Brexit “Breakthrough”: Headfake or May Trying to Engineer Further Capitulation to EU?

Due to the late hour, and the news regarding May having gotten the DUP enough in line so as to get a green light from the European Commission on its Ireland fudge (more on that soon) being heavy on PR and light on facts and analysis, this post will be terse, with hopefully a more fleshed out take over the weekend.

Initial observations:

The press is greatly exaggerating the significance of this deal. Some headlines are declaring the EU and UK to have reached an “exit deal”. This is not a deal. Nothing is final. This is the UK having presented what is at best a letter of intent on the three issues that the EU had deemed necessary for the UK to have demonstrated “sufficient progress” to be allowed to talk trade.

May has made contradictory promises and something or somethings will have to give. The big headfake is on Ireland, which was the apparent sticking point early this week. Nothing has been resolved here, save the DUP has chosen to stand down for the moment.

As PlutoniumKun said via e-mail:

On the face of it, the Irish government has surrendered to the early BS British offer of some sort of magical IT tech solution to the border. I don’t know if they are aware of this, or they hope they can screw things down in more detail later. I think they have significantly weakened their position by conceding that there may be a technical solution to an open border.

The DUP may have realised that if they block a deal, that could mean an election and Corbyn. They are genuinely terrified at that prospect. So I think they’ve backed away from the abyss, rather than actually agreed to anything.

The contradiction is the continued pretense that the UK can have a hard border nowhere with respect to Ireland and still leave the Single Market and the EU customs union. May’s statement stressed tha there would be no hard border, which has meant land border, in Ireland. The DUP’s Arlene Foster said, per the BBC, that “…she was ‘pleased’ to see changes which mean there is ‘no red line down the Irish Sea’.”

The mystery: why is the EU enabling a tentative deal that isn’t workable? Let us not forget the history. EU leaders, who remember are the real deciders, have said with a unified voice since the day after the Brexit vote that any deal has to be consistent with the framework of existing pacts. The UK is not going to get any special favors. Experts on trade issues like Richard North have gone on long form as to why the UK will either have to have a hard border or else submit to all UK regulations regarding any traded goods, which also would mean submitting to the jurisdiction of the ECJ on those matters. There is no way to have anything less than a hard border absent that because Ireland would otherwise become a backdoor for all sorts of non-complaint goods to flood into the EU.

North has ventured that Juncker and May are treating the border and other issues as mere political problems that can be solved with the right optics, when that won’t work for a whole host of reasons we’ve described in detail before. His theory is that for some reason, the EU does not want the negotiations with the UK to fail at this juncture.

Perhaps the EU thinks it might be able to gradually muscle the UK into accepting a deal that has it in the customs union. The EU has the vastly better cards and already got the UK to concede on the supposedly “no how, no way” issue of the Brexit bill. They may think if they make the UK take its negotiating losses gradually, they can move the UK to what is not much of a Brexit.

However, if the EU is merely trying to kick the inevitable negotiation impasse down the road a few months, letting May have her December “breakthrough” and “no hard border” talk will further reinforce the UK fantasy that it can have its Brexit cake and eat it too. In other words, Juncker, Barnier, and Tusk are undermining all of the efforts of EU leaders to have the UK get real about what sort of a pact it can have.

The hard core Brexit MPs for the moment seem to be backing May. But this appears to be based on the misapprehension that May has done anything more than promise everyone what they want to hear and not have the EU call her out right now. From the Financial Times (hat tip Richard Smith):

Michael Gove has praised the “tough” negotiations from prime minister Theresa May that have led to the agreement on moving forward with Brexit talks. “Theresa May won,” he said, in a blessing from the Conservative Eurosceptic wing.

Note I have yet to see reactions from Johnson and Rees-Mogg, so Gove could be out over his skis.

But other important Brexit factions are upset. Again via Richard Smith:

And the reaction of the Daily Mail does not bode well either. Headline:

Now for the hard part! May FINALLY gets breakthrough on EU divorce deal but faces Tory anger at ‘unacceptable’ £40bn bill and meddling by European judges – while Eurocrats are already demanding MORE concessions

Key sections:

But in a clear sign that the hard work has only just begun, European Council chief Donald Tusk immediately started making demands about the next phase of talks.

He said during a mooted two-year transition period Britain will have to keep making financial contributions and respect all EU laws, including new one, even though this country have no say over how they are decided.

In a scathing assessment, ex-Ukip leader Nigel Farage said: ‘A deal in Brussels is good news for Mrs May as we can now move on to the next stage of humiliation.’

Former deputy PM Nick Clegg, a fervent Remainer, said it amounted to ‘game, set and match for the EU on money and EU citizens’….

The agreement published today sets out that there will be enough ‘regulatory alignment’ with the EU to keep a soft border between Northern Ireland and the Republic and ‘support North-South cooperation’.

But it also specifies that there will be no ‘regulatory barriers’ between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK and the province’s businesses will continue to have ‘unfettered access’ to the UK internal market.

As we’ve stressed, the regulatory alignment finesse is simply not workable, and it separately is a red flag to the rabid Brexit faction. However, they lost on the supposed red line of money. Can they be pushed further backwards even as they try to pretend they are holding the line?

The European Council could issue a statement with some coded barbs in it. It seems highly unlikely that the European Council would withhold approval next week. But European leaders may not be happy with how much fudging has gone on. If their statement highlights issues where the UK needs to show more progress or clarify ambiguities, it should be read as not just an effort to manage UK expectations downward, but potentially a warning, or even a rebuke, to Juncker and Barnier.

PlutoniumKun’s initial take still makes sense:

I think the EU are content to keep a negotiating process going so they can slowly strangle the UK in its inability to come to terms with what Brexit means. They want to keep May twisting in the wind and not have to deal with a new government. Its a slow twisting of the screws – the UK will now perpetually find themselves unable to get around their own commitment on this, every single proposal they make will be met with ‘that means customs posts on the border, how do you get around that?’

