Like a giant, ugly toad Brexit is set to squat on British political life for years to come. Mrs May’s handshake with Jean-Claude Juncker and her written agreement with the Irish prime minister Leo Veradkar now allow 2018 to begin with a discussion of Britain’s future economic relations with the EU. But if anything these talks will be much harder than anything that has taken place between Brussels and London in the 18 months since the corrupt and flawed plebiscite in June 2016.
Far from resolving the Brexit issue and providing certainty and security for foreign direct investment firms, banks, or any outfit based in the UK that does business with Europe without the need for customs clearance, work permits, or getting permission from national regulators, the easy bit of the Brexit withdrawal negotiations is now over.
The foothills are being left behind and only steep uphill ice fields and crevasse ridden glaciers lie ahead. The British team has yet to learn how to rope together, put on crampons, and several of them think they should be premier de la cordée.
In March this year, Michel Barnier told me he had offered the UK a two-year transition period after April 2019 in which Britain could trade freely without tariffs or duties, provided London accepted existing EU rules and laws on social protection, environment, and rights of EU citizens.
If he told me this and I could put it in a book published a few months later, I assumed it was no secret and British ministers had been made this offer.
But it was not until Michael Gove returned to the cabinet after the June election that the Brexit wing of the UK’s ruling party began to understand what was at stake. In the preceding 12 months, the Brexit hardliners headed by Boris Johnson and David Davis continued using the shop-worn clichés and denunciations of the Brexit camp.
Britain didn’t owe a penny and the EU could “go whistle.” The European Court of Justice was a dreadful foreign body and should have no role. David Davis regularly insulted Michel Barnier. The official Tory blow-hard line was the EU was out to punish the UK.
Mrs May, who never seemed to be on top of events, was heading for a No Deal crash, possibly even before the end of talks on the three pre-conditions agreed between Brussels and London – namely the money owed, Northern Ireland, and a role for the European Court of Justice protecting the rights of EU citizens in Britain.
This would have precipitated a major global economic crisis as every foreign and export-dependent firm, especially the hundreds of banks and finance in the City, would have faced a choice of quitting the UK.
The Tories are the party of business or they are nothing. Such a crisis would have led to a major rethink about the wisdom of following the Brexit trajectory of a full amputation with Europe.
Gove, who is closely linked with the US neo-conservative and neo-liberal right, realised the folly of the Brexit hardliners in the cabinet being held responsible for such an economic-political disaster.
He knew that Labour was waiting for precisely such a crisis and economic-political meltdown to move out of its studied ambiguity on Brexit and begin speaking for British economic interests with conviction and support.
What Gove feared and fears is any major rethink of the referendum outcome in line with what happened in Switzerland.
A Swiss referendum to ban immigration from the rest of Europe was passed in February 2014 but then quietly binned by Swiss MPs by the end of 2016, after Brussels made clear that if the Swiss began discriminating against EU citizens then existing Swiss access to EU markets would face reciprocal response.
The idea of a new referendum in Britain was dismissed when advanced earlier in the year. The latest Survation poll showed a 50-34 support for a new referendum. The Gove nightmare is that the people might be allowed a second thought on Brexit now that more and more facts are emerging of what the costs entail.
That is why, bit by bit, in late autumn he persuaded the Tory Brexiters changed their tune and calmed down. Their parish magazine, the Spectator, started arguing that paying a £50 billion exit bill was perfectly reasonable.
Chris Grayling, a long time anti-European, announced he was happy to accept ECJ jurisdiction in order to keep the UK within the European Aviation Safety Agency and thus ensure no threat to flights between the UK and Europe.
European immigrants who had been treated as unwanted in order to win the Brexit vote were described in warm words by Gove.
For Gove, who has now emerged as the major Brexit strategist in the cabinet, it is vital that the UK is fully out of the EU Treaty by April 2019. He and May will accept most of the conditions Barnier will lay down during 2018. Britain will accept a future status like that of Norway for two years after 2019 – accepting all Single Market and Customs Union rules.
