The fundamental problem with the Brexit negotiations this year is that London and Brussels are negotiating two quite separate things. Michel Barnier told me how when Boris Johnson came to see him 20 months ago with a blunt request: “Michel, I need a deal I can take back home.”
Barnier said: “I’m a politician. I gave him a deal.” It was the one Mrs May refused as it means Northern Ireland staying under EU rules for trade purposes in order to avoid a hard border. But it was a deal that cut the Gordian knot of the Brexit impasse in parliament and in the May administration.
Johnson grabbed the deal with a nudge from the Irish Taioiseach Leo Varadkar and marched towards his election victory brandishing the deal as his political triumph.
But a trade deal is not the same as a political deal. Johnson thinks he is negotiating a new Versailles Treaty with winners, losers, new frontiers for fish, and a sense of finally escaping from the years of tutelage and sovereignty sharing with a foreign entity alien to English sovereignty.
The EU thinks it is negotiating a modern version of the Uruguay round, a complex multi-faceted trade deal with a clear rule-book which is aimed to produce win-win outcomes for all taking part.
The surreal row last week about Johnson trying to talk to President Macron and then Chancellor Merkel displayed a worrying ignorance in Downing Street. Heads of government never do trade in the EU. Mrs Thatcher didn’t. President de Gaulle didn’t. No head of government has done trade deals in Europe for 60 years.
Trade is the exclusive competence of the European Commission and its representative for trade talks with the UK – Michel Barnier.
The months of media commentary about Mrs Merkel stepping in to tell the Commission to give in to Johnson’s demands were based on a fundamental misunderstanding of a core EU rule. Trade is Commission business. Trade is not for heads of government.
But for Boris Johnson and the cabinet, and their supporters in the press, Tory MPs and activists, the talks have been treated as an extension of politics.
The BBC coverage, for example, treated Brexit negotiations as if they were another Westminster punch-up. Again and again, broadcasters made elementary blunders about the division of powers and competences within the EU, treating the Brexit talks as a political story first and foremost.
For the prime minister, who is not a details man, the 2020 chapter of the Brexit saga was always about politics. He was sandbagged by the Covid pandemic, which would have been a perfect excuse to park the Brexit talks somewhere in the shade, and it remains an unanswered question why he did not seize the opportunity.
Labour’s policy of “Say no Brexit, see no Brexit, hear no Brexit” and the party’s disinclination to challenge the damage Brexit will do to jobs has helped Boris Johnson, who could have safely turned down the Brexit heat without giving Labour any advantage.
Now what does he do? Ever since he breezily announced no-deal was the almost certain outcome after his wasted trip to Brussels, Number 10 has been briefing against President Macron, then Chancellor Merkel and announcing wacky ideas like sending in the Royal Navy to board tiny French boats fishing for scallops or langoustines.
But the panic across the country as finally lorry drivers, supermarkets, shops, pharmacies, and most professional and financial businesses realised what a no deal Brexit would mean must have come as a shock.
Johnson is the master of the political pirouette. He has performed another one by backing down from the threat to end the talks and go for no-deal. Now he has to count his votes and see if ardent Tory believers in a full rupture with Europe will vote against him and do serious damage to his premiership. But the underlying problem remains. For Westminster, the deal is about politics. For Brussels, it is about trade.
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