The big reason this may not be as clever as it seems is that the press messaging that meaningful progress was made today increases the odds that UK businesses will dial down their Brexit damage containment measures. Corporations moving staff overseas or deferring investment would have put pressure on the Tories. The EU is resigned to a Brexit. It may have missed the possibility of precipitating a crisis merely by not indulging the UK on political fixes and getting a second referendum. Mind you, the odds of that were low, but the idea has gone from “complete non-starter” to “remotely possible” in just the last couple of months.

It may take a few months to see how things play out. With a whole set of new issues on the table, the UK may be able to keep enough balls in the air so as to keep MPs, the press barons, and the public distracted from the difficulty of its position.

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  1. Meher Baba Fan

    the Guardian today has a whole lot of noise and horn blowing very little thats definite or specific. It dies say the EU have agreed to progress to Phase 2.
    Officials predict 35-39 billion payment according to Guardian headline. Which sounds very low.

  2. windsock

    “The mystery: why is the EU enabling a tentative deal that isn’t workable? “… Because the EU does not want more political instability during negotiations as the result of a fallen May government and yet another UK General Election? Or it fears another election would lead to a Corbyn government with which it would rather not deal?

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      The EU would prefer a Corbyn government. They might even do something as radical as agree to a six-month extension of the Brexit drop dead date for his government to get up to speed or hold a referendum. Labour winning would be seen as a repudiation of Brexit, and Corbyn has even said he would not rule out a second referendum (although it might instead be on narrower issues). What the EU is a afraid of is instead a leadership challenge or another minority government that results in Johnson or Rees-Mogg as PM.

      1. vlade

        While Moggie (or, god forbid, Johnson, although I’m not sure who’s a bigger clown..) would win a leadership contest (I’d say Moggie, because it’s likely the Tory MPs would not allow Johnson to proceed to the final vote – too much bad blood there), it would be interesting to see what the Tory rebels would do. Assuming full-house (ex SF), the majority needed is 322 (321.5 precisely, so 322). Tories have 315 and 10 DUP.
        I will now assume that all but DUP and Tories will automatically vote against the govt (on confidence) – which is not 100% certain as there are hard-brexit idiots in Labour party too (they just have been kept quiet more efficiently so far).
        I assume DUP will vote as a bloc – either all with or against the govt (I think reasonable assumption).
        That means that Tories + DUP have nominally 325, a wafer-thin majority. “All” it takes are 4 Tory defectors.

        Ken Clarke is definitely one possibility (if nothing else, I doubt he would stand in the next scheduled elections – maybe if there was another one in 2018 yes, but not beyond 2020 – so he can do what he believes is best for the country, and as he was one of the few to vote even against A50 trigger, it’s likely). I don’t know whether there would be another 3 Tories willing to bring the government down if Moggie was to be a PM? No idea. I believe there would be if BJ looked to become a PM..

      2. marku52

        Interesting. I would have assumed that the neolibs in the EU would be at least as horrified by Corbyn as those in the the City of London. If Boris or some other upper class twit became PM then the EU could pretty much stop even trying to pretend to negotiate.

        Welcome corrections from those in the know.

    2. Gordon

      I suspect the EU would prefer to give the Brexiteers enough rope to hang themselves – probably the only task they’re up to.

      FWIW my sense is that David Davis’ admission he hasn’t done any homework on the implications hit home hard with all but the most swivel-eyed. Even some BBC reporters are beginning to say (Radio 4 lunchtime today) that the Tories have surrendered on every point so far. Even the BBC. Ouch!

      If the trickle of firms looking to move to the continent turns into a steady stream after Christmas then it’s game over for the Tories.

      And all without the EU being spoil sports.

  3. Strategist

    The mystery: why is the EU enabling a tentative deal that isn’t workable?

    Maybe because deep down the Republic of Ireland want & need the talks to get on the second stage issues (trade relationship etc) too? They really don’t want UK to crash out now without a deal, because that’s bad for Ireland too.

    Who knows how much backing down UK is going to do in the next phase? I hope to see the situation developing over 2018 when the British public mood will shift and they will start demanding ever softer Brexit and make the logical step to try to cancel Brexit. If the polls get to say 60/40 to give up on Brexit, then demand may grow for a ratification referendum with no Brexit one of the options.

    1. Anonymous2

      I am still trying to get my head around all this but think the last part of paragraph 49 is pretty important. I would guess that the EU will insist on clauses in any trade deal to allow punitive tariffs or other sanctions if the UK does not deliver on it’s commitment here.

      My instinctive reaction on reading this part was that the UK is now heading for something close to LINO (leave in name only ) but it would not be the first time my initial reaction was wrong and there is doubtless still a great deal to play for and think about .

      I will cogitate, study further the text and learn from others.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        Yes, paragraph 49 is key:

        49. The United Kingdom remains committed to protecting North-South cooperation and to its guarantee of avoiding a hard border. Any future arrangements must be compatible with these overarching requirements. The United Kingdom’s intention is to achieve these objectives through the overall EU-UK relationship. Should this not be possible, the United Kingdom will propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland. In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.

        This seems to lock the UK into staying in the Common Market and Customs Union without agreement – essentially granting a veto to the EU. Some might say its a license for the UK to stay within the EU indefinitely (as there seems no possiblity of an ‘agreement’ which allows them to leave without a hard border). I’m surprised Brexiters aren’t up in arms about this.

        Paragraph 50 is interesting too:

        50. In the absence of agreed solutions, as set out in the previous paragraph, the United Kingdom will ensure that no new regulatory barriers develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, unless, consistent with the 1998 Agreement, the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly agree that distinct arrangements are appropriate for Northern Ireland. In all circumstances, the United Kingdom will continue to ensure the same unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the United Kingdom internal market.

