Sovereignty must be a red line in the trade talks

The UK’s tough stance in the Brexit talks is welcome. But we’ve been here before.

Paddy Hannam

Topics Brexit Politics UK

Trade talks with the EU began officially this week. Emboldened by a huge election victory, the government is taking a far tougher line on Brexit than it did before the December election. The government published its negotiating mandate last Thursday. On the same day, Michael Gove, now charged with delivering Brexit, told parliament that the UK will refuse to give away any sovereign powers in return for a trade deal. He even threatened that Britain could walk away from the table if a deal had not taken basic form by June 2020.

This is good news, especially for those of us Brexiteers who had reservations about Boris Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement. This is the strongest statement yet that the government intends to enact Brexit in full, rather than sell it out in exchange for any slight perceived economic gain.

But we must be careful not to celebrate too soon. In a sense, we have heard this all before. Theresa May’s defiant language – ‘No Deal is better than a bad deal’, and ‘I’m going to be a bloody difficult woman’ – initially encouraged those of us hankering after a full Brexit. In the end, of course, things ended up rather differently.

But there is one obvious and crucial difference between Johnson’s position and May’s – his large parliamentary majority. And this gives us reason to be optimistic.

One of the main weaknesses of May’s negotiation strategy was the fact that nobody in the EU, or even in the government, really believed that the UK would ever attempt a No Deal exit. This was partly a failure of government self-confidence – May and many of her ministers had bought into the idea that No Deal would be catastrophic. But more than anything, it was a result of the fact that the government had lost its majority to a resurgent Labour Party. Despite the fact that Labour promised its voters it would respect the Leave vote, it did not take long for Labour to be consumed by anti-Brexit mania. The possibility that the government would walk away from negotiations was totally neutralised, and negotiators in Brussels took advantage.

In stark contrast, the current government is far more secure. Remoaner forces have been defeated and discredited. Brexiteers, as well as those Remain voters who accepted Brexit, are in the political ascendancy. Just look at the cabinet: all four great offices of state are now held by Leavers.

There remain reasons to be vigilant, however. Though the government has floated the possibility of trading on WTO terms, this could easily be read as playing to the gallery. The government’s official guidelines, in fact, say that the basis of trade in that scenario would be the 2019 Withdrawal Agreement. This is the same treaty which, to take one example, blocks the UK from intervening in its own economy with state-aid measures. And though it is reassuring that the government says this looser trade relationship could resemble that between Australia and the EU, the overall position is somewhat vague. There is enough wriggle room for the government to justify a number of concessions as consistent with its stated aims.

Overall, the government’s tough talk is to be welcomed. Sovereignty must not be sold off in return for frictionless trade. This must be an essential red line in the negotiations. Reclaiming sovereignty was one of the fundamental motivations of the Brexit vote. If the government were to allow British policies to be decided in Brussels even after leaving the EU, the whole Brexit project would be fundamentally undermined.

This is why it is so important to hear Boris Johnson saying he will now seek to amend some of the Political Declaration, which the government signed up to in December 2019 alongside the Withdrawal Agreement. Johnson says he wants to remove any clauses which compromise British sovereignty.

There is no reason not to pursue a full Brexit. But we must ensure that the government stays true to its word.

Paddy Hannam is a writer. Follow him on Twitter: @paddyhannam

Picture by: Getty.

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4th March 2020 at 11:54 am

The trouble is the number of firms and services that you might have assumed were ‘British’-as they retain their original name which have been sold (and re-sold) off to other countries. There is little of Britain left to be sovereign about. I think the Germans and French are much more protectionist -especially of their core industries. What actually do we have left to trade with and as Europe bought very little British produce anyway its us (the consumers) who should try to seek out the best of our own produce which would give us financial leverage against countries such as Spain who rely on selling us fresh produce and holidays etc for their economies. At the moment it looks like Boris has been chosen as PM only because he is a good actor or better than Mrs May anyway.


4th March 2020 at 8:52 am

Britain’s difficulties with the EU originate with the Common Fisheries Policy. It was introduced by the six because they saw the chance to grab the fishing grounds of the accession states (including Greenland’s, then under Danish sovereignty). The wretched man Heath would have happily signed any transfer of sovereign rights to get us in. I’ve been told by somebody who ought to know that when it was pointed out to him that membership of the Common Market would devastate Britain’s fishing communities he airily replied ‘well, they don’t matter’, or words to that effect. The Norwegians had more sense. Whenever their circumstances are ridiculed as taking their regulations by fax from Brussels it should be remembered that what they choked on was the CFP, and they refused to sell out their fishing communities.

I like to believe that Boris Johnson and those about him know that the vote was about sovereignty and self-government. May certainly didn’t. She repeatedly said that it was about immigration and did all she could to keep us in. Any failure to recognise that will give the Remoaners an excuse to maintain their miserable bleating.

Ven Oods

4th March 2020 at 3:17 pm

Grocer Heath (as he was styled by Private Eye) was a full-on Europhile and would have sacrificed anything (except his yacht) to be part of the creeping malaise that became the EU.

John Lewis

4th March 2020 at 7:51 am

“All four great offices of state are now held by leavers”.

And the establishment is moving heaven and earth in an attempt to topple one of them.

Jerry Owen

4th March 2020 at 8:18 am

If Patel falls the civil service knows it can remain intact as it is. Boris needs to understand just how important it is Patel remains where she is.

Geoff Cox

4th March 2020 at 3:48 pm

Totally agree, Jerry.

Geoff Wilson

4th March 2020 at 8:25 pm

Absolutely true. Priti Patel must be supported come hell or high water.

Philip Humphrey

4th March 2020 at 7:11 am

I agree, there is a danger of last minute concessions and the prime minister will be under huge pressure to make them. But he should remember that what he is asking for, more or less the same arrangement the EU has with Canada, is entirely reasonable and there are no rational grounds for the EU to reject it. Moreover, the damage to his and his party’s political reputation by granting concessions would be immense and would dog him for the rest of his term. It would almost certainly involve selling out somebody, either the British fishermen or the British voters. If the EU will not be reasonable, then the only recourse is WTO terms.

Vadar’s Hate Child

4th March 2020 at 8:54 am

Sadly, fishermen are only a small number of voters. I can see them being sacrificed for the greater good. To be honest, I would be tempted too if I felt a negotiated deal was better than no deal, which at the very least is high risk.

Jerry Owen

4th March 2020 at 9:27 am

With fishermen come other jobs. Money into these areas from fishing means money being spent locally, it all has a drip drip effect.

Andrew Mawdsley

4th March 2020 at 11:15 am

Sorry VHC, but I dont see how “no deal” can be categorised as high risk. It is the essence of Brexit itself. At no point was the prospect of a deal a pertinent issue for most leave voters during the referendum. Losing sovereignty and sacrificing yet more of our industry to the EU for the sake of a deal would present a much more significant risk and undermine the spirit of Brexit itself.

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