This was first posted on Facebook on 3rd February 2020, with support from my Ko-Fi network.
“There is no need for a free trade agreement to involve accepting EU rules on competition policy, subsidies, social protection, the environment, or anything similar any more than the EU should be obliged to accept UK rules,” says Boris Johnson’s pre-written speech for Monday 3rd February, leaked Saturday.
The negotiations are not due to begin til Sunday 1st March, and the trade deal must have been negotiated, checked, translated, and presented to the European Parliament before the close of the penultimate European Parliament plenary session of 2020, which is Thursday 26th November. The UK can ask for an extension on the 31st December deadline if we do so by 30th June, but Boris Johnson has already said he isn’t going to do that.
The only way the UK can complete a trade deal negotiation this huge, making 27 countries happy with it, is if the plan is that the UK will agree to any and every condition the EU and the constituent member states demands.
We know already that this will include the EU’s assurance that the Spanish government can exclude Gibraltar from any negotiated trade deal. (Yes, if you remember, Gibraltar voted 95.9% to remain in the EU. Yes, if you remember, the UK’s condition for Spain joining the EU was that Spain respect the UK’s territorial claim on Gibraltar. Spain joined the EU in 1986: the border between Spain and Gibraltar had been closed in 1969 and was not re-opened til 1985.)
(Also worth noting: possession of the Straits of Gibraltar was strategically important in 1704 and still is today. NATO monitoring of sea traffic via Gibraltar has always been a UK responsibility. But since 1982, Spain is also a NATO member.The UK cannot claim support from either the EU or the US to keep Gibraltar now.)
What we should remember about all of Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab’s sabre-rattling this weekend is not meaningful negotiation.
For example, as I read before lunchtime Saturday 1s February, Boris Johnson is claiming there will be full customs checks imposed at Dover and other ports for all EU goods entering the UK (other than if they enter from the Republic to Northern Ireland, of course). This if carried through would of course be reciprocal, ensuring a perpetal traffic jam in Dover, 29-mile lorry tailbacks through Kent, and consequent diminished trade between the EU and the UK – the final death for the car industry in the UK and fresh fruit and vegetable shortages in supermarkets, as a minimum consequence.
The Financial Times calls this: “UK and EU begin sparring with bruising talks ahead”. The Sunday Express blared a front-page headline “Johnson warns EU NO CONCESSIONS”.
But this isn’t Johnson & co talking to the EU – though the EU are of course listening: this is Johnson & co talking to their base.
To be clear: Boris Johnson may in fact be planning to crash the UK’s economy with a no-trade-deal hard Brexit, to the profit of his donors and just as he promised the European Research Group Tory MPs he would.
But nothing Johnson says, or Number Ten leaks, or Dominic Raab repeats, should be considered to be a real indication of their intended strategy over the next nine months. The progression of the trade talks will be no secret, though it will undoubtedly be badly-reported in the UK. If Johnson’s intent is to sabotage the talks, this will become clear as deadlines pass.
Johnson is, right now, talking to the Brexiters who read the Express and the Mail, who keenly voted for The Brexit Party Limited: he wants to convince them and to set the media narrative that he intends to be hardline intransigent.
But one thing we know about Boris Johnson: he lies.
Johnson could as well be planning to negotiate a trade deal by setting up this media narrative of the sabre-rattling strong man – and then quietly giving the national governments of the EU’s 27 members everything they ask for, while trusting confidently that the one thing Brexiters don’t do is read languages other than English.
We can’t know what the UK government is doing with regard to a trade deal by what the Prime Minister or 10 Downing Street or a Johnson Cabinet Minister tells us: we shall have to look out for what is directly reported by the EU officials negotiating.