        This doesn’t mention that if the Assembly cannot agree devolved powers in line with the Agreement, then by default NI is then subject to either direct government from London or, crucially, if Dublin requests it, the British Irish Inter Governmental Conference.

        So theoretically at least, you could foresee Sinn Fein block agreement in the Assembly, then, entirely within the Agreement, London and Dublin could force NI to accept alternative arrangements (in the event of a future government which is not in hoc to the DUP). I’m surprised the DUP didn’t pick up on this.

        My first thought was that the Irish government dropped the ball by seeming to concede that there could be a fancy IT tech solution to the border, and the British government could just do what it wanted, and essentially force the Irish/EU to put up barriers. But it seems there are enough locks (not least WTO rules) to prevent this happening.

        Its impossible to conclude anything else but that this agreement actually changes nothing, except in allowing Phase II to go ahead. Like Yves, I’m puzzled as to why the EU is bothering with this charade, unless they want to prolong the squeeze on the UK government.

        1. marku52

          The Article 49 seems very significant. It does seem to tie the UK into a leave-without-leaving situation, since there isn’t any way to solve the Irish Customs Predicament.

          1. PlutoniumKun

            If you read it literally, and you assume (as I do) that its impossible to keep the Irish border open without staying in the CM and CU, then this is essentially it – the UK stays in the EU in all but name, they just lose any right to a say in what happens at EU level.

            I think this will slowly dawn on Brexiters. But they haven’t proven themselves a particularly bright bunch, so it might take them some time.

            1. ChrisPacific

              That was my interpretation as well. They are now locked into Brexit lite with all the disadvantages of EU membership and none of the advantages. If they want anything else then they have to satisfy Ireland’s requirements regarding the border as a precondition.

              1. barefoot charley

                Finian O’Toole emphatically agrees with you two: “Apart from all of its other consequences, this means the DUP’s great bluff has been called. It was insisting on two contradictory things: no special status for Northern Ireland and completely leaving the customs union and single market. This contradiction has come back to haunt the whole Brexit project -the DUP has been forced to concede that if the first condition is to be satisfied, the second in effect cannot. The deal secured by Ireland does not necessarily force the UK to stay in the customs union and single market. It just forces it to act as if it has stayed in – a distinction without a difference. Call it what you like – if it acts like a customs union, moves like a customs union and is fully aligned like a customs union, it is a customs union.” All right then?


  4. Kat

    With respect to Ireland and Northern Ireland, the agreement seems to say two things:

    1. Barring the case that the parties find an alternative agreement, full regulatory alignment will be maintained between Ireland and Northern Ireland, now and in the future. (“In the absence of agreed solutions, the UK will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.”)

    2. There will be no new regulatory barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, unless the NI executive and legislature agree to those (this seems to be the concession that the DUP got). (“In the absence of agreed solutions, as set out in the previous paragraph, the UK will ensure that no new regulatory barriers develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, unless, consistent with the 1998 Agreement, the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly agree that distinct arrangements are appropriate for Northern Ireland.”)

    The practical consequence seems to be that the UK will be required to adhere to EU regulations for the foreseeable future, except where alternatives can be negotiated between the EU and UK or where regulatory deviations are approved by Northern Ireland.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Except that Foster said the agreement provides for no sea border, which is what results with that provision + the sort of deal the Government has promised repeatedly, which is the UK not submitting to the ECJ any more and having its own regulations.

      And see the tweet I embedded at the top (I fixed it just now, it wasn’t rendering the right text). There’s language in it that acknowledges that it’s a fudge and needs to be fixed.

      The only way this works with no border at sea is if the UK stays in the customs union, which also means accepting EU regs and ECJ jurisdiction (at least on trade matters, but that covers huge swathes of economic activity).

      Even though the discussions in the runup to Brexit had a lot of members of the Leave camp amenable to soft Brexit options. the messaging has gotten very strident post Brexit. I think a lot of the public has been conditioned to see the UK submitting to the ECJ and EU rules as being inconsistent with Brexit.

      But the DUP is committed to a hard unionist position. It would be a betrayal of their raison d’etre to act otherwise.The hard Brexit camp.

      So I think the DUP has simply decided it is too dangerous to be the party that tanks the Brexit negotiations. I do not think they’d hesitate to revive their objections IF they had allies on their issue or other parties were throwing different spanners in the works at the same time.

      1. Grebo

        Do brexiteers (or brextremists) think the UK should stop exporting to the EU? I don’t get the impression that they do. Do they imagine that exports that don’t meet EU regulations will be accepted? Do they imagine that any arguments over compliance can be settled by a non-EU court? If those things have to be accepted is there any advantage in leaving the customs union?
        Or are they fantasizing about some freebooting Opium Wars type future? Do they have any cogent alternative at all?

        1. Clive

          Even the swiveliest of the swivel eyed loon Brexit faction never believed that the EU would permit imports that didn’t meet EU standards.

          What they believed was that you could have the free movement of goods (and capital) — access to the Single Market — without the free movement of people and without border controls to make sure that the goods being imported had the right certifications to prove they met EU standards. The latter was always delusional — what did they imagine? — that the EU would just take it all on trust, no questions asked?

          Pure Soft Brexiters believed that you’d have to remain in the Single Market and the Customs Union, or some fudged version of it which nevertheless still satisfied the EU. This, as you theorised, negated the need to impose a border.

          Tainted Soft Brexiters believed that you could leave the Single Market and the Customs Union, have a technical border which satisfied the EU’s need to protect the integrity and the standards of the Single Market but didn’t involve a border which entailed all U.K. exports to the EU being stopped and checked.

          There are some variations in these sects, but that’s the gist at a high level.

          With the Phase 1 Agreement, the U.K. government seems to have definitely ruled out the first option. So we’re left with the variations on options two or three, depending on how much fudge the EU is willing to digest. Or no deal (a.k.a. Crashing Out).

