In January, I wrote in what was then still Briefings for Brexit as to why Boris Johnson was right to rule out an extension to the negotiations.1 With the EU now returning ever more frequently to this topic, it is important to revisit the subject.
The Coronavirus crisis has added impetus to these calls, and, it must be admitted, an ostensible logic. David Henig argued in the Telegraph that for every week that the crisis costs the negotiations, a week should be added to the Transition.2 There is always a great appeal in the argument that, if we get to November, discussions should not fail for the want of a few extra weeks.
However, there is nothing in the calls from EU politicians to suggest that they have anything of the sort in mind.
EU politicians call on the UK to put aside ideology, but it is quite clear that they have no intention of showing flexibility themselves.
It is worth remembering what the “transition” actually is. It is not a benign position where the parties take a step back to conduct less heated negotiations. It means that the United Kingdom remains fully subject to the EU’s legislative, executive and judicial power without even consultation rights. The terms of the transition were so one-sided that Nick Clegg described them as “humiliating” and quoted a French source close to Macron that “No self-respecting French politician would put their country in that situation.”3 It is to be remembered that back in 2018 the EU gloated over even denying the United Kingdom the sort of consultation rights that the EEA countries enjoy.
In the awful chronology of Theresa May’s humiliating negotiations, the EU’s Transition demands stand out as the point when it made clear its intention to dictate rather than negotiate. The UK had swallowed a lot of EU dictation to achieve “sufficient progress”. The EU’s earlier demands had been presented as points of principle on the protection of its citizens in the UK, the payment of the UK’s debts, and the preservation of the open Irish border. The demands made by the EU in the name of achieving “sufficient progress” were inflated, of course, but Theresa May was led to believe that on the other side would be discussions of the future conduct in a warmer atmosphere. Instead, she was presented with the Transition terms. Unlike with “sufficient progress”, there was not even pretence at principled justifications, even dubious ones, just a gleeful display of total supremacy over Theresa May’s government. Lord Kerr’s boast that the UK would “come to heel” was brutal, but entirely in the spirit with which the EU had conducted itself.
The EU has already floated a wholly unequal treaty for the future relations between itself and the UK. It is not quite the Brexit In Name Only that the May Deal promised, and the draft treaty has not done so with the hectoring confidence that it displayed until the autumn of 2019, but it is not a treaty of “partnership” but one to maintain large amounts of the EU’s authority over UK’s economy matters, and perpetuate the Common Fisheries Policy. It will even allow the EU to set itself up to supervise the UK’s human rights compliance. So despite the EU having been a little shaken by Boris Johnson’s election victory, its published “future arrangements” treaty suggests that it still nurses hopes of achieving terms that no country has ever gained without a credible threat of military force.
For the United Kingdom to meekly submit to an extension of the Transition – which the EU would soon look to extend further – will only encourage it to believe that it was right first time: the UK will agree to anything to avoid a “no deal”. The present debate on extending the Transition may well serve the same purpose as the EU’s “sufficient progress” demands did back in 2017. It is the canary lowered down the mine to test whether the United Kingdom is desperate enough to agree to terms wholly outside the norms of international relations to avoid any risk of “no deal”. Once the EU establishes that, it would be an act of hope over experience to believe that it will not set about applying that lesson throughout the negotiations.
We must bear in mind that the EU’s much vaunted solidarity has taken a significant hit recently. It revelled in its readiness to declare an all-out trade war on the United Kingdom in support of Ireland. Every EU Member State was happy to support Spain over Gibraltar without even considering the justice of the dispute. During Brexit, the EU’s declarations of solidarity have morphed into a bizarre variant on chauvinism: “Every Member State, right or wrong”. As the Member States have now failed to behave like a family during the Coronavirus crisis, the EU may well seek to re-assert its unity by revisiting its most obvious recent success: teaching the United Kingdom who’s boss.
Hence, if the United Kingdom wishes to set out its stall that the future relationship will be one of equals, then it cannot start by prolonging a period of total subordination.
It may well be that the United Kingdom has to be open to extend negotiations on particular topics where agreement is not reached. Before this can be contemplated, however, the EU must first drop its ideological attachment to what Nick Clegg described as the “humiliating” terms of the present Transition. What the EU is calling for is not simply an innocent pragmatic extension of a negotiating timetable. The EU is also calling for a one or two year extension of unaccountable power over the United Kingdom in all matters that were covered by our EU legislation.
There is no reason why the UK should start these negotiations by conceding the EU’s top-line and absolutist preconditions.
Titus is a young academic who prefers to remain anonymous.
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