The author of this article is Michael Woolgar
(This article was first published in ‘Briefings for Brexit’ and we re-publish with their kind permission)
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Part 1 was published here yesterday.
The Agreement’s objective, if approved by the UK Parliament, would be a stellar achievement for Mr Barnier. It would rank as superior to any victorious military campaign over a significant sovereign European nation since the Middle Ages. Without containing the destructive elements of the Versailles Treaty, the Withdrawal Agreement subsumes into the EU a non-member third party: the second largest economy in Europe, W. Europe’s largest military power, the world’s premier financial centre and second largest services producer, the world’s no. 1 soft power, a generally well-functioning and prosperous country. The UK becomes a legally-guaranteed economic and political non-voting colony of Brussels.
The devices to ensure this victory include the N. Ireland Backstop which traps the UK into a permanent customs union which not merely blocks UK trade independence but empowers the EU to offer the UK market to prospective partners in future EU trade deals. The UK would have no formal role in the allocation of its markets to foreign powers.
The second device is regulatory compliance. The third tranche of this victory is still to be played. It will involve presently unknown conditions for a trade deal with the EU. This final part of the EU game plan in future negotiations is crucial: it will require a range of new concessions from Britain. These, for example, will address French concerns about access to fishing in British waters, require conformity in social and environmental regulations, in climate-directed energy policy, in taxation, in cooperation with the EU’s military ambitions which go beyond our recent concessions (and which have scarcely featured in UK public discussion), and others. These multiple complexities will ensure indefinite delay along the way to some form of the “frictionless” trade sought by Mrs May.
Through the Withdrawal Agreement, France will be put into in a much more advantageous position to ensure a high measure of control of the detested Anglo-Saxon economic model. France (and the rest of Europe) will maintain a range of critical competitive advantages for the indefinite future.
The strategic objectives of Michel Barnier concord with those of France under Emmanuel Macron. M. Barnier, it is believed, is driving forward the Withdrawal Agreement not only in the interest of the EU, but in the interest of France itself. President Macron is impatient to see Britain out of the EU but not before cementing in place the advantages of the Withdrawal Agreement or a similarly beneficial arrangement.
But the EU’s Withdrawal Agreement will be seen in history as an outstanding example of diplomatic hubris. It is a truly epic political misjudgement by Michel Barnier and the Commission. If it were implemented by Britain, the disadvantages such as years of negotiation to conclude some form of trade deal, would soon be understood by the public and the Agreement would become politically toxic. It would be an electoral disaster for the government that signed it and for Franco-British relations. The over-reach of the Withdrawal Agreement has been understood and vigorously condemned in Germany by politicians and research institutes.
The rise of so-called populism in France, Germany, Holland, Spain, Portugal, and the Visegrad countries injects grave uncertainties about the ever-closer union that has been the overarching gaol of the Commission (cf the Five Presidents’ Report) and of France under president Macron’s En Marche agenda. The unexpected success of Macron’s party was, originally, a populist phenomenon. That support has evaporated as the President mishandles taxation and the repression of the gilets jaunes. The President’s ambitions for conventional grand scheme EU government include the creation of new organisations to promote the deeper integration of member States: a European Agency for the Protection of Democracies, a European Council for Internal Security, an Investment Plan for Europe, a European Innovation Council, a Conference for Europe. These initiatives will not be supported by the increasingly anti-Brussels French public.
Germany will not buy into Macron’s ambition for monetary, debt and fiscal union. The President’s political career seems likely to end at the next elections in France.
The outcome of Mrs May’s efforts to secure her Agreement are not forecastable but the Conservative Party, however much split, seems unlikely to tolerate her remaining in Downing Street merely to end up with her Agreement, a customs union or no Brexit. Her replacement may lead to a real negotiation under a Remainer PM to improve the terms of the unsigned Withdrawal Agreement or, under a leaver PM, to a rejection of the Agreement and its Political Declaration. This leader would reset the entire Brexit process, possibly through a Canada-type deal.
Whether Britain succeeds or not in the immediate future in leaving the EU, the Brexit fiasco is already a catalyst for accelerating the discussion and definition of reforms of the treaties of the European Community. Britain should seize the opportunity urgently to become the creative leader for the reform ambitions of numerous member States. Intelligent British sceptics (and the UK government under a Leaver PM) should set up now a project group with UK private and public organisations, with political parties and politicians, with businesses, with academics and think tanks. These will work with sympathetic political and intellectual circles in France to develop a version of the Europe des Nations in which each nation is its highest legitimate authority. The European nations recovering sovereignty would co-operate for mutual benefit in what will be a reformed union, politically and economically decentralised. Many parts of the present EU construct will survive this redesign, many incompatible ones will be discarded, such as a single currency for all nations.
In thinking through the root and branch reform of the EU, a Franco-British pressure group will receive enthusiastic support from discontented EU member countries. Launching this reform initiative to be led by Britain and France will have some benefit in reducing tension between our two nations whatever form Brexit takes.