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Brexit trade talks on the brink

| Updated: September 13, 2020 20:56:34

Brexit trade talks on the brink

The 8th Round of Brexit trade talks resumed in London on Tuesday, September 8 with a deadline set by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to get the deal signed by October 15 to avoid tariffs on cross border movement of goods after Brexit. Now trade talks are on the verge of collapse even before it started after Prime Minister Johnson threatened to rewrite the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement that the United Kingdom (UK) signed with the European Union (EU) last October to avoid a return to a hard border with the Irish Republic. During the general election campaign he even said the Brexit deal was easy and "oven ready", now it appears the UK is heading for a no-deal Brexit.

Boris Johnson's position on the EU has changed over time  from a soft Remainer to a staunch Brexiteer during  his tenure as mayor of London. While opportunism is the hallmark of many politicians, he has elevated that into a new height in the contemporary British Politics. In a faction ridden Tory party, he was not clearly aligned with any of the three major factions but he could clearly see that within the faction ridden party the Brexiteers were the dominant force. He finally threw his lot with the hardcore  Brexiteers to ensure his political future 

The Brexiteers are primarily a bunch of racist xenophobes as well as Europhobes fighting to reclaim national sovereignty from what they perceive as faceless bureaucrats and socialist European politicians in Brussels. In essence they claim that  the bill will enable the UK  to establish its status as a fully independent country.  Even many within this group harbour nostalgia for the lost British empire and want to recreate it in a different form once Brexit takes place.

On receiving his electoral mandate  to surge ahead  to liberate Britain from the 'tyranny' of Brussels, Johnson has recruited an Australian, Tony Abbott to advise him on trade matters including to stich up trade deals with other countries, especially countries that once belonged to the old British empire. He was Australia's Prime Minister for a short while. He is well  reputed  as a misogynist, homophobe and a climate change denier. But both Johnson and Abbott strike a common cord in  espousing fortress mentally to keep foreigners and refugees out. In fact,  Abbot was  very successful in implementing the fortress Australia policy which now he can help replicate in the post-Brexit UK.

On trade, Abbot  also has his prescription ready for the post-Brexit UK.  He wrote in the Spectator Australia  (March, 2019) that as a former Prime Minister of Australia he was perfectly satisfied with a 'no deal' trade relations with the EU (Only 7.6% of Australian exports go to the EU), and then he went on to assure the UK,  "No deal would be no problem'' (46 per cent of British exports go to the EU).  No wonder, while Johnson's first preference for a trade deal with the EU is the "Canada-EU" model because only such a  free trade deal is compatible with the UK's status as an independent country. But such a deal  looks most unlikely to eventuate, so his fallback position is the 'Australia-EU' model which means no deal Brexit.

Once Prime Minister Johnson has clearly articulated his options, he made his tactical move. He has drawn up the new legislation that will override the Brexit withdrawal agreement on Northern Ireland. He has made it quite clear to EU leaders that the withdrawal deal is "contradictory" and must be rewritten to protect the Union. He also considers the Withdrawal Agreement is legally ambiguous in relation to Northern Ireland and in fact may isolate it from the rest of the UK, an aspect he did not foresee when the agreement was signed last year. However, critics of the move point out that reneging on international treaty obligations would reduce UK's standing in the international community. But Prime Minister Johnson, like US President Donald Trump and most other populist leaders in Europe like Hungary's Victor Orban or Poland's Andrzej Duda  hardly care for any international laws, conventions or treaties.

Prime Minister  Johnson is firm on his view come what may and clearly indicated he "will not back down" and the legislation to be known as the "Internal Market  Bill" which will be tabled soon in Parliament that will override the agreement and will get through Parliament by December which some members within his party have considerable doubts. Already two former Prime Ministers have issued a statement opposing the bill.

According to the Financial Times the Bill is expected to "eliminate the legal force of parts of the Withdrawal Agreement" in areas covering Northern Ireland customs and state aid. A UK government spokesperson even said that the Bill was aimed at protecting Northern Ireland's place in the UK.

Furthermore, the UK government is suggesting that they are merely ensuring that Brussels does not have any backdoor control in the event of a no deal eventuating, hence trying to legally "tidying up loose ends". Brussels insists that under the agreement those details can only be finalised by a joint committee made up of representatives from the UK and the EU. But there is a catch-- one of the two parties can veto the outcome of a discussion undertaken within the  agreement framework. By introducing the Bill, the UK is forestalling that possibility.

All these are now done in the name of the UK's internal market to ensure trade between all four home nations; England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland remain barrier free after the Brexit transition period which expires on December 31, 2020.  Now what is the fuss about the UK internal market? The internal market dates back to 1706 and 1707, when the Union between England, Wales and Scotland was established and the internal market  was designed to ensure there is 'open and unhindered trade' among constituting nations of the Union.

However, all that changed when the UK joined what is now known as the EU in 1973 (then it was known as the European Economic Community), when all the British laws were superseded by the EU laws relating to trade. The issue became further complicated with devolution of powers to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in the 1990s when they were given power over some policy issues such as agriculture but constrained only by the relevant EU laws.

Therefore, the Internal Market Bill, according to the UK government aims to maintain the internal market made up of four nations of the UK to guarantee the international community that all trading nations can access the UK market with uniform standards and rules through out the country without any constraints from the EU. In summary, the Bill is designed to create a common set of rules that will apply across the whole of the UK including  Northern Ireland replacing all EU rules relating to trade.

Now the move has triggered a major row between London and Brussels and risks the collapse of trade talks between the EU and the UK. The EU considers such rewriting of parts of the agreement is an attempt by the UK to water down checks on goods flowing between Northern Ireland and the British mainland. The Bill gives ministers the power to decide for themselves, rather than the Agreement with the EU on checks on the movement of goods between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

Michael Barnier, the Chief EU negotiator has threatened to pull the plug on the talks if the Withdrawal Agreement  and it crucial Northern Ireland  protocol that avoids a hard border is not honoured. But  British Chief Brexit negotiator David Frost has called for 'realism' from the EU and has threatened to walk away from the ongoing talks with the EU now being held in London. The situation has now turned into a standoff.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said "this would break international law  and undermines trust". President of the European Council Charles Michel said that breaking international law was not acceptable and would stand in the way of building future relationship. Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney who was very central to the negotiation of the Withdrawal Agreement was astonished at the British move and said it was a 'very unwise move'.  Many also see the move as a power grab by the UK, which of course the UK government denies.

While the UK government emphasises that  it is fully committed to implementing the Northern Ireland Protocol in 'good faith', the introduction of the Bill clearly indicates a serious dearth of good faith. They also deny that the move is designed to pressure Brussels into doing a trade deal on the UK's terms. But opinions now differ whether such sabre-rattling will force the EU into a trade deal or ultimately torpedo the deal. But one thing is sure-- nobody expects progress in the talks this week and Michael Barnier is also most likely to be out paving the way for a leader level summit to break the deadlock.

However, on  Thursday (September 10) the EU issued an ultimatum to withdraw the bill as it violated international law or trade talks could collapse. The UK government said it would not budge. Now the chance of striking a deal is receding each day. Whether even a leader level summit now can produce a deal before the end of the transition period on December 31, 2020 is increasingly becoming doubtful.




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