Monday

6th Apr 2020

Opinion

Boris' Brexit bluff? - UK will resist alignment to the end

  • Boris Johnson has always tried to keep Brexit conceptually simple - hence the slogans 'Take Back Control' and 'Get Brexit Done'

Brexit is done. That's the view of the British government, which has, according to reports, attempted to ban ministers from even using the word in official pronouncements that discuss the UK's future relationship with the European Union.

For Boris Johnson, it seems that Brexit truly was an event and not a process.

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This view has interesting implications for the conduct of free trade agreement (FTA) negotiations over the next year.

Johnson has always tried to keep Brexit conceptually simple ("Take Back Control', "Get Brexit Done"), but there has been a persistent belief that, faced with the reality of the UK's hugely intricate economic relationship with the EU, its myriad entangled dependencies, Johnson would soften his rhetoric and accept that complexity necessitated compromise.

Leading Brexit analyst Charles Grant and former UK ambassador Ivan Rogers - both of whom saw Brexit on the horizon long before most commentators considered it possible - have spoken of the inevitable trade-offs between European market access and economic sovereignty that the UK must now finally confront.

For the EU, the key issue is alignment.

The greater the extent to which the UK agrees to abide by EU rules, the more it accepts an economic and regulatory 'level playing field', the less obstruction there will be to UK companies wishing to do business in the European Union.

The Commission has been explicit about its fear of the UK engaging in economic 'dumping' after Brexit; it worries that the UK will tolerate lower standards in everything from food hygiene to employment protection to climate change policy in order to gain competitive advantage over EU member states - a competitive advantage the UK is likely, in the commission's view, desperately to seek given its newly-exposed position outside the trading bloc.

Rogers, former UK permanent representative [ie ambassador] to the EU, notes that the commission sees the gigantic surplus in services that the UK runs with the EU as being particularly decisive leverage; some in the commission even believe that the UK will have to reintroduce a form of freedom of movement as the price for access to the EU services market.

Yet in his speech in Greenwich, London, this month setting out the UK's aspirations for an FTA with the EU, Johnson was no more conciliatory towards the EU position on alignment than he was last year - and last year, he had an election to win.

Why, asked Johnson, should alignment be a prerequisite for free trade? Reversing the traditional contrast between a socially-responsible EU and reckless Anglo-Saxon capitalism, Johnson went on to list many areas of policy in which the UK was more progressive than the EU (including its commitment to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050; superior maternity leave entitlements; and higher animal-welfare standards).

The British prime minister laughed off the suggestion that "it was only thanks to Brussels that we are not preparing to send children back up chimneys".

The UK, he declared with mock-exasperated glee, would not walk away from an FTA with the EU because of such 'dumping'; but nor would it agree to alignment on the EU's own terms.

Bluff?

As by far the stronger party in negotiation, the commission may be inclined to dismiss Johnson's rhetoric as a wilfully paradoxical bluff, one that will be called and exposed in short order.

Emmanuel Macron appears to think so; it has been reported since Johnson's speech that France will demand the UK agrees to full dynamic alignment of regulation (with the UK required to move in lockstep with the EU in perpetuity) as the price of a comprehensive FTA.

Economic logic says that the UK should swiftly concede.

But economic logic is precisely what has been at issue in the UK since the Brexit referendum was called. The Conservative Party (incongruously, given its history) now finds itself representing globalisation's relative losers.

Johnson may well believe that the assertion of national independence, a managed rush of national identity, is now more politically significant than any incremental hit to gross domestic product.

Cummings' role

Johnson and Dominic Cummings, Johnson's closest adviser and Brexit's true architect (as head of the Leave campaign), know that, in the long-run, they will be judged on economic performance, particularly as it impacts their newer working-class constituencies; but they are looking for a different way to square the circle.

Cummings has said that membership of the EU has long retarded the UK's scientific and entrepreneurial capabilities: for Cummings, alignment has meant stagnation.

He argues that immense and rapid economic progress is possible if the insights of the physical, behavioral and data sciences are harnessed to the power of a self-reflective de-bureaucratised state. He has advertised for "weirdos and misfits" exhibiting "genuine cognitive diversity" to join him in this project.

Cummings believes in hard deadlines, rapid transformations and visible delivery. Whether or not what he wants is possible, the EU should be sure that he will resist alignment to the end.

Author bio

Nicholas Hallam is a pro-European cross-border VAT specialist, and chairman of Accordance.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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