Richard North, 21/11/2020  

Almost catatonic with boredom, I don't think I can stand reading yet another article about how close we are to a UK-EU agreement, apart from the differences that remain on fisheries, level playing field issues and governance. It doesn't matter how close we are to the finish line as long as these issues are outstanding, as long as the EU continues to adopt its rule of "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed".

The big question, of course, is whether Johnson and Frost are ready to make compromises in the next few days to secure a deal, now they don't have the malign presence of Dominic Cummings uttering what is said to be his favourite refrain of "fuck 'em", every time there is talk of concessions.

To that question at present, there is no clear (or any) answer, the alternative being that Johnson and his sidekick "double down" to prove to Eurosceptics they are willing to embrace the hardest of all hard Brexits in the name of national sovereignty – whatever that means.

But what we get from the Financial Times, when confronting the choices is the observation of a senior (but conveniently anonymous) official who says: "To tell you the truth, we don’t know - and frankly, I don't think the PM knows either".

Whether the official is telling the truth, or just made it up, or whether there is indeed an official, or the FT made it up, the observation itself nevertheless has the ring of truth. It would come as absolutely no surprise to learn that Johnson didn't have the first idea of what he was doing, and even less idea of where he wants to go.

But whether or not Johnson knows, it is a matter of certainty that no one else knows what he has in store, whether the EU negotiators in Brussels or the many businesses on both sides of the Channel who are waiting for some sign to indicate what is expected of them.

With less than six weeks to go, and at least a week of that covering the Christmas holiday period, there is hardly enough time left to communicate the changes which might arise from a settlement, much less train staff and introduce the systems necessary to cope with those changes.

Wisely, many firms will be putting their operations on hold over the new year period, until they have a better idea of what is expected of them, and in a period which is traditionally marked by low economic activity, it is unlikely that we will see much of the tumult which is being so eagerly anticipated by some sections of the media.

Northern Ireland may be a special case, with warnings that many food manufacturers in GB are planning to stop supplying the province on and after 1 January.

There then remains the question of whether Irish Republic firms can pick up the slack, perhaps even taking advantage of new ferry routes direct from the continent into Dublin and other Irish ports, bringing in goods from the rest of the Single Market.

It really would be quite ironic if one of the outcomes of Brexit was to break the links between Northern Ireland and GB and to increase the dependence of the Province on its southern neighbour and the rest of the EU.

It might then only be a matter of time before the euro was the dominant currency in circulation, with traders and their customers not bothering to convert back to sterling for as long as the local economy comes under the gravitational pull of the eurozone.

That this might happen has, of course, been long predicted, with the possibility that this could, in the fullness of time, lead to the reunification of the island, possibly with a federal structure that kept Stormont in business.

Then, there is even a possibility of Scotland strengthening its economic ties with Ireland, and distancing itself from England which, with what some see as the inevitable independence of Scotland, could give rise to a hard border between the north of England and the Scots.

Unthinkable though this might have been even a few years ago, the unthinkable is now dropping into the realm of being distinctly feasible, leaving open the question of whether an independent Scotland would then, on its own behalf, join the EU as a fully-fledged member.

With that, we would see the break up of the United Kingdom, the upside consolation being that England would once again become a nation state and the Westminster parliament would become mainly an English parliament – or totally so if the Welsh also sought independence.

With a population of just over three million, Wales itself could qualify as a member of the EU – it would by no means be the smallest state in the Union, which would put England in the "interesting" position of being an independent state, surrounded by EU/EEA members – albeit with the Channel between us and our southern neighbours and the North Sea to the east.

That would give us some similarity with the Swiss Federation, which has managed to prosper outside the EU/EEA grouping, although with extensive treaty arrangements with the EU and freedom of movement provisions which extend to the EU and other Efta members.

Ironies start to multiply if it ends up that we have to accept similar free movement provisions in order to seal the deal on a more comprehensive trading agreement than we are likely to get through Johnson's efforts.

And now that we're almost there, with talk of the "skinny" deal under consideration being very little better than a no-deal scenario, it is a matter of certainty that this will not be the final word.

Whether it is Johnson in person who goes cap-in-hand back to Brussels, or his successor, we cannot say. Nor can we guess at a timescale, other than to say that any additional negotiations will need to be sooner rather than later.

The guess is, though, that Johnson will do a runner once people realise what a total Horlicks he has made of Brexit, pleading the need to make millions out of after-dinner speaking, international conferences, and book advances. Come 2024, if the Conservative Party has not already self-destructed, we might see a newly invigorated Labour move their man into No 10 and open up negotiations with Brussels.

The ironies by then will be stacking up to Everest-scale proportions, if the final, more durable Brexit settlement is determined not by Johnson's conservatives (in name only), but by Labour, whence the deal will look very different from anything the Brexiteers might have imagined, conforming very closely with their worst nightmares.

But, if that comes to pass, it will not be a surprise. It was always going to be the case that an extreme version of Brexit was going to be unsustainable and, therefore, unstable – meaning that it could never be the last word. By going too far out on a limb, the Brexiteers may end up with nothing other than the break-up of the United Kingdom.

The one thing that is unlikely, however, is that we ever rejoin the EU – for the one simple reason that I can't ever see it wanting us back. But a new treaty – much overdue – may create an "associate" category, rationalising the Efta/EEA arrangements, and the likes of Ukraine and Turkey.

That would open the way for England to become a semi-detached member of the EU, on very much worse terms, and with considerably less leverage than it might have had if it had gone for the Efta/EEA option when we left the EU.

Inevitably, all this is speculation and, like Johnson, we have no real idea what is going to happen, other than to say that the bigger the mess he makes of Brexit, the narrower our options will become.

That leaves us the final irony in that the man who would be Churchill ends up closer to my namesake, not losing the Americas but the United Kingdom, leaving one Union to confront the destruction of the other. As legacies go, at least that will be remembered in the history books, although not for the reasons Johnson would have wanted.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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