With the formal deadline for agreeing an extension to the UK’s transition period looming, the clamour intensifies by the hour for the Johnson government to back down on its commitment not to remain bound to the EU beyond the end of 2020.
But as Michael Gove has again insisted, slapping down a request from all three First Ministers, the government is not going to budge. Regardless, would a delay make sense?
Certainly, negotiating a complex and comprehensive agreement is a hugely demanding exercise and the lack of progress in the successive rounds of discussions is worrying. Certainly, too, trying to resolve matters in the middle of the worst pandemic for a century is far from ideal and the spectre of ‘no-deal’ is again hovering.
However, there is another way of looking at all this. Ultimately, a resolution of the main sticking points requires political decisions about concessions: the choices they imply will be no different one or two years down the line.
Whether it is fisheries, adherence to single market norms, governance or any of the other blocked dossiers, a settlement can only be reached if the negotiators are prepared to disappoint some interests. It happened with the withdrawal deal when, to put it graphically, the UK side agreed to throw the Northern Ireland Unionists under the bus.
Consider fisheries, assessed in detail in a recent report. At heart, the question could scarcely be simpler: how much fish should EU boats be allowed to catch in UK waters? This, in turn, means agreeing a definition of UK exclusive waters – essentially a line in the North Sea and in other fishing grounds – and a formula for determining quotas within these waters.
The EU side, sensitive to the political clout of the industry, wants to maintain the status quo, meaning French, Spanish, Belgian and other EU boats have access on a par with UK boats. The UK side, also sensitive to the clout of its own fishing constituencies, but with the additional challenge of rewarding Brexit-voting communities, wants to rule these waves.
To put it bluntly, it is either Boulogne-sur-mer, La Coruna and Ostend, or Cornwall, Hull and Peterhead. Or, all of the above have to have their aspirations dashed. You would not want to be the politician who has to face the consequences of any decision, but decision there has to be.
There would still have to be wrangling about the details: whether the parameters vary for different types of fish, for example. Some quid pro quo about the terms of access for the UK fishing industry to EU markets would also be part of an agreement. But with the big political decision made, these can then be delegated to the technical teams.
Will it be any easier in 2022 than today? It could be argued that extra time is needed to prepare the ground politically, to set up compensation schemes or whatever. It might, too, be possible to phase in the new regime, so as to alleviate the pain. But we will all know which fishing community is under the bus and the court of public opinion will judge the politicians involved.
Similarly, for one of the more contentious governance questions, either the European Court of Justice is accepted as an ultimate arbiter by the UK or some other judicial agency has to fulfil this role. Again, there will be all sorts of details to settle, but a concession by one side or, better, from both has to be the starting-point.
None of the above is to deny the dangers of a failure to request an extension leading inexorably to a ‘no-deal’ damaging to both sides, albeit much more to the UK. In a report released this week, Anand Menon also highlights the importance of time for economic agents to prepare, but the report concedes that what is now needed is ‘political impetus to change things’.
It is instructive, as Tim Bale has demonstrated, that neither the Labour Party nor the unions see any political advantage in explicitly advocating an extension. This may, as Tim hints, be because they are happy to see Johnson slip up, but it could also be because they recognise the British public has had enough of Brexit and expects a deal to be delivered this year.
In addition, potentially big changes are afoot in the EU as it gravitates towards a common response to the economic crisis. Opposition to the bold Commission proposal for a recovery fund necessitating, for the first time, borrowing by the EU on top of the standard EU budget, is fading, with the ‘frugal four’ apparently now down to two.
If there is an extension, it is far from clear whether or to what extent the UK would be on the hook for either the new borrowing or the spending commitments expected to be agreed for the multi-annual financial framework due to start in January. To put it another way, the end of 2020 is an attractive break point for an issue central to Brexit: the money the UK ‘sends to Brussels’.
Although he has considerable difficulty with the relevant arithmetic of how many million pounds per week can be saved (350, 400, 200…never mind an accurate figure), Boris Johnson has been consistent in highlighting this aspect of leaving the EU. Just imagine the Daily Mail headlines if payments not only had to continue, but fresh liabilities were incurred.
The big political beasts are due to become involved later this month in the stalled negotiations, and not before time. With so much else on their minds in dealing with the pandemic, now would be the ideal time to deal with the biggest challenges, to work out who or what has to be thrown under buses, and to narrow down the compromises.
Then, delegate to the negotiating teams to fill in the blanks. It will not be easy, but the challenge to those convinced it cannot be done without an extension is to explain why delay would make it any easier to break the deadlock. Remember the Rolling Stones lyric: ‘time waits for no-one, no favours has he’.
By Iain Begg, Professor at the European Institute and Co-Director of the Dahrendorf Forum, London School of Economics and Political Science.