Bit by bit, the meaning of “success” has been changedby Alex Dean / December 16, 2017 / Leave a comment
After months of negotiation chaos, Theresa May returned from Brussels last week triumphant. A withdrawal deal had been struck. Leavers and Remainers alike lined up to applaud her perseverence. The Daily Mail celebrated, as, in its own way, did the Financial Times. Talks can now turn to the transition and future trade.
This is welcome. The timer is ticking and Britain urgently needs to plan for its post-Brexit future. The economy depends upon a healthy trading relationship with our friends on the continent. “Phase two” cannot come soon enough.
But the overriding lesson from all this is just how far expectations have fallen. And just how much the Leave camp overpromised.
Refamiliarise yourself with the terms. Britain is to offer the EU an eye-watering financial settlement. There is no definite figure out there but the FT reckons it could run to near €100bn. Elsewhere, too, from the European Court of Justice to EU citizens’ rights, the UK has conceded. Not compromised—conceded. On the Irish border, that most intractable issue, the can has simply been kicked down the road.
Now recall what was promised. The EU could “go whistle” for its money, Boris Johnson assured us. Until recently, David Davis was dismissing a £40bn figure as “made up.” And cast your mind back further: we were to negotiate exit terms concurrently with trade negotiations. The Leavers assured us of it. Britain was such a big player on the global stage it could make that call. The reality proved very different.
Now none of this is to say the exit agreement was a mistake. The EU was always going to dictate the terms. If the UK wanted a deal, it was a matter of when, not if, it met them.
But ever since Article 50 was triggered, expectations have been gradually lowered. Not always abruptly, and not in one go. But bit by bit, over time, the meaning of “success” has been changed. By last week, after the DUP scuppered May’s first exit deal, we were all so worried about a collapse in talks that any withdrawal agreement whatever looked good. And so when one was announced, we celebrated.
The problem is that this lets Leavers off the hook. Brexit was meant to be easy. It hasn’t been. It is worth revisiting the Brexiteers’ initial promises every so often, and asking just how far the reality has fallen short.
This will become only clearer as talks move forward. The Irish border problem—and all the issues bound up with it, on regulatory divergence and so on—will come back. Already there is some disquiet as the fudge comes unstuck. The transition, too, will prove contentious, while on trade Britain doesn’t even know what it wants. The chance of an FTA being struck by 2019, as per the initial plan, is nil.
And if, years down the line, we do manage to pull a free trade agreement out of the bag, don’t celebrate. Be relieved, sure. But remind yourself that the Leavers promised such a deal would be “the easiest in human history.” Remind yourself just how much they understated the scale of the challenge. And hold them to account.
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