• The Dogs of War

    For the Polly Toynbees of this world, the battle continues, though quite what victory might look like for them is not clear. We can only assume that, having done all they could, as the exit process took place, to predict Brexit doom, they are now pulling out the stops to try to ensure that their predictions are validated and justified.

    Now that the UK is no longer a member of the EU, they have changed their focus. They now profess to see a myriad of obstacles standing in the way of a sensible and mutually beneficial trading arrangement between the EU and a newly independent UK. So, both British remainers and EU leaders to some extent, prepare to “cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war”.

    What they do not seem to have grasped is that the bargaining position of the parties has changed fundamentally in light of the British departure. The UK and the EU are both now sovereign entities; whatever the obligations that might have been owed by one to another in an earlier relationship are now consigned to history.

    The UK is fully able and entitled to approach negotiations on a new trade deal, unencumbered by any concern for customs unions and single markets or any other EU preoccupation. And the EU, as would be the case in a negotiation with any other sovereign country, has no power to insist that acceptance of the rules enjoined by either or both a single market and a customs union, is the pre-condition of a trade agreement.

    The extent to which such preoccupations are implicit in the EU negotiating position is a matter for the parties to decide once the negotiations are under way, but they cannot be treated ab initio as an immutable feature of the negotiating landscape, as some seem to favour. The UK is no longer subject to the obligations of EU membership – that was the whole point of Brexit.

    It would be a major departure from normal practice if a trading partner were required by the EU, as part of the deal, to comply with EU domestic laws – not only existing laws but laws made in the future as well – that would dictate to that trading partner what it could or could not do in matters of its own domestic economic and industrial policy.

    If any such an ambition lurks in the EU negotiating position, then the EU should get over themselves. They no longer hold the trump cards; the UK is no longer subject to their jurisdiction. The EU have no choice but to enter the negotiations as anyone else would do – seeking the best possible and most beneficial trade outcomes for themselves, and using such cards as they hold in order to secure that outcome.

    They are, in other words, in no different a situation from that of the UK. Like the EU, the British have no power to lay down compliance with their domestic laws as the pre-condition of a trade deal. The extent to which the British might comply with any specific EU preferences is a matter for negotiations yet to be held.

    There is one other sense in which the situation has changed fundamentally. The British are no longer demandeurs or supplicants. They enter the negotiations like any other negotiator, and like the EU, eager to protect and further their own interests and to arrive at a deal that suits all parties.

    There seems to be no reason why negotiations entered into on this basis should not produce an outcome that is acceptable to everyone.

    Bryan Gould
    4 February 2020

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