‘The EU can’t handle British independence’
Brussels correspondent Bruno Waterfield explains what’s really behind the bust-ups in the Brexit trade talks.
Boris Johnson has threatened to walk away from trade talks with the EU if a deal isn’t in place by 15 October. The government has also announced plans to override aspects of the Withdrawal Agreement, which it ratified back in January. Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis caused outrage when he said in the House of Commons that the government’s Internal Market Bill would break international law in a ‘very specific and limited way’. In an extraordinary meeting with the UK, the EU has called for aspects of the Internal Market Bill to be scrapped by the end of the month. spiked caught up with Bruno Waterfield, Brussels correspondent for The Times, to find out what this all means for the Brexit negotiations. (An audio version of this interview was recorded for the spiked podcast. Listen to the full episode here.)
spiked: What is the row over the Internal Market Bill about and what does it mean for the negotiations?
Bruno Waterfield: The Internal Market Bill clears up the ambiguity and the contradictions of the deliberate smoke-and-mirrors inherent in the Northern Ireland Protocol, which is the most politically charged bit of the Withdrawal Agreement. Everyone would admit there is a problem with the Northern Ireland Protocol because it simultaneously says that there will be ‘unfettered access’ between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain after the end of the Brexit transition period, while it also says that the European Union’s Customs Code will have direct effect in the territory of Northern Ireland. Logically, given it won’t have the same effect in the rest of Britain, that means fetters to access in one place and not in another. That part of the protocol is in direct contradiction with itself.
There is also the aspect which states that EU state-aid rules – rules about subsidies and competition – will apply in the territory of Northern Ireland. It says that the British government should notify (that is, ask permission from) the European Commission if it wants to subsidise any businesses, if doing so will affect trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the island of Ireland. The government fears this would tie its hands when it comes to the revolutionising of British subsidy policy it hopes to conduct.
Time is running out. Britain doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere. Given that the nature of the talks at the moment is rather confrontational, there is a rationale for the government introducing the Internal Market Bill. If the negotiations don’t result in agreement, there is a very real possibility of there being a big territorial problem between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain. The government has a responsibility to act to avoid that scenario.
The Internal Market Bill doesn’t say that the secretary of state will do things to override the Withdrawal Agreement — it says he may, in the event that it is needed. The government would argue it’s doing its job, which is to look after the territorial integrity of the country.
spiked: This has been presented as a blow to the rule of law. People have likened it to China breaking its international commitments over Hong Kong. Some say Britain is behaving like a rogue state. Is that level of outrage justified?
Waterfield: No. The European Union is founded on an idea which its supporters have as their most venerated principle: that international treaties are the highest form of law. Now, you could point out that the EU spends half its time tearing itself apart because one part of the EU isn’t obeying rules on the Eurozone and the other half wants those rules strictly enforced. The EU itself is always being accused of violating refugee conventions, for instance. The EU still refuses to allow imports of hormone beef, even though the WTO has said that is effectively illegal in trade terms. Therefore, there is this group of people, particularly those who used to be known as Remainers, who, while they see international treaties as the highest form of law, in fact, support an organisation – the EU – that is prepared to depart from international law when it suits its interests.
Most people would not buy the idea that a government should put a deal it has done with foreign powers before the interests of its own people. The idea of international treaties being sacred is a piety and a lot of the faux outrage after the government’s announcement is just more of the kind of pearl-clutching we have been seeing over the past few years.
spiked: Why is state aid such a sticking point in the trade talks for the EU?
Waterfield: Britain is very close to the EU geographically, and is a big economy – the UK is bigger than the combined weight of 18 of the EU’s 27 countries. Having a powerful country that has announced it wants to make a radical departure does rattle the EU. It’s worried about having to compete with Britain, which would be much more nimble-footed because it would be able to make decisions quickly without notifying Brussels. Again, it’s often dressed in a load of fretting that Britain would ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of tearing up labour standards or environmental standards, but it really is motivated by the fact that the EU doesn’t like the idea of having to engage in competition with a country right on its doorstep. That is clear.
spiked: Was this confrontation inevitable, given the questions that were left unanswered by the Withdrawal Agreement?
Waterfield: I think the contradictions in the Northern Ireland Protocol reflect the fact that it was an unfinished argument. The issues being brought up now were the last things the EU and the UK were talking about when Boris Johnson gave the green light to do the deal. That fight had been rumbling away behind the closed doors of the Joint Committee in the bureaucratic process for quite some time, and it was always going to come out into the open.
It also reflects the fact that Brexit is very indigestible for the British state apparatus, which is evident from the resignations of all these permanent secretaries that we have seen of late. And the EU is finding it very hard to negotiate with a neighbour that is a player, a big economy, a big country with a lot of history behind it and a high standing in the world. David Frost, the prime minister’s chief negotiator, is right when he says that the EU just can’t handle the fact that Britain is now an independent and sovereign country that isn’t part of its order. That is a big part of why the negotiations aren’t working.
spiked: How plausible is it that a No Deal exit will happen?
Waterfield: At the moment, there’s a big element of bluff from the government. But I don’t think the government can cope with the ambiguities in the Northern Ireland Protocol. That’s particularly true if the trade negotiations do fail, and there is a possibility of them failing even though the government wants a deal. It wouldn’t just be No Deal in terms of there not being a free-trade agreement – it would also be something much more poisonous, because Britain would be reinterpreting the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement in the light of those circumstances, against the wishes of the EU. That could really poison relationships for some years to come.
There will probably be a deal but it’s very, very volatile at the moment. The fact the government doesn’t really seem to be in control, and that the Internal Market Bill came out through briefings to the Financial Times by senior civil servants who are unhappy, and that it led to the resignation of a very well-respected permanent secretary, all shows the febrile element which is still very, very strong in British politics. While the government has a strong democratic mandate, the government itself, in the person of Boris Johnson, is surprisingly frail. And I think people pick up on that.
Bruno Waterfield was speaking to Fraser Myers, Tom Slater and Ella Whelan for the latest episode of the spiked podcast. Listen to the full episode here:
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