          Changing the subject slightly, while I don’t see it’s possible or even necessarily desirable to stop ritual denunciations of either Leave or Remain (depending on your individual view point), I’m wondering if continuing to indulge in them now serves any useful purpose. Yes, there are hopelessly small-minded and deluded Brexiters. There are also hopelessly naive and fuzzy-thinking Remainers.

          To characterise everyone (this is, if I recall correctly, some 16 million or so people) who voted Brexit as, variously, thoughtless, stupid, backward, intolerant (I could go on but that’s a flavour) is rather a sweeping generalisation. Reality is more nuanced.

          I can’t speak for every Brexit voter, but I can speak for myself. I’ve no particular axe to grind with the EU which I wouldn’t also grind for the U.K. government, perhaps even sharper.

          And if, having joined the EEC, which being only 18 months old at the time I couldn’t vote either for or against, we now find the EU is becoming an altogether different animal than was sold to us as the EEC was and, moreover is a Roach Motel that you can’t easily get out of and has so many constraints imposed on sovereignty as a result of that membership then okay. Let’s have Brussels impose Direct Rule on the U.K. if that’s the new constitutional arrangement in practice, so be it and let’s call it that.

          But in return, I want to be totally shot of Westminster. Firstly because the little meaningful sovereignty it retains makes it increasingly superfluous. And secondly, if Brussels wants the power then it can have it but I’m going to make sure it lives up to the responsibility (as far as I can make it, which isn’t very far, but at least I can try) without having the distraction of Westminster blaming Brussels and Brussels blaming Westminster.

          Conversely, if that’s not what’s on the cards, then I expect the EU to give national government’s a lot more autonomy in which Directives it chooses to adhere to and which it doesn’t.

          But what I am (was) no longer prepared to do was to perpetuate this ridiculous nonsense that by remaining in the EU, Member States get a “say” in EU decision making. It’s a stitch-up between the big players and the bureaucrats with everyone else just along for the ride. If the alternative to being one of the naysayers, causing trouble and being a general P.I.T.A. to the EU is waiting for the likes of Macron to tell us his grand vision for where he thinks he should “lead” the EU to, then that’s not a future I’m eager to embrace.

          You may well not agree with my thinking. But I do hope that it at least shows there is some thinking going on in the minds of some Brexiters (although by no means all, of course).

          1. Grebo

            I didn’t mean to ad hom the leavers, merely to distinguish between the disgruntled and the ideological ones. (I had to reword that in case I did it again :-)

            I have become more inclined to brexit since the vote, but my reasons are more to do with the bad economics in the treaties than regulatory issues. The former never gets mentioned because most leavers either don’t understand those bad economics or they like them.

            I myself have used the “get rid of Europe and we’ll be stuck with Westminster” argument. My problem with Directives has mostly been annoyance at Westminster opting out of them.

            The democratic deficit is all of a piece with the Neo/Ordoliberal economics.

            The movement of capital and labour should be under national control.

            These issues (apart from migration) are not on most leavers’ radar, and the things they do want just don’t add up. I don’t think any of your three scenarios add up.

            So I agree there are good arguments for (partially) leaving, I just don’t see anyone who matters making them.

            1. Clive

              Yes, I agree 100% with knobs on. The quality of the debate during the Brexit run-up was laughable (I wrote a piece laughing at it!) and it has been downhill from there.

              And I think it bad for society that any debate, let alone one as important as this one, becomes so poisonous. I like to believe I’m pretty disciplined, mentally, but on more than one occasion I’ve ended up referring to “them” (e.g. “those Remainers”) because it’s seductive to slip into that easy, lazy shorthand. That’s one of Lambert’s rightly called out cardinal sins (readily boomerang-able back to the offender with a “Who’s they?“ retort).

              What perturbs me the most is how an inability for a country to have it out with itself on a contentious question, like we seem unable to do here (not least because of the delusional thinking which so permeates discourse as rightly pointed out in the above post), sets such a bad example for other countries faced with equally divisive issues. The US and healthcare springs to mind. I did a thought experiment the other day — supposing that some conscientious egalitarian president enacted Single Payer after somehow getting Congressional approval.

              Just imagine if our cousins across the pond regressed the way we have. If we think people can get worked up over trade deals and border issues, imagine what throwing health and illness into the mix would do. The fear mongering opportunities are limitless (“death panels!” “all the physicians would move abroad!”). The paid-for MSM would have a field day.

              Unfortunately I don’t think we could, in that event, teach them any lessons worth having such as evaluating what trade offs there are, at what costs and with what benefits. Just the opposite, alas.

  5. David

    I hesitate to say this was predictable, but the reason why the EU is “enabling a tentative deal that isn’t workable” is the classic political one that all of the alternatives are even worse. This is, let’s be clear, a fudge, and a fudge which enables the negotiations to continue (some would say start properly) without blowing them up before they have properly got under way. It’s a classic political move, designed to give the appearance of something for everyone, without actually settling any of the detail.
    I’m sure that in an ideal world, the EU would rather be negotiating with a Corbyn government, or indeed anyone apart from the current band of lunatic incompetents. But bringing down May’s government would provoke elections with unforeseeable consequences, no clear idea of future parliamentary configuration and no real certainty about what would happen next. Too much time would be lost while a Corbyn government (assuming there was one) got itself together. On the other hand, it’s already clear that May’s government is so weak that it can and will be pushed into further concessions. The time to bring it down is not now, but when you already have a lot of UK concessions in your pocket.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I’m not sure I agree. Junker repeatedly said before that the UK’s politics were not the EU’s problem. It was Barnier that has been eager to get to the trade negotiation phase, to the degree that he was trying to move that phase of the talks up and was slapped down by Merkel and others in July.

