One of the constants of the entire Brexit process has been the unbalance of coverage. This is a two-way negotiation but frequently UK reports seem to have swallowed the line of EU officials as gospel, whilst giving only the British government fair scrutiny.
But as much as this is a negotiation between one country, the United Kingdom, and the supranational beast that sits in Brussels, what has been virtually ignored is what is at stake for the collective of European countries that Michel Barnier is negotiating on behalf of.
Though it has gone virtually unnoticed in Britain, there is increasing alarm across Europe at the prospect of the European Union failing to secure a trade deal with the world’s fifth-largest economy. Though the British government were exceptionally slow at ramping up No Deal preparations, those in the EU are now treating this potential outcome as a serious possibility. And they don’t like it.
The Brexiteer argument during the referendum that ‘they need need us more than we need them’ in the context of an EU deal has some very real grounding.
Let us consider French fishermen, for one. The European Union this week called for a ‘reciprocal’ fisheries arrangement if there is a No Deal. Essentially they want a status quo freezing of affairs where they “grant UK vessels access to EU waters until the end of 2019, on the condition that EU vessels are also granted reciprocal access to UK waters”.
Of course this isn’t a balanced arrangement. The British fishing industry, and coastal communities nationwide, have been devastated by the EU’s plundering of UK fishing waters. As even The Guardian have reported: “EU-based fleets land about eight times as much fish in UK waters as British fishermen do in EU waters, under the Common Fisheries Policy”.
In other words, if there’s No Deal and the UK wants to immediately take back full control of a 200-mile exclusive economic zone, it would mark a revolution for the UK fishing industry but Emmanuel Macron would have a French fishing industry absolutely up in arms.
The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation have demanded that “there can be no link between access to our waters for EU vessels and the trade of seafood products in the EU” and that “anything less than the fulfilment of those means the Sea of Opportunity will not be realised and makes ‘No Deal’ a more attractive option”. Whilst full fisheries control under No Deal would have tremendous upsides for British fishermen, it would be an unmitigated disaster for those in France.
President Macron, who seems keen on regularly rubbishing the biggest democratic vote in British history, really would have a lot on his plate if there’s a No Deal. There would also be uproar from French farmers, who are growing increasingly nervy.
Though once again virtually ignored by the British media, the President of the National Federation of Agricultural Holders’ Unions in France has made a grave warning about the impact of a No Deal on her industry. Christiane Lambert has highlighted how the French have a €1.3 billion surplus with the UK when it comes to selling wines and spirits, a further €100m in dairy products and are the largest supplier of apples to the UK.
Lambert specifically warns that a No Deal could quickly mean “there are a lot of dairy products exported that would come back to Europe and drive down prices”, that the UK could apply different standards which would “distort competition” and that it would mean “the countries of the United Kingdom would be third countries, which can decide tariffs and thus restrict imports”.
As former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab has laid out, a No Deal Brexit would free the UK to “take immediate advantage of the opportunity to reduce the price of goods from the rest of the world”. Just the other day the EU decided to slap import duties on rice from Cambodia and Myanmar because they had become too cheap. Under the present arrangement, such examples demonstrate how you aren’t allowed cheaper food from outside of the EU because unelected Commissioners say so. It isn’t exactly a tantalising prospect for UK consumers.
Could Emmanuel Macron, already dealing with nationwide ‘Yellow Vest’ protests and a disapproval rating hoovering around 75%, really survive such uproar from French farmers and fishermen post-No Deal? I severely doubt it.
The European panic of a potential No Deal spreads far beyond France though, with German industry sounding the alarm. The President of the Federation of German Industries, Dieter Kempf, has warned of German companies facing a No Deal “abyss” and that “leaving the UK without an agreement is not an option – neither for British companies nor for companies on the continent”. The German Chambers of Commerce and Industry have made clear that “more than 750,000 jobs in Germany depend on exports to Great Britain”, whilst BMW have described a UK No Deal exit as a “worst case scenario” and have urged all sides to “do everything possible in order to establish much needed certainty for our business and to maintain the truly frictionless trade”.
This huge internal pressure has seen German Chancellor Angela Merkel now talk of “compromise” and she has even gone as far as “I will work until the last day to ensure that we have a settled solution for the UK’s exit”. She knows that an EU failure to meet Brexit Britain half-way with a sensible arrangement would be a further mark against her crumbling legacy and lead to an avoidable domestic backlash.
In the Netherlands this week there have been dire warnings from the Dutch Federation of Academic Hospitals who have said bluntly “we foresee great risks for our daily operations if Britain leaves the EU without a deal”. Alarmingly, they warn that the “safety of patients is at risk”.
Whilst a No Deal would of course require the UK to have its house in order, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has insisted that “full No Deal planning within the NHS” is taking place and the Department for Health have reassured the public that “if everyone does what they need to do, medical supplies will be uninterrupted and patients will get their prescriptions as normal”. Of course the Dutch government will not want any disruption and the easiest way to guarantee this on their side is to tell the EU to change position in order to do a deal.
And that time has surely now come. The nonsense of the £39 billion perpetual backstop trap needs to be discarded, especially now the EU’s Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier has hinted of a way to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland in the event of a No Deal.
Embarrassingly, when the EU Commission’s Spokesman was questioned why there was therefore any need for the backstop at all, he could only produce a truly pitiful response: “You can write whatever you like.” Okay, I will: it is totally unnecessary and should be ditched for the sake of securing a UK-EU deal.
Do even hardline EU nationalists seriously want to deal with the fallout of a No Deal, which even some in Brussels concede would see the UK able to mitigate disruption by acting unilaterally, compared to the EU’s requirement for authorisation the clearing of national vetoes in order to respond?
There is a clearly great hunger across Europe for the EU to strike a deal with the UK, an increasing anxiousness that a lack of flexibility in Brussels for political reasons ends up having dire ramifications across Europe with governments, unlike in the UK, unable to respond with the flexibility of a non-EU independent country.
Perhaps the most inspiring gesture so far has been from the Portuguese government, keen to welcome British tourists regardless and those who settle in the country. Portugal now propose to have UK-only ‘fast access’ lanes in airports, no visas required and rights guaranteed for Brits living there.
Quite why this immensely positive development has been completely ignored by the mainstream media, I’m not sure. But as the Prime Minister of Portugal, Antonia Costa, has explained: “Millions of Britons visit Portugal as tourists every year – we have to ensure the flow is not interrupted.”
That sentiment of a positive, mutually-beneficial flow is one that now must take centre stage. It is in the interest of businesses and citizens in the European Union for Brussels to strike a fair deal with the British government, not the capitulation that was previously proposed. That will now require a significant shift from the EU side. Brexiteer MPs aren’t going to roll over.
Whilst the British public voted for Brexit and those living in places like Leeds, Sunderland, Stoke and Doncaster increasingly back an exit on WTO terms to secure independence, European fury from French fishermen and those in German industry would be a whirlwind those in the EU should not ignore. The clock is ticking.