by Geraint Talfan Davies, Chair of Wales For Europe
It was only ever a case of when not if. In the event, it took barely 48 hours to prove that any rejoicing at the conclusion of the Chequers meeting would be premature. That this agreement would be friendless was surely evident to the world from the moment it was announced.
It was an acknowledgment of where our economic interests lie – in Europe – but a failure to face up to the political consequences of that ineradicable fact.
This should not surprise us. After all, this was not an agreement between the UK and the EU, but merely between different factions of the Conservative Party, neither of whom were willing to hail it as a means of salvation for the nation – a fact that will not have escaped Michel Barnier and the team of EU negotiators.
The only thing in doubt was who would jump first. In the event David Davis, a former SAS soldier used to jumping out of planes rather more robust than Mrs. May’s rickety bi-plane, was first to the ripcord. Boris Johnson, missed his moment, confirming his preference for sniggering rather than action.
Mr. Davis was right not to be convinced, even if for the wrong reasons. He has recognised that the Chequers deal was a form of words designed to reconcile the irreconcilable. Goodness knows how it will fare when the real negotiating starts. Reality seems not to matter since the whole argument in the Conservative Party has always had a theological air.
The hard Brexiter monastic order, for whom Jacob Rees-Mogg has been the high priest, believes in justification by faith rather than by works, and that the declaration nailed to the door of Chequers by Mrs. May is heresy, and directly contrary to an alternative heavenly vision that they believe in but have not had the time or the application to work out in detail.
They believe that if only the nation would whip itself with sufficient vigour while wandering the world seeking alms, salvation will be sure. For rather obvious reasons this is not a creed that many sensible folks are prepared to follow.
The soft Brexiter order, on the other hand, has a rather flexible theology – the church is rather more important than the belief – and are willing to put aside their personal belief in a non-Brexit church in order to prevent their hard Brexit brethren from walking out, thus allowing those nasty puritans to take over. None of this makes for a stable church, while the congregation thinks it gives religion a bad name.
How can Mr Davis be both right and wrong? It becomes clear if you approach this scenario in a very different direction. Imagine if there had been a totally different conversation at Chequers, that we had never been a member of the EU, and that we were simply a third party state relying on the World Trade Organisation’s arrangements.
In this scenario we would, as we are today, be scratching our heads over a number of knotty problems: our rather problematic economic performance, our low productivity, our persistent balance of payments deficits on goods, our over-reliance on services, the overweening power of multinational companies, our lack of leverage in trade discussions with the US and China, and the propensity of those two big powers to concern themselves with the much bigger market of the EU that is about ten times our size.
In these circumstances, a more realistic world, we might surely have decided that if we wanted to play at the top level – a British obsession – we would need to be part of a bigger team. The only issue would be, whose team? We would surely be looking around and wondering where we could have the greatest influence.
We would probably have to discount the US as it has always regarded the ‘special relationship’ with Britain as a way of humouring the aging relations, and in any case, is currently going through a rather self-obsessive period. It has a leader who doesn’t seem to be in an accommodating mood, and on whom it would be foolish to rely. If you were looking for marriage guidance, you wouldn’t go first to Jeremy Kyle. So, nul pointes there.
How about China? Well, tricky to say the least. It’s very big, a long way away doesn’t seem hot on transparency and, not content with buying great chunks of our infrastructure, might see a customs partnership with the UK as a way of wiping out what is left of our manufacturing sector. Might be a case of, Buyer beware.
If those two big fellas are a little out of our league, it might be possible to put together an old boys team made up of those chaps that we played with before we left school. They’re still sports mad. It’s true that they now live at the other end of the world – actually, a bit closer to China than to us – and in recent times haven’t been that keen on a reunion. But we could always give them a ring, even if it all looks a bit desperate.
That probably leaves us with, not rugby union, but the European Union. We could always talk to them. They’re the biggest market in the world, on our doorstep and already our biggest customer, for just about everything. Seems the obvious choice, but what sort of deal would we be looking for? There are questions that might have been asked at Chequers by a different team.
How about a deal just based on trade in goods? What, and leave out the 80 percent of our economy based on services? Don’t be daft.
But there’s a problem even with goods. We want to make our own rules, but we’ll have to stick with theirs if we want to sell anything, so we could just pretend to make our own. Or does that sound a bit silly? Won’t we have any say? Well, we will make our views known, but we won’t be in the room when they decide – a bit like with the US and China. There must be a way around that.
Well, I didn’t want to mention it, but some people tell me there is. A lot of people are saying the club of 27 have for years been quite keen for us to be full members, rather than country members. And not just full voting rights, they have even been willing for us to join the club committee, and to have a member on the rules sub-committee. Amazingly, they are even willing to give us a veto in some things.
What? All this influence in the biggest club in the world? Yes, and some business people I know say we can save a huge amount of money by not having to run two customs systems side by side – in fact, there’ll hardly be any. And we can stop worrying about Northern Ireland – well for a bit. Might even be able to spend some money on Wales instead.
What’s not to like? Well, they’re not willing to let us paint all 27 countries pink on their maps. I suppose we could get used to that. And we may have to pay a membership fee. But then, as the Donald keep saying, there is no free lunch.
There may be the beginnings of a sensible conversation here, but in the meantime, the tragic farce of British politics must be given time to play itself out in ways we cannot foretell while a nation despairs.