‘We are going to open a new chapter in our national story,’ declared Boris Johnson on 30th December as MPs approved his EU trade deal. For once Mr Johnson spoke the truth, but the new chapter is far from something to celebrate. Officially the Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the EU is unique in erecting rather than eliminating barriers to trade. As Mr Johnson spoke some £6bn of EU share dealing shifted from the City to European capitals and in the days since traders have been confronted with the realities of Brexit; a tsunami of customs declarations, health checks and other non-tariff barriers to trade.
Historians will pour over the government’s many negotiating failures since the Referendum but even at this early stage it is clear that in prioritising sovereignty, Mr Johnson irresponsibly chose to pursue a ‘levelling down’ Brexit: one that will ensure lower living standards and less security than might otherwise have been. The deal will translate into greater hardship for the disadvantaged, reduced personal freedoms and fewer opportunities, particularly for the young. For those not blinded by Johnson’s superficial slogans, Brexit is far from done. Many areas of unsettled business and therefore uncertainty remain. Britain is entering an unrelenting period of negotiations with the EU, supervised by a ‘partnership council’ involving numerous specialised committees, the oversight of which will involve a lesser role for the UK parliament than was the case with EU legislation. Yet to be resolved are agreements on vitally important data flows with respect to law enforcement, police cooperation, and personal details. At some stage a framework will need to be agreed to coordinate UK-EU responses to foreign policy and security challenges. Mr Johnson may relish taking Britain out of Euratom, Europol and Eurojust as well as the EU Emissions Trading Scheme but future, more responsible governments will negotiate closer relationships with these institutions.
True to form, Mr Johnson’s claims that in leaving the EU, the UK would consign vast amounts of bureaucracy and regulations to history is revealed as risible. The fear and fury of exporters now grappling with the mind-boggling complexity of copious amounts paperwork for cross-Channel and Irish Sea operations is palpable. Warnings by the food and drink industry as well as haulage and logistics operators that non-tariff barriers would create immense costs and frictions were dismissed as ‘bumps-in-the-road.’ Johnson’s single-minded focus on sovereignty involved ordering government departments to radically reduce their demands for the negotiations, as asking for anything ambitious would broaden the UK’s future regulatory alignment with the EU.
From the start the government was content to settle for the thinnest of trade deals. One of the biggest causalities is the City of London which employs more than one million people and accounts for about 7 per cent of GDP. The lack of effort to maintain the City’s preferential access to the single market stands in sharp contrast with the sovereignty laden focus on fishing rights – an industry that accounts for less than 0.1 per cent of GDP. But fishermen from Brixham to Fraseburgh – like many small businesses around the country – now sadly realise, as they contemplate the collapse of fish exports to the EU and in five years the recommencement of annual negotiations on quotas, that in voting for Brexit they were grievously deceived.
Given Johnson’s failings it comes as no surprise to learn that he has no idea what to do with the sovereignty garnered at such cost. On 6th January via Zoom he asked 250 business leaders to suggest ways in which the ‘newfound freedoms’ might be exploited. Meanwhile he asked Rishi Sunak to lead a ‘better regulation committee’ to come up with ideas. One hopes they amount to more than ‘freeports’ – a policy we could have pursued as a member of the EU and which the evidence suggests simply shifts economic activity from outside to inside the ‘ports.’ Mr Johnson’s is not alone. The ultra-zealot, Mark Francois, said the government should undertake a thorough analysis to identify areas where the UK might diverge from EU regulation. Contrary to repeated promises, it appears that the government is considering scrapping many of the protections for employees enshrined in EU law. Apart from outraging trade union leaders – not to mentions low paid workers in the Red Wall already suffering the economic consequences of Covid – reducing employees’ protections raises the prospect of EU retaliation under the terms of TCA.
Mr Johnson’s casual regard for the truth was embedded in his shameless claim that the deal he negotiated is ‘cakeist’ i.e. having one’s cake and eating it. By any objective measure it is neither an economic nor a diplomatic success. It is becoming clear by the day that Brexit is one of the greatest-ever deceits inflicted on the British electorate. The fishing and farming industries are under serious threat, many small businesses – Covid aside – face a very uncertain future and business investment has deteriorated markedly. But membership of the EU was always much more than its economic benefits; not least the single market – a frictionless market with unfettered access to the purchasing power of 450 million of the world’s most prosperous people – for which Britain can fairly claim the genesis.
The EU is an idealistic project, bringing former enemies together in ‘closer union’ to avoid conflicts while promoting democracy and human rights. The world is a better place for the values it powerfully espouses on the world stage. Leaving this ‘collaborative force for good’ as the world faces new challenges and sources of instability – climate change, pandemics, terrorism and international crime – is incomprehensible. From now on the UK will have less global influence; the worldwide respect it once enjoyed for its diplomacy and parliamentary democracy has been shattered by the shambles of Brexit. Closer to home, the continued existence of the UK is threatened by the upcoming Scottish elections and the post-Brexit disruption to Northern Ireland trade. Mr Johnson’s ‘new chapter’ will demonstrate the reality of Britain’s much reduced standing in world.