more candles and decorations and presents in order to excite the children. But the EU-UK tree is now being asked to carry too much weight. It implies nothing short of a total, 360 degree all-round recasting of a relationship which has taken decades to create. Mrs May earlier this week described EU citizens who work and live in the UK as “queue jumpers.” Her psychological obsession with Europeans working and living in Britain is a matter for a Freudian analysis not practical politics. But if she stays as prime minister negotiating just this aspect of a new relationship will be fraught with pain, emotion and the deeper xenophobia of identity politics and nativism.

6)   There is no clear end date. There is a vague reference to extending the 20 month transition period initially laid down to finish negotiating a final EU-UK new relationship treaty by 31 December 2020 for a further two years. Given the up to 10 years it can take much simpler free trade deals this is absurdly optimistic. Even extending the negotiations to December 2022 means that the future UK general election scheduled for spring 2022 will be utterly dominated by Brexit. The EU-UK relationship will completely dominate British politics, government, and business for years to come.  My concept of #brexeternity seems more and more valid as we face an eternity of bad-tempered argument over negotiating any future relationship.

7)   So far business has tried to be cheerful and find reasons to praise Mrs May and the initial withdrawal agreement and first political declaration. But the new text says that both the EU’s four freedoms of movement (good, services, capital and people) remain “indivisible” and at the same “freedom of movement” will end. It does not require a Ph D in Brexitology to appreciate that one cannot have simultaneously an end to freedom of movement while maintaining the 4 indivisible freedoms! It like being a Protestant and Catholic at one and same time. One can sense that both Michel Barnier’s T 50 team and the UK negotiators just gave up and kept hanging all their preferred options on the Christmas Tree. Gouverner c’est choisir – to govern is to choose. This latest text refuses all choice and puts off all difficult decisions to the years that lie ahead.

8)   Mrs May remains unwilling to tell the British people that leaving the EU means a monumental largely negative change in the nation’s economy and future prospects. The Labour and other opposition parties simply want to gain political advantage from her internal party difficulties. They have no alternative vision or policy. There may be new words between now and the final seal-off on Sunday in Brussels. But they cannot bridge the gap between Britain’s Brexit ideologues and the need to maintain EU coherence, rule of law and modus operandi.

This is just the end of the first Chapter in the Brexit saga. It is not even the end of the beginning let alone the beginning of the end. Brexit will continue to devour British politics, governance, business, universities and make life miserable for millions of European Union citizens in the UK and British expats in EU countries.