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Brinkmanship or obstinacy? It will end in tears

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Geraint Talfan Davies

In the last few years this country had had more than its share of fateful moments – to the extent that the country now scarcely notices them, other than when personal tragedy strikes. 

Add to the Brexit ennui the further debilitation deriving from nine months of living with the Coronavirus pandemic and you have a country that is emotionally exhausted. Yet, in this wearied condition and with the Covid battle far from over, the denouement of the Brexit melodrama in the coming week or two is scheduled to hit us when we are down. 

We know that the only choice of Brexits on offer is that between the thinnest of deals and no deal at all – between the bad and the worst. Those clutching at straws are hoping that it is the former, cleaving to the following logic: 

Boris Johnson, not being entirely stupid, has clocked that the election of Joe Biden means the US no longer offers the UK any prospect of a safety net. (We can pass lightly over the fact that it never did.) 

No matter. Unlike Trump, Biden cares about Europe. Unlike Trump, Biden cares about Ireland and the Good Friday agreement.  Realising this, Johnson ruffles his mane frantically as it occurs to him that exiting the EU without a deal would be like jumping out of the plane without a parachute while having to burble an explanation to the British public on the way down.  

Even worse, leaving with no deal would force him to bring into play controversial clauses of the Internal Market Bill that the world and his wife – a huge majority of the House of Lords, including several Brexiter Tory peers,  not to mention President-elect Biden and the Democratic party leadership – believe would be both a betrayal of Ireland and a deep wound to Britain’s international reputation as a custodian of the rule of law.  

Besides, if Mr. Johnson wants to preside over a diplomatic triumph at the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow in a year’s time, he will need a President Biden very much onside. 

All that being the case – and not fancying a suicide mission – Johnson finally sees that he needs a deal with the EU, whatever its limitations. So, with a degree of ruthlessness, he defenestrates two aides – Cummings and Cain – who might resist this train of thought and, worse, might even leak damaging stories to a willing Euro-sceptic press happy to climb onto its ever-ready and very high horse.  

Those spinning for the Prime Minister are claiming this is nonsense: that, on the contrary, the Prime Minister is more resolute than anyone in refusing to compromise. Of course. But Boris Johnson’s expressed confidence that the UK will ‘prosper’ outside the EU even if there is no deal, is either taken from a Ladybird picture book on negotiation or simply Trumpian in its disregard for the truth. 

You may regard my description of this last stand scenario as distortion by over-simplification, but by the end of the month we will know whether or not its logic has been born out by events. I agree that it is the product of an incorrigibly optimistic mind, but, sadly, it is the best we can hope for. 

The even starker alternative does not bear thinking about: 

  • Reliance on WTO terms for our trade with the EU, the erection of tariffs, and acrimony and recrimination with our erstwhile European partners. 
  • UK businesses large and small, makers of cars and aircraft, farmers, service industries, universities, left to pick up the pieces or to pack up. 
  • The EU getting on with its own packed agenda of other problems, including the consequences of Brexit for its own industries and their supply chains. 
  • A US President, already cool towards his once natural British ally, apoplectic about the massive economic damage being done to Ireland, the home of his forebears. 
  • A supposedly gregarious Prime Minister cast as ‘Boris, no friends’ – with the country he leads picking up the bill for years to come, and the phrase ‘Global Britain’ provoking sniggers in the Council chambers of the world.  

Occasionally, my dark side wants just such an outcome in order to hammer home a lesson once and for all. But that vicarious temptation has to be resisted, for it is simply too damaging an outcome for too many people, not least here in Wales. Even our own UK government estimates that ‘no deal’ will reduce GDP by 8% over the next 15 years. “Ruinous’ was the word used by one Irish minister on Sunday.  

The advice issued in a TV interview by England’s Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, George Eustice, that our sheep farmers should switch to dairy cattle, will, to Welsh farmers, sound much like Marie Antoinette’s injunction to the breadless Parisian hordes, “Let them eat cake’. 

Should a ‘no deal’ outcome be our fate – despite it being the clearest possible betrayal of the promises made by Leave campaign during the 2016 referendum – we will no doubt see the more xenophobic parts of our press indulge in an unseemly and fruitless blame game, in which the EU will be the alleged culprit.

Ultimately, as the costs mount for us all, that will not wash with the British public. Those costs will mount quickest in the very ‘red wall’ seats in the north of England and north Wales that the Conservative Party is banking on holding in the next general election.  

In short, however thin it is – and it will be so thin as not to be durable – a deal is preferable to ‘no deal’. It will reduce our GDP by 5% rather than 8%, but it will at least require a formal relationship with the EU. 

It will keep the UK and EU – governments and business – talking to each other in continuous dialogue. It will keep open the possibility of improvements – adjustments that will reflect inevitably changing realities and the accumulating power of common sense.  The one thing it will not be is painless. 

Geraint Talfan Davies is a former Chair of Wales for Europe.