      There’s no domestic political gain for any major EU leader to be nice to the UK. Poland is an ally and wants to poke a stick in the rest of the EU’s eye. Denmark and IIRC the Netherlands have big trade positions with the UK and were expected to be more accommodating to the UK after the first phase.

      In other words, Barnier hasn’t been on the same page as Merkel and Macron as far as how to deal with the UK is concerned. If neither issues a positive statement today (as in it’s lukewarm or only a lower government official weighs in) that would be enough of a departure from what you’d expect to suggest that they aren’t all that happy with where things are. I just Googled “Merkel + Brexit” and “Macron + Brexit” and neither appears to have made a statement yet. They really should have said something by now…

      1. Grebo

        Barnier is well focused on the negotiations but I think Juncker protests too much. Contrary to David above, the EU and most of the member governments will bend over backwards to prevent a Corbyn government, just as they did to help the PP in Spain. In fact it’s May’s highest card.

        1. David

          On Yves’s point about French and German reaction, the French media has not given the affair a great deal of publicity, because France is still traumatized by the death of Johnny Halliday (memorial procession down the Champs Elysées tomorrow if you’re interested). The main foreign news is Lebanon where the French are playing a big role, and Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. There’s nothing at all on the MFA website, which suggests that some fairly deep thinking is going on about how to respond (Macron is not long back from Africa in addition). The French media are portraying the outcome largely factually, but as one where May has made “major concessions” according to Le Monde. Their London correspondent is busy fielding questions from readers, and has been trying to explain Paragraph 49, which he says is a typical piece of European “constructive ambiguity”, but which appears to fly in the face of assurances given by May “hundreds of times.”
          Let’s not get too hung-up on Corbyn. Yves suggested that the EU would prefer him. I can understand that for procedural and practical reasons, not because of political sympathy in Europe. It’s just easier to negotiate with a more competent and coherent government, and nothing can be worse than the present one.
          Finally, there’s difference between not going out of your way to be helpful to a partner, and going out of your way to be actively unhelpful. I agree that it’s not in the interest of any major European power to be especially helpful to the UK, but there’s no point in gratuitously worsening the situation either. I’d expect subdued and statespersonlike reactions from other EU nations.

          1. makedoanmend

            Thanks for the French angle David.

            It really does seem as if Europe has never really been that fixated about Brexit, and I suspect many are beginning to sicken of it.

            I am enjoying (in a fraught sort of way) the to-and-fro of staunch economic neo-liberalists facing across from each other in negotiations. (Are we seeing the first split in neo-liberal philosophical consensus?)

            Waiting for both Berlin and Paris neo-liberal reactions should, as Yves says, be very telling. It really didn’t take much more than a German harrumph and a French pffft to send May and her team back to the drawing board last time.

  6. Carolyn

    Humm, it a classic political fudge! I agree it’s too early to see who gains what, where, apart from May is kept in power for a while longer (at the discretion of the EU and DUP?). Unless for the short- medium-term the UK stays within the Efta/EEA and negotiates a tariff-free agreement in with a regulatory union (shadow EEA), then I’m damned if I can see how we arrive at no hard border. There has to be a border somewhere.

    That conundrum apart, Arlene Foster seems less than impressed. Clearly for the sake of [? fill in blank] she agreed the document on behalf of the DUP, however her ‘small print’ comments include interesting colour [my emphasis]:

    We cautioned the Prime Minister about proceeding with this agreement in its present form given the issues which still need to be resolved and the views expressed to us by many of her own party colleagues. However, it was ultimately a matter for the Prime Minister to decide how she chose to proceed.

    We will play a full part with the Government in the second stage of the negotiations on a comprehensive trade deal. Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed and how we vote on the final deal will depend on its contents.

    Along with like-mind colleagues across the House of Commons, we will ensure that there is no backsliding on the promises made about the integrity of the Union. We will also work to ensure that the United Kingdom as a whole exits the European Union in a way that is of the greatest benefit to our prosperity and freedom.”


    Ho, ho ho said Big Ears to Noddy
    (characters in Enid Blyton stories… from long ago!)

    1. Carolyn

      Re-reading Ms Foster’s comments they do smack of ‘Lady, we reckon if we give you enough rope you’ll hang yourself’. ‘Nothing to do with us, Guv… we cautioned it would end in tears…’

      Everyone trying to avoid the blame when reality hits the runway?

    2. Synoia

      Enid Blyton is now considered racist. The golly was the criminal in the stories.

      Which brings me to Robertson or Robinsons jam and marmalade and their broaches. …

  7. gallam

    In respect of the “no how, no way” issue of the Brexit bill, that was only ever in the context of a WTO hard Brexit in which only the treaty obligations would be met. I have not heard anyone suggest that no money should change hands in the event of friendly cooperation between the two parties and an agreed trade deal.

  8. Schofield

    A half-in and half-out (semi-detached) relationship with the EU seems the best of both worlds not least because it opens up the possibility of the British electing a government that rejects the primitive Neoliberal economic, monetary and global trading theory that is currently being implemented in both the UK and EU whilst retaining the possibility of no-tariff trade with the EU.

  9. Frenchguy

    The Commission note’s to the Council doesn’t try to hide the fact that a soft Brexit is now the only endpoint:

    Whilst the United Kingdom remains committed to protecting and supporting continued North South cooperation across the full range of contexts and frameworks, including after withdrawal, the common understanding provides that the United Kingdom aims to achieve this protection and the avoidance of a hard border through the overall EU-United Kingdom relationship. This intention seems hard to reconcile with the United Kingdom’s communicated decision to leave the internal market and the Customs Union.

    1. David

      Yup, “hard to reconcile” is about as trenchant a criticism as you ever find in such documents. What it means in practice is “they have to be (family blog) deluding themselves.” Which they are.

