Like all good postmodern stories, Britain’s EU nightmare is ending at the beginning. Forty-seven years after seducing Edward Heath into agreeing egregious terms for the UK’s entry to the EEC, Brussels seeks yet again to tempt a prime minister into betrayal. The present is the past through the looking glass. In 1973, the price for joining the EEC was our sovereignty over our laws and our waters; in 2020 the price for leaving the EU is our sovereignty over our laws and our waters. Unless an honest offer from Brussels materialises, Johnson – like Heath before him – faces two choices: walk away or try to deceive a nation with an appalling deal.
Is the EU banking on the latter? For all the talk of how far apart each side is in the final negotiations, they are closer than ever to agreeing two mutually compatible interpretations. While British diplomats spin that the EU is wavering on its insistence that Britain must honour to the letter the Withdrawal Agreement (WA), Brussels briefs that any deal will maintain regulatory alignment and that Britain must submit to a dispute resolution mechanism in the EU’s image. Put simply, while Britain claims it is poised to escape the legalistic clutches of the WA, the EU claims that its con trick to keep Britain in its orbit is so watertight that this doesn’t matter. In the padded cells of the EU’s post-truth prison, sovereignty is a state of mind, and everybody can be a winner.
Still, there are signs that Boris Johnson grasps the dangers of getting sucked into the EU’s constructed reality. He has rattled EU diplomats with his “detached” attitude to talks, leaving crunch meetings to chief negotiator Lord Frost – unlike Theresa May, who was “always” on the phone to the likes of Angela Merkel. No 10 also surely realises that, after U-turning on the “contradictory” WA, blowing a hole in the Tory fantasy that it was a decent divorce deal, it will be tough to sell a sceptical public a second false victory.
And yet the tang of a Brino lingers on the horizon. It carries the glum smell of history and fish. Brussels’ negotiating wisdom has not changed for 50 years: politicians will agree to anything if they feel they can sell it as a victory to their people.
Take Heath, who arguably misled Parliament as he sacrificed fishing for Britain’s EEC “salvation”. He deceitfully implied that his deal – which secured British fishing rights for a 10-year transition period – would renew by default because Britain had a veto. In fact, the EU had a unanimous veto, giving Brussels huge leverage in future maritime talks, as our double-crossed fishermen discovered. Johnson should beware the temptations of misselling a bad deal. It is not difficult to imagine how his latest concession – a three-year transition for European fishing fleets to prepare for phased-down catches – could be rigged with an EU veto like in 1973.
“Who cares?” many will say, given that fishing accounts for 0.1 per cent of GPD. But here is the rub: if the UK sells out on fishing, it consents to Brussels’ basic neocolonial principle. Namely, the EU is generously willing to grant the trappings of token sovereignty in exchange for legal control of Britain’s economic system. That is what Michel Barnier meant when he claimed last month that we own our waters but our fish is “another story”.
The EU would endeavour to pull off the same ruse with the level playing field – with a deal that spares Britain the embarrassment of having to align with EU rules in principle, while compelling it to align de facto. Both parties might, say, agree in writing to common regulations without signing up to identical legislation. The outcome risks being the same, since we would grant the EU the power to force up taxes and stifle innovation.
But perhaps the EU’s modest call for a “strong” dispute resolution mechanism is the biggest bear trap of all. Expect Brussels to offer a convoluted “climbdown” in the form of an “independent” body that acknowledges UK sovereignty while quietly allowing the EU to maintain jurisdiction over the UK – perhaps with a rigged EFTA-style court that ultimately submits to the ECJ.
Brussels’ flexible attitude to reality is, if nothing, authentically European. The word “real” itself comes from the Spanish “belonging to royalty”. And so it goes that, in the elite Remainer “reality”, the EU can both defy UN Security Council resolutions and take the moral high ground on matters of international law. Brussels can both claim Britain is blowing up the Good Friday Agreement and insist on a protocol that usurps the principle of consent. Barnier can both take Canada off the table and play the part of drab consistency. And – vitally – the Brexit deal he offers can both be the deal that defiant Britain deserves and a good one.
It is essential our PM holds on to some basic truths. Funnily enough, the old English word “truth” is derived from the Germanic word for “contract”. Johnson would do well to remember the democratic contract obliging him to deliver an honest Brexit to the voters who put him in No 10. Should he attempt to deceive the public, he risks going down as a bigger betrayer of UK sovereignty – and an even briefer serving Prime Minister – than Heath.
And so we come to no deal, if only by default. If the EU is determined to seduce Britain into an absurd deal, and if the PM risks his career and legacy in trying to sell a bad one, then by process of elimination, he only has one option left: walk away.