The marathon soap series that Brexit has become is approaching its final episode. Boris will meet with Ursula von der Leyen in one final showdown before the studio lights go out and the cast find themselves in the finest acting tradition ‘between jobs’.
Three issues remain apparently immovable and unstoppable: fish, sovereignty and arbitration.
The problem with the British interpretation of sovereignty is it is still associated with sovereignty of empire rather than nation.
It is incredible that over half a century after the empire finally withered away that many British people still think of it as a wonderful legacy the world inherited.
In a state inculcated with the notion that its influence should be paramount globally the idea that the UK should compromise on any form of control is difficult for many to swallow. This was always the problem Britain had while a member of the EU and the mainstay of the Brexit chauvinism itself.
It is absolutely fascinating that the arch no-deal Brexiteers think that leaving under WTO rules somehow protects this ideology. It is absolutely the opposite.
Outside the EU with no free trade agreement the UK will have to negotiate every aspect of trade individually. The WTO is not about access to markets but about conduct within them. Without a deal there is no guarantee of access at all.
Every time the UK wants to trade it will be faced with a never ending set of negotiations that will inevitably require compromises.
This will not place the UK in a stronger negotiating position, it will allow the enormously powerful EU bureaucracy to deal with it an argument at a time. Inevitably there will be more compromises this way than those required by the deal.
The obvious first casualty of the no-deal Brexit is one so close to the Brexiteers’ hearts. Currently the EU states buy most of the fish landed by UK vessels. How long do the UK government think it will take the EU to find alternatives? With no deal, no EU state will be obliged to buy the fish at all.
The level playing field is another. With no deal, the EU will be perfectly equipped to obstruct trade with companies that are state subsidised, the WTO itself allows that if the subsidy gives an unfair advantage, countries affected may impose a tariff known as a countervailing duty.
This would have the intended effect of making the subsidy pointless. In fact, worse than pointless since the UK taxpayer would be paying for the state aid directly. More to the point, this would be a continuing process, every time the UK government handed out state aid there would need to be further tortuous negotiation.
The problem of an adjudicator to replace the European Court of Justice will in a no deal situation result in the WTO adopting that role.
The WTO is concerned with a much larger level playing field than that occupying the minds of the UK government. It is not only the economies of the UK and EU that will be damaged by no deal, but those of developing countries too. The WTO is highly unlikely to favour the UK in arbitration if the UK is the source of the problem.
The very idea that the WTO is a safety net is quite absurd. With the global re-engagement of the US following the victory of Joe Biden in last month’s election, the WTO cannot be relied upon to take Britain’s side in every trade dispute that a no deal might bring.
Trump went out of his way to weaken the WTO, a rejuvenated organisation with a fully staffed appellate court facilitated by the Biden administration is not going to be guaranteed to protect the UK’s insular interests.
So that brings us back to sovereignty. Should the UK/EU trade negotiations fail, a dispute at the WTO tribunal is only a matter of time. If the UK loses such a dispute, then it will only have two choices. Gracefully concede, which of course involves conceding sovereignty over the decision to the WTO, or perhaps someone might want to start a new campaign to exit the WTO too.
We have all just witnessed the demise of the short lived America First experiment. Slamming the door on global cooperation for the sake of some half-baked idea of being great again ended in abject failure.
Boris Johnson learned a lot from Donald Trump during the latter’s one term presidency. Let’s hope he recognises that the strongest lesson of all comes from the way Trump’s pipe dream ended.