  10. makedoanmend

    Santy Grinch’s Euro-prezzies:

    1) Fudge – lots and lots and lots of fudge
    2) cans to kick down the road for everyone
    3) puzzle conundrum: hours of fun trying to figure out how to reconcile the irreconcilable quantum Irish border – it must remain open and closed at the same time

  11. makedoanmend

    So, bottom line, item #3 of phase 1 talks has been inserted into phase 2, and item #3 retains its status as a de facto veto for Ireland? However, veto status has also, in effect, been handed to the DUP by the UK? So everything just got a bit more complicated?

    And for those who might be wondering what all the fuss is about regarding this quantum Irish border, here is short (2.35 min.) video clip explaining what is at stake for Ireland economically by Dr. Sophie Whiting of Bath University, UK.

  12. john c. halasz

    May I ask a stupid question? WHy couldn’t there be a soft border/”regulatory alignment” between NI and RoI, while NI’s exports to the rest of UK were treated in concessionary terms. i.e. same as now, but UK exports to NI would be subject to a hard border? Leakage of EU exports into the UK would be trivial, since presumably the EU would maintain higher regulatory standards than post-Brexit UK, while Belfast would be in the catbird seat, as there would be strong incentives for UK businesses to relocate relevant parts of their business there.

    1. Oregoncharles

      Assuming I understand this Byzantine situation, it’s because the DUP will not accept any distinction between NI and the rest of the UK, let alone a customs barrier. That’s what “Union” means.

    2. Clive

      Unfortunately it crosses a DUP red line (no treating NI differently from the rest of the U.K. gets treated). This idea is basically “a border in the sea” option — and already rejected by the DUP as this was what PM Theresa May put forward on Monday and earned her a slap down from Arlene Foster for her trouble.

      1. john c. halasz

        My only point here is that this belongs as a square in the logically possible solutions space, however unlikely. Whether the DUP would stick to its hardline dogmatic ideological position in the face of the obvious economic advantages for NI would be an open question. My guess is that some factions of DUP might favor and others oppose, while the other NI parties would favor. Of course, it’s only the DUP delegation in the Westminster parliament that matters, but they would still be subject to pressures from their domestic NI constituencies.

  13. Oregoncharles

    ” The big headfake is on Ireland, which was the apparent sticking point early this week. Nothing has been resolved here, save the DUP has chosen to stand down for the moment.”
    IOW, both sides have now admitted that there is no workable solution short of a trade agreement, since that would set the terms of trade across the border. Looks like even the DUP admitted it, though they also have a conflict, since they campaigned for Remain and don’t want a hard border any more than anyone else. That’s for the usual commercial reasons and also because the present status quo is itself a headfake that solves, or covers up, their key disagreement with Sinn Fein: it unifies the island, for all practical purposes, without separating NI from Britain.

  14. Kevin Cooklin

    First post, although I’ve been attending the website for a time, and just read the “Comments Policies” –most reasonable I have ever encountered. And it shows.

    I am very appreciative of all the posts on this subject. Still trying to wrap my head around it. I’m an American living in Germany (Bavaria, i.e. Munich) past 3+ years, and hard to get a firm (street) take here on Brexit. Most of the German people I talk to (yes, this is rather well-off Bavaria), and these are not corporate big-wigs, just folks working middle or lower class jobs, just scoff at how “stupid” the UK was to do this. This is just my personal experience and conversations I’ve had with folks here. Not having a corporate or high income job, I know I’m only talking to a certain sector of the population. And I’m presenting this not as a criticism or an approval of any choice. My wife does work in the corporate sector, and everyone I’ve talked to on her side of the fence is baffled, and angered, by the very thought of the Brexit as well.

    As a kid who grew up very poor and in a broken family back in the Midwest in the 70s – and as a young man who managed to educate himself against all odds (thank you University of Iowa, and yes, after all these years, still paying off student loans, alas) – I’m quite sensitive to the vagaries of class and the outright criminal and lawless behavior of the powerful and privileged. And so, perhaps to my own weakness, I kind of see why people who have been told they are stupid and poor and weak for so long might well rebel. Or are at least open to that argument. And is that their failure, or is it the failure of those who claim to represent them (and continue to primarily enrich their own wealthy constituents under the guise of democracy?).

    I have not read anything about possible relations regarding the US and the UK regarding the “Brexit.” Would appreciate seeing any links to that possible angle.

    PS I know I am not addressing trade barriers or the like here, forgive. Or “hard” or “soft” Brexit schemes. Just my first post and mostly I’m just happy to come across such a positive dialogue of give and take. And the “head-fake” references made my day. I haven’t used that term since I was like 10 years old. Brilliant.

    1. UserFriendly

      While Trump could push through a trade agreement thanks to Obama strong arming Fast Track with a 10 year window with TPP in mind; Trump has been all over the place on trade. He would likely demand concessions on agriculture that would be a lowering of standards in the UK and the EU would certainly move to block entry to the single market. Google chlorinated chicken to get an idea, the UK media had a field day with that.

    2. Penny

      IF you take the standard income tax treaty with Germany exemption on your German income, assuming you have no US income, you report an income of zero. With zero income, you pay nothing on your student loans without incurring problems. After 20 years of zero income in the US, your student loans are retired. As Congress regularly changes (worsens) conditions for student loan repayment, you need to verify the relevance of this to your situation. I am not a tax accountant, nor a lawyer and this is all hearsay.

      1. notberlin (formerly Kevin

        Sincere apologies for me not replying in a timely manner to this generous (and concise) response (and to all of the following replies, as well). But holy smokes, I had no idea those rules even existed regarding student loans. I will check it out. Thank you(!)

