51. The Clock Is No Longer Ticking

Peter Burke
Chair
Oxford For Europe

25 December 2020

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After he finished in Cornwall, the Prime Minister came campaigning in Chesham and Amersham. Perhaps he might as well have stayed home


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At the end of a successful negotiations journey I normally feel joy, but today I only feel quiet satisfaction and frankly speaking relief.

Ursula von der Leyen

The clock is no longer ticking

Michel Barnier

Barnier and Von Der Leyen at their press conference

So, the deal is done. A last minute Christmas present to an eagerly waiting nation. At the risk of sounding like the Christmas Grinch, the best I can offer is modified rapture.

Tidings of comfort and joy?

Of course we in Oxford for Europe, like all of us in the pro European camp, are entitled to share in Ursula von der Leyen’s relief. It feels as if it has been a long time in the making, with the repeated permeable deadlines and the tentative ‘will they / won’t they?’ resumption of often tetchy negotiations. In truth, of course, 11 months is no time at all to negotiate a comprehensive trade deal. After all, with Canada, it has taken about 8 years and counting. The argument that we were starting from a position of congruence does not hold any water. These negotiations were about trying to achieve divergence with minimal damage, always a tall order and becoming taller.

So has Boris Johnson managed to “get Brexit done ”? Obviously the devil will be in the detail. We should of course welcome the fact that there will be tariff free trade in goods, and perhaps sympathise with Scottish seed potato farm farmers whose produce for some reason stands out by being excluded. It will be good news for BMW, in the sense that for now they can feel there is a future, even if their just in time philosophy will need some rethinking. We can be glad that perhaps a solution has been found to the problem of rules of origin. It is to be welcomed that UK hauliers will not, after all, require special permits which are in short supply. And there will be continued if modified participation in Horizon Europe, Copernicus and Euratom. Perhaps the most important, if less tangible, benefit is that both sides remain on speaking terms, the atmosphere between them is still vaguely amicable, and negotiations can continue.

The City of London is reliant on trade with the EU in services. Will the lights stay on?

And make no mistake, negotiations do need to continue. 80% of the UK’s trade is in services, not goods , and that is something which is sadly lacking from the deal. The Prime Minister has been unable to reassure us that security cooperation will be as good after as before January 1st. Manifestly it will not. It was always clear that the UK would leave Europol, and, despite the best intentions, access to European databases such as SIS II (Schengen Information System) will be clunky at best. Freedom of movement is gone, to the disadvantage of both sides. And many many day to day implications remain unresolved.

Touring with Turing?

The Erasmus programme is one of the casualties of the deal, and this is something which will be deeply missed by as many as 15,000 UK students per year. Johnson assures us that something called the Turing scheme will take its place and allow UK students to travel around the world. Perhaps, let’s suspend judgement on that. I wonder what Alan Turing would have thought? At any event, not being reciprocal, this change will be a big blow for UK universities such as ours, for whom Erasmus students from Europe have been a part of the landscape for years.

The loss of mutual recognition for professional qualifications for doctors, nurses, architects, dentists, pharmacists, vets, engineers will be hard.  It could cause enormous problems of recruitment to the NHS.

And non tariff barriers will still exist. The Prime Minister in his press conference barefacedly denied this, and when he tries to mislead on something as obvious as that, it is difficult to know how much else of what he tells us we should believe.

BINO?

This is a thin deal. Inevitably, we think as much about what is missing as what is in it. It really does not bear comparison with what we had before. As Michael Heseltine put it, the relief we feel is that of a condemned man who has had his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment. But relief it is nonetheless.

The deal has already been welcomed by the Bones, Bridgens and Bakers of this world. Even Farage has not been thrown into apoplexy by it. Should that worry us? Perhaps they had been squared in advance. Very possibly, when they get into the substance of what has been agreed, they will do the expected and talk about a BINO, Brexit In Name Only. After all, the type of have-your-cake-and-eat-it Brexit they hanker after was never going to be on the agenda. The Prime Minister has tried to sell it as such. But then again a year ago he said the same about the withdrawal agreement, and that looks a lot less shiny now.

Is he celebrating for the country or for himself?

Does this deal justify the refusal to seek an extension? Certainly the fact that it took until the last minute highlights just how tight the time scale was. But of course the consequence of all this is that there is no time for the UK Parliament, the EU Heads of Government, or the European Parliament to reflect on it. That may of course have been the intention but it is a travesty of democracy. Nor is there time for implementation, either by government or business. It is not good enough simply to blame businesses for not being ready – until now they did not know what they had to get ready for, and even now there is a lack of clarity about the details.

Labour Pains

And as for Labour? It should not be so, but Brexit has turned into as painful and divisive an issue as it is for the Tories. Keir Starmer has followed a possibly enlightened policy of letting the Tories dig their own hole. In line with this, abstaining would seem to make sense, the deal will pass even without Labour support. Many party members will feel queasy at the decision to vote for the deal, as that leaves Labout at least looking complicit, and they will find it hard to challenge aspects of the deal when they need to. Ho hum, I suppose nobody wants to be dragged into Parliament on 30th December, when they should be with their families, just to sit on their hands.

#baddeal4britain

So our ‘No to no deal’ campaign is history. Where to now?

So many promises have been made around the deal. So many have already been broken, now that we know what it looks like. So many more can still fall victim to the creative ambiguity which is baked in. The first thing we can do is to use social media to hold our elected representatives to account, with the hashtag #baddeal4britain.

Seasonal Goodwill

So much more one could say. But no doubt, like me, you want to get on and enjoy Christmas.

Given that the Christmas plans of so many families have had to be shelved, it is sadly with more feeling than ever that we wish each other Merry Christmas, and as much in hope as in expectation that we wish for a Happy New Year. However, hope springs eternal and, in the spirit of the season, I would like to wish you both.  HAPPY CHRISTMAS

Manston Airfield in Kent this week. This after 48 hours. Is there even room for more trucks? Spare a thought for the drivers. A sad foretaste of what is to come after 1 January

In short, our Prime Minister has just told us he is walking away from negotiations which might have mitigated the disaster of Brexit, he is by common consent throwing British industry and agriculture under the bus, all for the dream of creating a “global Britain” which is based nothing but fantasy. We must speak out and do all we can to make sure this never happens.  

The views stated here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Oxford For Europe

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