Comment

Brexit Bulletin: Deep divides and similarities

The UK is performing a pantomime, and on the other side of the stage the EU is performing a ballet – but this leaves the audience confused. Clare Moody, Grayling Brussels Political Director and former MEP, analysis the latest Brexit discussions.

“Creeps in this petty pace” – Act 5 Scene 5, MacBeth (Shakespeare)

Another scene in the Second Act of the ongoing Brexit performance was rolled out last week, with each side playing what have become their familiar roles, and the rest of us left to wonder how this might have moved the plot forward – there seems to be little hope of character development at this stage.

The different parts have been fixed for some time. The EU continues to demonstrate its exasperation with the UK for not having done its homework. As Michel Barnier put it, and has put similar concerns previously, “I regret that the United Kingdom refused to engage seriously” and he is “disappointed” and “worried”. Some of the phrases have changed, so concerns about cherry picking in Act One are now covered by the less metaphorical expression of “parallelism” – the need to make progress on all issues in parallel – but the frustration remains.

The four key areas for the EU were clearly laid out again:

  • the level playing field (LPF) provisions
  • governance and a single framework agreement – referencing the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and European Court of Justice (ECJ) involvement when it comes to EU law, in particular data exchanges of personal information
  • police and judicial cooperation – although this is a mutual goal for both sides, the emphasis on the inclusion of the ECHR and ECJ are of considerable significance on this point, with Barnier highlighting the divide saying “the UK refuses to give guarantees – rather than vague principles – on fundamental rights and individual freedoms.”
  • And finally – fisheries, of small economic significance on both sides of the Channel but of outsize political significance for both.

The UK played its part by exiting the stage silently. It has been a facet of UK behaviour through both Acts so far not to commit to a detailed position publicly. It has given the EU draft texts on a trade agreement and some of the other proposed separate agreements (not fisheries), but it has demanded (and received) a commitment that these texts will not be shared with EU Member States or the European Parliament. It has to be assumed that the intention is to avoid domestic scrutiny of the consequences of their actual proposals, rather than their rhetoric – anything shared beyond Barnier and his team will inevitably become public knowledge and therefore reported in the UK.

Deep divides and similarities
Although the divides are deep, there are similarities between both sides. The EU is reaching beyond any previous demands in a trade deal in the LPF provisions, for example on state aid, as well as the direct effect of the ECJ in the governance provisions. Although Barnier cited the Political Declaration as his justification for the LPF provisions, that text was by no means as explicit or detailed as the EU’s current proposals. The UK is also reaching beyond its insistence of precedence from previous agreements with the extent of tariff and quota free trade it is requesting and in the other areas where it wants an agreement.

The reason both want to go beyond precedence is due to the mutual ties that go deeper than their existing agreements with the rest of the world, as a consequence of the inescapable geography, centuries of entwined history, and over 40 years of the UK’s membership of the EU. Compromises will have to be made by both sides, but it is far too early in the process for these to become transparent.

Northern Ireland – still an issue…
This week we will see the first meeting of the specialised committee on the implementation of the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol. The inevitable border checks between Northern Ireland and Britain are publicly tangible consequences of a political choice made in Westminster to deliver Brexit. What is very telling about this situation is that the UK government does not want to own it.

A possible illumination into this mindset is in the reaction to the news coverage of the UK not taking part in the EU Covid-19 Procurement programme. As the story unfolded there were various explanations of why the UK hadn’t taken part, but whether one thinks it was cock-up or conspiracy, one thing was striking – the most consistent and vehement rebuttal was given to the suggestion that there had been a political decision not to take part. This is a government that appears to have an aversion to being up front about owning specific political choices that may have a downside.

Ballet or Pantomime?
The difficulty we have as the recipients of the end result of the Brexit drama is that the two sides are giving entirely different performances. Rather than seeing this as one play, it could be better imagined as a stage split in two, with the EU performing a ballet on its side and the UK putting on a pantomime on the other. Both art forms can trace their history to Renaissance Italy, but one celebrates its beauty through formal rules and set positions, while the other rejoices in its exuberance and familiar lines. Audiences love them for different reasons and expect different things from the performers.

The problem for the rest of us is that it is very difficult to combine the two styles and content in a way that produces an effective and appealing piece of work. Sooner or later, preferably before the end of June, the directors are going to have to come together to create something new that the rest of us can live with and maybe learn to appreciate.

 

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