        I guess I am “lucky” in that I went to university in the very early and mid 80s (yes, working on being an old guy now, it came too fast!), so tuition was was much cheaper and the loans required to get through to graduate degree weren’t as steep as they are today (by a long shot). I think my generation (high school class of 1980) was (maybe) the first to be “indentured” by dint of student loan debt(?). I don’t have the statistics and I know this is a super smart/intuitive group, so forgive in advance if I am way off. We were told we had – no exceptions – to go to college (or enlist, military recruiters were a constant in our government classes*), and yet my father, a road construction worker, and later, a road construction company owner, refused to pay any tuition out of pure spite –anyone who went to school and didn’t study to be a lawyer or doctor or businessman was a fool, in his opinion. Kind of an old, very old, American meme, yes?

        I wasn’t raised to even think that college was an option, most of the ‘you must go’ came from teachers in our rural high school. Still, attending the university literally saved my life…. it was the first time I realized I was not a complete idiot, and get lost in a sea of 30,000 fellow students. And for that I will always be thankful.

        *But at least we had government as a class in high school, even with the occasional military presence. I guess for most this has been long gone for like 25 years or more? Eh gads.

        Sorry for all the autobiography details. A sign of a weak mind, for sure. Onward, to words on Brexit

    3. Anonymous2

      Welcome Kevin. It is a good discussion group and a great website.

      In reply to your comment/question on causality, you will get many different answers from many different people, often reflecting their own biases/experiences. Serious studies do support the idea that the areas/people who voted for Brexit were those who felt that they had been left behind either economically or culturally, so you can definitely ascribe it in part to a failure by the winners from globalisation to share their gains with the losers.

      I worked for many years on European issues so am keenly aware that the reporting on EU matters by many of the English newspapers has for decades been hugely untruthful about developments, always presenting stories so as to put the EU in the worst possible light, never reporting on anything positive for which the European institutions could be given some credit, frequently resorting to outright lies. The owners of the newspapers have their own agenda.

      The result is that for many of the English the EU is almost the incarnation of evil, comparable for some to the Third Reich. I have heard people quite seriously compare Mrs Merkel to Hitler. So I give a good deal of weight to the idea that the English see themselves as fighting against an evil organisation which in truth is largely fictional created in the minds of readers by a dishonest newspaper industry.

      Some people I know seem to think that Brexit is almost a rerun of WW2, with references to Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain. The generation who were brought up immediately after WW2 were deluged with children’s literature which portrayed Germans as evil and the French as weaklings so I think there is a residue of those influences among the older generation.

      On links between the UK and the US, I know only a little. There are clearly those on the right in both countries who see each other as soulmates, would like to see the UK move away from European influence, become more American, by which I mean less concerned with employee welfare and the environment, more solely focussed on profit. Some doubtless see the possibility of making money. Some consider that the NHS provides the British with healthcare at far too low a price. If privatised there would be great scope to raise prices and generate extra large profits. It would just be the ordinary people who would lose out. But these are not people who care about the ordinary folk.

      1. Eustache De Saint Pierre

        I would add to that the fact that many of those who look down on the ” Losers ” ( who took the first chance they could to hit out at a political establishment that had left them behind ), who consider themselves to be well informed on the EU/EZ ( presumably because they read the Guardian ) are themselves also ignorant in a different way of many factors in terms of the Odor / Neoliberal direction that their perceived bastion of progressiveness has taken.

        1. notberlin (formerly) Kevin

          A hugely generous post, thank you (and everyone else too. I’m only catching up here. This site is a pure gem. I read these posts multiple times, and will not be able to do it justice.

          “Some people I know seem to think that Brexit is almost a rerun of WW2, with references to Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain. The generation who were brought up immediately after WW2 were deluged with children’s literature which portrayed Germans as evil and the French as weaklings so I think there is a residue of those influences among the older generation.”

          Fascinating. And very telling. I still find a lot of anti-French sentiment when I go back to the States, for work – again, not corporate affiliated work at all. I am still amazed with the anti-French sentiment. And this is about a country (France) where the workers will march in the streets and really interrupt commerce. The ‘Germans as evil’ element is also equally of interest. For did we not (here in the US), as a country, push forward loan forgiveness programs and invest heavily in rebuilding the country after WWII? When I say ‘we,’ of course, I mean our investor/banker/oligarch class (all the while taxing US workers to pay for it in the process).

          It’s my belief that we really need to come up with other words for describing and naming countries. When they (all corporate media) call the US the “richest country in the world,” [non-stop, by the way, which should always make one suspicious], we, the people, should say, “Yes, for our Rich, our Oligarchs,” and so on. They are not wedded to our country in any way shape or form.

    4. Clive

      It’s hard for a non-U.K. resident to really get to grips with how the U.K. ended up even having the vote, let alone that the vote ended up with the result it did.

      “Europe” was always an ideal. If you believed in that ideal, then a United States of Europe was a logical and inevitable end game. For a slight minority of the U.K. population, that ideal was one they aligned to. For a small majority, it was viewed with considerable suspicion.

      So unlike France, Germany and Italy, the U.K. didn’t have a groundswell of support for the ideal of Europe. This then fed on itself in so far as the U.K. never getting how the EU worked and thus the EU and its various institutions never worked for the U.K.

      Yes, it’s Politico, but this is a fairly well balanced article on how those cracks manifest themselves in the EU’s policy sausage making machine.

      For its part, the proponents of “Europe” within the EU have never adequately explained that, in the end game of The United States of Europe, where the sovereignty of the member state will be allowed to retain national competency and what will then be transferred to Brussels.

      But we’ve fudged our way through these ambiguous topics and contradictions for 40+ years. Why this? Why now? My view is that globalisation and neoliberalism’s unmanaged impacts created an underclass who pointed to totemic emblems of these trends and seized their chance to give them a bloody nose. Some may, of course, say they then in the process cut off their own noses to spite their faces.

