I write this column on a monthly basis and, under normal circumstances, today’s should have appeared last Wednesday.
However, I requested that it be put back to this week because, I thought, the negotiations on the UK’s future relationship with the EU would have been concluded last Thursday, and I would have been able to get my teeth into whatever had been agreed.
But last week came and went without a conclusion. At the time of writing, the parties are still at the negotiating table and still a considerable distance apart. Indeed, a “no deal” outcome is more than a possibility.
It is worth reflecting on what has brought us to this point.
The EU Withdrawal Agreement (WA) was concluded in October of last year. The UK legislation approving it passed in January of this year. The UK left the EU on 31st January, at which point we entered the transition period, which comes to an end on 31st December.
Article 184 of the WA and the accompanying Political Declaration, in summary, required both parties to use best endeavours, acting in good faith, to negotiate a free trade agreement (FTA) that was respectful of UK sovereignty and the integrity of its internal market.
That, however, never happened. From the outset, the EU refused to discuss anything other that their own “red line” issues. The FTA, they demanded, should provide for a “level playing field”, meaning that the UK should effectively adhere to EU regulatory standards. This was despite the fact that they had previously agreed an FTA with Canada that contained no such provisions.
The next red line was fisheries. The EU essentially wanted the Common Fisheries Policy reinstated, meaning that EU trawlers should continue to have unfettered access to UK waters, ignoring the fact that the UK is now an independent coastal state.
Then there was the issue of governance of the new relationship. The EU’s demand was for the European Court of Justice to be the final arbiter in cases of dispute. Not surprisingly, the UK rejected the proposal, pointing out the obvious unfairness of conferring the Supreme Court of one of the parties with ultimate jurisdiction over the other.
It is small wonder that the negotiations proceeded extremely slowly. The chief UK negotiator, David Frost, proved a dogged champion of British interests, refusing to accede to the EU’s demands. As he put it, the EU had failed to internalise the reality that the UK was no longer a Member State.
The impasse might have continued indefinitely had the Prime Minister not declared in October that, such was the EU’s intransigence, there was no purpose in negotiating further. That announcement clearly caused a profound shock in Brussels, because the EU are at last talking sensibly.
However, time is now very short: in reality, just a few days. It remains to be seen whether the sudden injection of realism will result in a sensible agreement that would benefit both parties. If not, it will be a hugely wasted opportunity.