Michelle Barnier and Sabine Weyand have done an excellent job of outmanoeuvring the British civil service at every turn in the Brexit negotiations. On behalf of the EU, they have conceded virtually nothing, whilst extracting more or less complete surrender from the UK side.
They have confidence on their side, of course. The EU always wins. Whenever any vote goes against them, they simply have it reversed.
It is fair to say that they’ve had the wind behind them, in the sense that the British side has been led by Ollie Robbins, a committed Europhile. The negotiations might have been harder if the rug had not been pulled out from under David Davies and then his successor Dominic Raab. Whenever it looked like either of those Brexit secretaries would put up any opposition to EU demands, number 10 grabbed the reins from their hands in order that Robbins and Weyand could make the agreement they both wanted. Philip II of Spain would have succeeded in his Spanish Armada if the British Navy had been commanded by Guy Fawkes, instead of Drake and Hawkins. Napoleon would have won the battle of Waterloo if the British had been commanded by Hazlitt instead of Wellington. And of course, Hitler would have succeeded in invading Britain if the Prime Minister had been Oswald Mosley instead of Winston Churchill.
However, whilst these are dark days, it is not inevitable that the EU will come out on top. M. Barnier and Dr Weyand may have overlooked the laws of science, history and economics.
Newton’s laws of motion are among the most basic. An object moving in any given direction will continue moving in that direction unless stopped or deflected by an effective force. The object here is article 50 and the Withdrawal Act. They say that unless something else happens, the UK will leave the EU in March next year without any deal. So what might happen to stop or deflect that?
It seems unlikely that the disgraceful deal cooked up by Robbins and Weyand can possibly get through Parliament; the vast majority of MPs are against it. So it is unlikely to get ratified.
Can the whole process be stopped? Well, it is possible that there will have to be a general election, especially if the DUP cut up rough. But what would that change? Whoever won that election, the position would be essentially the same as today.
Might there be another referendum, inviting the electorate to change its mind about Brexit? That is possible, but on current form, it runs counter to everything that has been said in the past. The terms of the last referendum were absolutely clear: the government would accept the result of the referendum whichever way it went. That is a principle that both major political parties have signed up to at the last election.
What about extending the article 50 period? That is possible, but it is difficult to see what it would achieve.
There is probably not a majority of MPs who would vote for a clean break, but so what? Unless there is a majority of MPs in favour of something else, a clean break is what will happen.
The EU, and the Europhiles in the UK, do everything they can to talk up the chaos that they say will ensue if the UK leaves without a deal. They might be hoping that a period of turmoil following March next year will drive the UK back to the negotiating table, submitting to all of the EU’s demands. But history tells us that a bit of chaos is actually rather healthy. My guess is that the British would thrive on a few months of disruption at the ports and so forth; we love nothing more than a bit of Dunkirk spirit.
In business, it is fashionable to claim to be a “disruptor”. The agitation that would be caused by a clean break will be pretty short lived, but probably very healthy for the British economy, not to mention the feelgood factor that will come with standing up to the EU attempts to subjugate the nation.
Then there is the little matter of £39 billion. No doubt Barnier and Weyand patted themselves on the back when they got this figure agreed. But it has been made clear that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and the British government has made it pretty clear that in the absence of the deal, the £39 billion is not going to get paid. The government has received clear legal advice that it has no legal liability to pay this money to the EU, and £39 billion will go a very long way, thank you very much, towards dealing with the temporary inconvenience of a clean break.
But here’s the thing: it rather seems that the EU needs this money. Without it, it cannot pay its bills.
Champagne in Brussels?
So it might be a bit too soon for the EU to break open the champagne. By sending David Cameron away with a flea in his ear in 2016, and by refusing to give ground in these negotiations, it may well be that Barnier and Weyand have overplayed their hand. There will be some unhappy people on the continent of Europe if the consequence is a disruption of the sale of European goods into the UK and a massive hole in their finances.
What happens next?
We are in uncharted water, but let’s take a stab as to how things might play out from here.
Let’s take for granted that the deal will be thrown out by Parliament. The whole strategy of the May government will have failed, and it is difficult to see that Theresa May can remain Prime Minister. The initiative will lie with the Conservative party. The Conservative party is split between Brexiteers and Remainers, but they will probably be more or less united in agreeing that the experiment of putting Remainers in power to execute a Brexit strategy has been a disaster. Further, if they put another Remainer in to replace Theresa May, they will not have the support – even the grudging support – of the DUP, which they need. And so, pragmatists as they are, they will probably replace her with a Brexiteer. And that will probably mean a substantially Brexiteers cabinet. This will probably happen quite quickly.
What will the new Brexiteers cabinet say to the EU? It will probably not make any attempt – or any very determined attempt – to get the EU to change its whole negotiating stance. That would be hopeless. Instead, they will probably say to the EU:
“Okay, we are leaving without a deal. It’s a clean break. We are not going to give you £39 billion. We are not going to let your fishermen fish in our seas. We are not going to put a hard border up, either in the Irish Sea or between Northern Ireland and Ireland. We are going to do all the trade deals we want with the rest of the world. We have no present intention of throwing resident EU nationals out of the UK, but we might change our minds about that depending on how you treat UK citizens living in the EU.”
What about the 500 odd pages of detail which is apparently in the draft deal? Well, I haven’t read it, but there might well be numerous very sensible arrangements in there about all sorts of detailed interactions, and it might well be that those arrangements will be very largely put in place on an ad hoc basis. No grand plan.
And in the long term? Eventually, the EU will probably collapse for the reasons identified by Joseph Tainter. But that will probably take quite a long time. In the meantime, the EU countries will continue to diminish as a percentage of the world economy. Trade will of course continue between the UK and the EU, but the EU will continue to decline in terms of its share of the U.K.’s imports and exports alike. Freed of both the financial and regulatory burdens of the EU, the U.K.’s economy will continue to thrive.
There may well be a shift from the domination of very large corporations in favour of smaller, more agile innovators. As Daniel Hannan has pointed out, the reason big business likes the EU is that the burdens of excessive regulation fall most heavily on young start-ups: the very large corporations simply pass on the cost of that regulation to the consumer, and as long as there is no competition free from that burden, that is just fine.
And what will become of all of the Europhiles in the UK? Well, they will whinge and moan for decades to come. Eventually, like the Jacobites, they will subside into irrelevance.