      Yves has also repeatedly made the point that, as far as the U.K. is concerned, we have through successive governments failed through renewal of the social contract to put in place effective policies to protect the less economically prosperous members of society and reduce inequality compared with other EU countries. It is to me highly suggestive that, the more Germany has (to a degree) emulated the U.K. in leaving behind great chunks of the population to take their chances with the vagaries of neoliberalism, the greater the appeal of anti-EU parties (France, too, for that matter, which recently escaped a brush with Marine Le Pen; she lost fairly convincingly but the fact she got so far should have been a wake-up call, but it hasn’t been, yet, anyway).

      In the face of that double whammy, I don’t ever get why the result was such a huge shock to anyone.

      Welcome to the commentariate, by the way. The world sorely needs more people who are willing to be considerate and thoughtful right now.

      1. Anonymous2

        Thank you Clive. Your comments accord with many of my own thoughts. The article you link to is a very interesting read.

        In the days in the 1990s when I was involved in making EU legislation, the UK hardly ever got outvoted. The strategy which delivered this was, at least in the areas I was involved in, to ally with the Germans wherever possible. Together the UK and Germany were very close to a blocking minority so as long as we could draw in at least one of the smaller countries we were pretty well immune from defeat as an alliance. We had the Germans’ back and vice-versa.

        Change, I think, started to come in the noughties when the Conservatives left the European People’s Party thereby reducing their ability to influence developments. This was done by Cameron to appeal to the Conservative constituency party members in the leadership election without thought for the longer term implications. This really came home to roost from 2010 onwards as UK government policy appeared from the outside (I was on the retired list by then) to be much less concerned with building alliances and more ‘go it alone’ in approach. It is unsurprising that thus resulted in more defeats in the Council and Parliament. To what extent this was an inevitable result of a growing gap between the UK and the Eurozone members and to what extent as a result of what I thought was just an incompetent diplomatic strategy adopted for narrow intra-party political considerations, I am in no position to have an informed view.

        1. doily

          Hello NC I am also a newbie regarding posting, but have been reading for years now. This is my thank you Christmas card to the NC team and the wider commentariat. I am especially grateful for the focus on Brexit issues and for all the knowledgeable commentary. I would not start a fire with an English newspaper never mind read one, and have even developed a healthy suspicion of the worldview of religious Guardian readers. NC filters the noise and clarifies the issues like no other source.

          The attitudes to Europe articulated by Anonymous2 above are of course widespread in Northern Ireland especially among those who identify with the Empire. But an entire generation is coming into adulthood now for whom the 1998 Agreement is the only political framework they know. This framework is sectarian, but it has at least given young people from different traditions the option to identify themselves as Europeans. I can’t find any study of the ramifications of this, but it is important IMHO. Anyway it was good to see the Agreement mentioned in both paragraphs 49 and 50 of Theresa May’s Brexit document this week.

          About the quality of stuff one consumes inside the EU: I’m heading to the Midwest for Christmas and these are some things that we know to be inferior in price and/or quality: chicken, pork, milk, cheese, eggs, cell-phone connectivity, broadband, everything behind a pharmacist’s counter… Looking forward to a proper taco though.

          Merry Christmas NC.

  15. NT

    Northern Ireland has different rules to the rest of the UK on lots of things like abortion etc etc. So the DUP are being very selective on saying they want the same rules as the rest of the UK. The fact is the rule in Northern Ireland have always been different and i would expect more powers to be devolved to Northern Ireland just like Wales and Scotland.
    The only reason that Northern Ireland stays in the UK is they couldn’t survive economically as a separate country. We send send them several pounds per year per person to subside their economy.
    In fact that don’t agree with many of the liberal policies of london-centric UK about gay marriage, abortion etc etc.
    Economically it would be great to get rid of them and for Northern Ireland to be Ireland’d problem.

  16. Jobs

    “Experts on trade issues like Richard North have gone on long form as to why the UK will either have to have a hard border or else submit to all UK regulations regarding any traded goods, which also would mean submitting to the jurisdiction of the ECJ on those matters.”

    Should not the second instance of “UK” be “EU”?

    1. Oregoncharles

      Yes, i think so.

      There is also a fallacy: ” which also would mean submitting to the jurisdiction of the ECJ on those matters.””
      Only indirectly. For a parallel example, US law follows international law on certain subjects, like torture, but American torturers remain subject to US courts. The International Court of Justice becomes involved only i fthe US fails to enforce the law, and then only if the culprit leaves the US.

      Similarly, the UK could voluntarily make EU regulations part of their own law – insofar as they apply at the Irish border. This is not so difficult, since EU regulations apply in the UK now. The penalty if they failed to do so would be a hard border in Ireland – enforced from the EU side. (Of course, because of the economic damage that would do, everyone would be reluctant to apply that penalty.) The ECJ might be involved in that decision, but would have no jurisdiction over the UK itself. No idea whether that would be acceptable to the EU, but it’s certainly possible.

      It would be more practical for the UK to just (re)join the Common Market, so I suspect that will eventually happen, perhaps under a different government.

  17. paul

    A fairly clear headed precis from across the pond, if you ignore the usual russia bollocks

    key point:

    The Trump Administration has supported Brexit rhetorically but in practice it has done the UK few favors. Instead, the Trump Adm inistration appears to be pursuing a predatory policy, designed to take immediate economic advantage of the dislocations and vulnerabilities created for the UK by the Brexit process.

    In a major speech on US – UK relations on November 6 2017, the US Secreta ry of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, made it clear that if it wanted a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the US, the UK would have to choose between it and the EU. He said that the UK must accept US regulatory standards and diverge from those of the EU. US regulator y standards, particularly on agricultural products, are politically controversial in the UK. And, diverging from EU regulations will, by definition, weaken the trading relationship between the UK and the EU. But Secretary Ross’s logic is clear: the UK is in a weak position and needs trade deals with third parties so the United States can take a maximalist position in negotiations

    The only people that seem to have a clear goal in this mess are the ultras.
    They have a vision of the yeltsination of the UK.

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