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Brexit: the end of the beginning

2019-12-31 07:31:39

In a tedious piece that probably could only be written by a Guardian columnist, Zoe Williams tells us that Brexit is a Conservative disaster that the Conservatives must own, and then goes on to say that, by 2024, "Brexit will be in the past, and the government will be trying to blame its inevitable woes on some enemy other than Europe".

This sentiment is somewhat typical of the chattering classes. For decades before Brexit, they were intent on ignoring the EU and (especially) the Eurosceptic movement and now, with Brexit still centre-stage, they cannot wait to consign it to oblivion and return to obsessing about their own preoccupations.

But a small hint as to why little Zoe's prediction might be somewhat premature comes via the somewhat unprepossessing figure of European trade commissioner, and full-time Irishman, Phil Hogan (pictured).

He has taken advantage of the Christmas hiatus to make a few provocative comments about the UK's coming negotiations, telling the Irish Times that Johnson will abandon his pledge on the Brexit transition period and will, after all, go for an extension.

One must understand, though, that this is not the revelation of a Brussels insider primed with knowledge of matters beyond the reach of mere mortals. It is nothing more than the man's "belief", given prominence because of his exalted position. We could all make such predictions but, prestige being what it is, none of them would be printed in the Irish Times, or anywhere else for that matter.

Anyhow, with Hogan in full-flow, he tells his esteemed national newspaper that, "In the past, we saw the way the prime minister promised to die in the ditch rather than extend the deadline for Brexit, only for him to do just that", then delivering his verdict, expressed in suitably forthright terms.

"I don't believe prime minister Johnson will die in the ditch over the timeline for the future relationship either", he says, then describing it as "very odd" the British government’s decision to include a clause in legislation ruling out an extension of the transition period beyond the end of 2020. To Hogan this move is a "political stunt".

Warming to his theme, Hogan goes on to say that Johnson had delivered "a very impressive majority" in the general election but he now needed "to show leadership and use that majority for the good of the nation".

A "good Brexit deal", he says, "could have a unifying effect after what had been a divisive period for the UK, but on the flipside a no-deal Brexit would pour salt into wounds and risk dividing families, communities and regions".

There, writ large, is precisely the reason why our Zoe's prediction isn't going to come true. To an extent, Hogan is right in saying that a "good Brexit deal" could have a unifying effect, but that ship has long since sailed. With the serial incompetence of Mrs May, compounded by the wrecking tactics of Johnson, the very last thing we're going to get is a good Brexit deal. This drama is going to run and run.

Hogan alludes to that, saying that too much of the debate in the UK over the past four years had been based on "the false notion that it is possible to make a clean-break Brexit while retaining all the benefits of EU membership".

But he then enters unicorn territory, offering the notion that, now that the political deadlock at Westminster is broken, "the next phase of Brexit needs to be based on realism and hard facts". Says Hogan: "Any 'having our cake and eat it' rhetoric will not fly. Both sides need to proceed calmly and coherently".

Nothing in the make-up of the current Conservative government, however, suggests that it intends to proceed "calmly and coherently". Rather, there is every expectation that we will be fed a diet of rhetoric on how the EU is "punishing" us as it refuses to roll over and give Johnson open access to the Single Market.

Thus, whatever else happens, Brexit won't be "done" on 31 January, and nor will it be done on 31 December 2020, when the transition period is currently scheduled to end. And, with a huge overhang of unfinished business, the one thing we can guarantee is that conflict with the EU will continue well past 2024, dominating the political agenda.

The interesting thing is that Hogan doesn't seem to be able to take "no" for an answer. When asked about the addition of a clause to the Brexit Bill ruling out any extension to the transition period beyond the end of 2020, he considers this "very odd indeed". From the EU's point of view, he says, "it is important that we move from stunt to substance". He adds: "It would be helpful if the focus was on content rather than timetables".

There, the man is being a little presumptive for, as he goes on to say, discussions on the future relationship will involve "complex and difficult choices". Yet those choices will take time – far more than the additional two years allowed for in the transitional period extension agreement.

Failing to join up the dots, Hogan talks glibly about "an ambitious free trade agreement", not perhaps understanding that the elements of a settlement will take far longer than the time allowed.

Furthermore, for a man who will take a central role in guiding the EU through the labyrinth of the trade talks with the UK, he seems dangerously muddled in his thinking, falling for the same rhetoric that we hear from British politicians, as he declares: "there are positive aspects for making progress. We are not starting from scratch: 45 years of EU membership has led to deep integration in trade and investment and integrated supply chains".

It has at least dawned on the man that the UK government is intent on going backwards, not forwards, as he acknowledges that the UK wants to disentangle that integration and diverge from the EU. This, he says, "will have negative consequences for our economies", but he doesn't seem to appreciate the difficulties inherent in reverse integration.

Still, though, he clings to the mantra of "an ambitious free trade agreement", stating that it "will not change the facts on Brexit", especially on goods, as the the UK government "has so far avoided any statement of the UK aligning with the EU on regulatory aspects".

Still leaving the dots scattered all over the place, he lifts from what appears to be some of Barnier's thinking, that the reality of Brexit means there will be "two markets, not a single market". He then echoes von der Leyen's muddled rhetoric, saying that barriers to trade that EU membership had abolished would now have to be re-erected, not because the EU wanted to do so but because the UK had chosen it.

This is a man who is not on top of his brief, a status he more or less goes on to affirm when he tells us that, "As things stand the UK wants to leave the single market and customs union. This move still baffles me because the full consequences of that decision are still not understood in the UK. Why trade a Rolls Royce for a second-hand saloon?"

If this is a serious comment then we are in for a torrid time in the months and years to come, as we will have the two parties taking past each other without ever engaging. This is more so when Hogan states that "preserving the integrity of the single market remained the top priority for the EU". This, he says, is not just the view of the European Commission but of the 27 remaining member states.

That is where the rock meets the hard place. When time is up, on 31 December 2020, exactly one year from now, very little will have been settled. We will be in Churchill territory, having simply reached the end of the beginning. And the end is not going to be reached by 2024. Zoe Williams will have to eat her words.