Nicholas Westcott wrote an interesting piece for LSE last week entitled “A peculiar definition of sovereignty is the root cause of a failed Brexit“. The whole piece is worth reading, but one part struck me as especially apt.
Brexiters “definition of “sovereignty” has made failure inevitable,” Westcott writes. “It is a definition closer to that used by North Korea than to that of any other free-trading western nation. Real sovereignty is about protecting a country’s interests, not simply its borders and laws” He goes on: “But this has just reinforced a more fundamental problem: that the UK set its red lines in a place that breached the two fundamental things on which the EU would not, and could not, budge – the integrity of the single market and the preservation of the Good Friday Agreement. The Brexiteers [sic] did this on the grounds that ‘sovereignty’ demanded it”
Take the Brexiter argument about fishing as a case in point. Britain must have complete and unrestrained access to its own waters, because it has to be sovereign to do so (see Iain Dale for example), which ignores the practicalities – that the UK does not even have enough fishing boats to even catch what it wanted in those waters, and that 70% of the fish from UK waters get sold in the rest of the EU – something made harder by the customs and export headaches implicit within Brexit. Only a negotiated solution – covering quotas, capacity, and rules for export of catch – can possibly respect the UK’s actual interests here. Sovereignty, in the way the UK government has understood it in its negotiations with the EU, does not.
The same can be said for the other two main areas of contention currently – Level Playing Field and governance. Both essentially relate to the extent to which both sides are willing to bind the other for both sides mutual benefit – to make sure neither side undermines the other when it comes to workers’ rights or environmental standards of production for example. And it makes sense for both sides to have a legal mechanism to address any disputes. But here too the notion of sovereignty – that the UK can say that is has unlimited control – is more important than what the UK would actually do with that control. The EU side has been asking the UK for months to see its future State Aid regime – but no such publication has been forthcoming. Interestingly the UK has made little in the way of demands on the EU in this area – the EU could just as well do something against the UK’s interests in the future as the UK against the EU, but the idea that enforcement mechanisms could also be used to defend UK interests has barely registered in the UK side of the debate.
In addition to all of this there is a further perplexing issue. The UK has just rolled over trade deals with Canada and Japan – essentially copy-pasting what was in the EU’s deals with those countries. And, within those deals, was ready to accept the sorts of constraints on Level Playing Field that the UK refuses to accept on principle when it comes to a Deal with the EU.
The reason for this, I think, is that the UK Government still steadfastly refuses to see the EU as a legitimate partner in negotiations, in a way that it does not see Japan or Canada as similarly illegitimate. This after all is a government with people in it steeped in 40 years of thinking about UK-EU relations as a zero sum game where mutual wins are impossible, and with a superiority complex assuming the EU will either crack in negotiations, or that the whole EU will implode – neither of which has happened. And in the meantime the EU side has shown itself not only resolute in negotiations, but better prepared for the practical consequences of Brexit than the UK is. And if the EU is effective, it is framed as a cunning plot of grey bureaucrats in Brussels, not legitimate political concerns to defend jobs in fishing, protect the integrity of Europe-wide supply chains, or ensure systems are underpinned by the Rule of Law.
Why then does all this matter, and matter now?
With 32 days to go to the end of Brexit transition, some clarity about a destination is needed this week.
Striking a Deal and overcoming the differences on the three outstanding issues – fisheries, Level Playing Field and governance – requires an acceptance that negotiated but mutually agreed constraints are in the interests of both sides, and the abandonment of an absolutist notion of sovereignty. Having only heard the absolutist side of the argument since September, and never the mutual interest side of it, any significant move in the UK position in order to secure a Deal is going to come as one hell of a shock to Tory MPs and the wider right wing commentariat. That shock, and the political capital needed to persuade Tories to back it, is the main reason I think the UK is heading for No Deal – you cannot put a price or a number on a matter that is essentially one of misguided ethics.
There are two fundamental problems, UK side – an absolutist and misguided notion of sovereignty, and an inability to see the EU as a legitimate actor. The political price for Johnson to overcome both is simply too high, and hence I fear No Deal beckons.