Disappointing news on Brexit has become the weekly norm. This week, Theresa May presented a vague summary of her proposed deal to cabinet, but progress was halted when ministers rightly demanded legal advice and further details regarding the proposal. According to an alleged DexEU PR plan, Dominic Raab was set to hail a “moment of decisive progress”, but that now looks likely to take place next week. Rather than the question of when, however, we must turn to what the deal will actually contain, specifically with respect to the salient issue of the Irish backstop.
If there is no agreement on the Irish border, a temporary customs arrangement looks likely. Dominic Raab is pushing the EU to place a time limit on the proposal, so as to avoid leaving the UK in limbo with reduced strength in future negotiations. But a temporary customs arrangement risks stirring ire among Tory backbenchers, as the fear of Britain ending up tied to the EU indefinitely grows larger.
As the government struggles to persuade Brussels to compromise, it is hard not to question whether the issue lies with the deal we are presenting to the EU, or simply the incompetence of those at the top. The government has every right to pursue the deal it sees fit – although not without scrutiny – but May appears to have consistently broken trust and is on track to miss on several of her pledges entering the negotiations.
Tim Shipman’s article for the Sunday Times suggested that May has, in fact, already secured “private concessions from Brussels that will allow her to keep the whole of Britain in a customs union, avoiding a hard border in Northern Ireland”. If true, this is an obvious and abject failure on the part of the prime minister.
Is it seriously the position of the British government that we will have to wait until the Irish government says it’s okay to leave the EU? We may as well go ahead and scratch out sovereignty as a benefit of leaving if we’re going to outsource it across the Irish Sea. The EU’s “compromise” on the matter was to suggest an independent arbitration system, but this still leaves us without the guarantee of our ability to leave on our own terms.
After months of negotiations, the degree of incompetence displayed by the prime minister has been astonishing. We have ended up exactly where the EU wanted us – essentially remaining part of the bloc, and for this May must be held accountable.
Indeed, the prime minister has consistently yielded territory and second-guessed her own stances, concerning herself more with what would be acceptable for the EU rather than the British people. It does not require a dog-eared copy of The Art of the Deal on one’s bedside table to understand that staking out weak initial positions is going to dilute the deal we can achieve.
I will never understand, for example, why May agreed to extend the transition period. All it has achieved is unnecessarily pushing back the deadline for leaving, prolonging the uncertainty hurting markets and investment. Even worse still, the transition period was initially an “implementation period”, designed solely to allow lawmakers time to fully adjust to life after Brexit. But now we find ourselves increasingly in an uphill battle as a consequence of fundamental mistakes early in the negotiations.
In its perpetual arrogance, the EU has proven repeatedly that they do not take negotiations seriously. Appearing on Radio 4 yesterday, David Davis reinforced this, saying: “without a fixed final time, there is no incentive for the other side to negotiate in good faith”. We know that the EU will only become receptive to any compromise in the final days, rendering the extension useless. Similar to its attitude to democracy, the EU’s message is “come back when it’s the result we want”. You only have to look to the Greek bailout agreement that came 36 hours after the hard deadline set by the EU.
It’s clear that Brussels has little interest in finding workable solutions. Under David Davis, the UK produced “practical proposals galore” to solve the Irish border question, requiring no new arrangements except extra measures at the ports alone and not the border. Naturally, the EU took no notice. The Irish border is shamefully being used as a political club with which to beat a weak prime minister into a corner.
But despite the tough facade, “no deal” makes Europe nervous, which explains the political games we’ve been witnessing. If we stopped putting all of our efforts into insurance policies for a failed Brexit and focused more on delivering a good deal, we might well gain some leverage. We already have 300 deals ready should we leave without an agreement and London is home to 90 per cent of the Euromarket. It’s time we reminded Brussels – and the prime minister – that the fifth largest economy in the world can play hardball too.
May might not be so firmly in the crosshairs had she not consistently had a stranglehold on negotiations. To paraphrase a quote from Bill Gates, great leaders are those who empower others. However, May’s contempt for this style of leadership is self-evident in the negotiations, dramatically culminating in the resignation of David Davis in the summer. Davis, of course, rightly refused to be a “reluctant conscript” and see the demise of a European relationship he believed in unfolding before his eyes.
When I quietly rejoiced the morning after the referendum result – in and among the fatalism of my peers – I had hoped that we would enter the negotiations with fearless optimism. Instead, we have seen the opposite. May’s red lines have turned lighter than pink under the slightest of pressure from Brussels, and we find ourselves being strong-armed into an incredibly dangerous customs union. Lest we forget that Turkey entered a customs union with Europe in 1995, which at the time was described as temporary, but over 20 years later it seems rather permanent.
The prime minister’s secret, of course, is that this is exactly the deal she’s always hoped for. She wishes to force this proposal through Parliament, masquerading as the clean divorce she was mandated to deliver. “Out” enough to satisfy backbenchers, “in” enough to prevent what she would see as damaging economic fallout. Chequers made quite clear that her priority is damage limitation and to pursue the path of least resistance. Contrast this with the optimism of MPs within the European Reform Group who view the negotiations as a generational chance to redefine the UK’s constitution.
While I do not envy the burden she bears, and while I sympathise with her a great deal, a moment as important as Brexit warrants a leader significantly more decisive and competent than May has proven herself to be. Sure, all of this is easier said than done, but there is no doubt in my mind that under firmer leadership a deal would get done.
Hypotheticals aside, as a result of May’s strategy, the pact made with the British people looks to be imminently broken and the future of the Tories in perilous jeopardy. A farewell dance from the prime minister must become a matter of urgency while there is still time left on the clock.