The question is what happens in the two years after April 2019 and after the end of the Norwegian style transition in 2021.
The UK will be buried in eternal Brexit negotiations covering every sector from farming to financial services to export of TV series. Brexit will continue to drain all the juices from British politics leading up to the next election in 2021 or 2022.
So Gove’s strategy just continues the Brexit agony well beyond 2019 into the next decade. Will that help the Tory Party or will the call for a new referendum emerge as a Labour demand that can help take the party to power possibly in coalition with other parties that oppose Brexit?
Gove’s slippery tactical games playing are too subtle for the average Tory anti-European. Their main newspaper supporter is Charles Moore, the Daily Telegraph columnist, former editor of the Spectator, the official biographer of Margaret Thatcher and a devout anti-European.
Moore describes the May-Juncker deal as a British “capitulation” to the EU. He is right in the sense that Barnier achieved all his negotiation goals and May had to drop give up the demands listed in her Lancaster House speech in January.
But for Gove, it is vital that Tory MPs and party members follow the line of doing what the EU wants today to win a Treaty exit and then after 2021 launch out on the new vision of an Americanized England shaking off all European ideas of social and ecological responsibility and holding giant firms like Apple, Facebook or Google to account.
So in a Daily Telegraph column he insisted that at a future election, voters would elect a party – presumably a Conservative Party with him as leader – committed to fully breaking with Single Market and Customs Union obligations.
This is the Brexit game plan for the Tories after 2021. There is one major problem – Ireland. Dublin with Barnier’s backing has secured a promise from Mrs May, backed to the hilt by the EU, that there is no hard border based on customs control check post in Ireland, whatever happens.
The British prime minister has had to agree “full alignment” of UK rules with all those EU regulations relevant to North-South cooperation in Ireland and the Good Friday peace agreement. There are 140 cross border agreements based on EU norms contained in the Good Friday Agreement.
Many ardent Brexiters are also English nationalists who are close to the extremist protestant unionists of Northern Ireland. But they dare not denounce the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which brought to an end not just the 1968-1998 IRA campaign which led to 3,000 deaths but more than a century of Anglo-Irish hates and conflicts.
The Good Friday Agreement in which Barnier played a role as EU regional commissioner was as big a recasting of Ireland-UK relations as the Elysée Treaty in 1963 when de Gaulle and Adenuaer shaped a new relationship between France and Germany.
The Good Friday Agreement meant that Mrs May has signed up to a joint declaration with Dublin which states that “North-South cooperation relies to a significant extent on a common European Union legal and policy framework.”
The key paragraph of the deal between London and Dublin that led to the unblocking of the move to the second phase of the Article 50 negotiations underlines “The commitments and principles outlined in this joint report… must be upheld in all circumstances, irrespective of the nature of any future agreement between the European Union and United Kingdom.” (my Italics)
In other words despite Gove’s braggadocio that between 2019 and 2021 and certainly after April 2021 a new British government could fully leave the Single Market and Customs Union that cannot apply to the island of Ireland.
Of course Gove is perfectly correct and this has always been true that an election can produce a government elected on a mandate to repudiate all aspect of European trade and other rules.
But on the whole despite the jibe of “Albion perfide” modern Britain has upholds international agreements it signs and it is doubtful if a post May government would repudiate the commitment to follow EU rules and laws in Ireland, north and south.
But that is for the future. All we can say for certainly that Brexit will continue to dominate British politics for years and years. Disraeil first used the term “The Irish Question” in the Commons in 1844 and it overwhelmed British domestic politicsfor the next 80 years. Now it has fused with Brexit and this new Brexit-Irish question will be with us for a decade or more unless the British people find an answer which so far their politicians have been unable to.
Denis MacShane is the UK’s former Minister for Europe and a Senior Advisor at Avisa Partners.