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Brexit: another day, another deadline

2020-12-18 07:37:35

Yesterday started well enough, I suppose, with the European Parliament agreeing to hold off pulling the plug until Sunday, allowing Barnier that much time to conclude an agreement before declaring that it would be too late to ratify in time.

That immediately raised speculation that a deal was in the offing, as the preferred deadline had been close of business today. When Barnier interceded, with a request for a delay, telling the leaders of the political groups that the deal was "difficult but possible", he got his way.

Things did not look so good when David Frost intervened, complaining that the situation was "very serious". Progress, he said, "seems blocked and time is running out".

Frost referred to a telephone conversation between von der Leyen and Johnson another one evoking a fairly anodyne response from vdL. This was a stocktaking exercise, she said. We welcomed substantial progress on many issues.

As always, "big differences remain to be bridged, in particular on fisheries". "Bridging them will be very challenging", our Ursula said, adding that negotiations would continue today.

This time though, we get the detailed statement from Johnson's office, from which we learn that the prime minister "underlined that the negotiations were now in a serious situation".

He like virtually everyone else in the game seems wedded to statements of the bleedin' obvious, so he told us that "time was very short" just in case we didn't know but then said that "it now looked very likely that agreement would not be reached unless the EU position changed substantially".

In what might be judged by some (but not others) as confrontational, he told vdL that the UK team was "making every effort to accommodate reasonable EU requests on the level playing field, but even though the gap had narrowed "some fundamental areas remained difficult".

On fisheries, Johnson was even less positive. He "stressed that the UK could not accept a situation where it was the only sovereign country in the world not to be able to control access to its own waters for an extended period and to be faced with fisheries quotas which hugely disadvantaged its own industry".

The EU's position in this area, Johnson said, " was simply not reasonable and if there was to be an agreement it needed to shift significantly". Then, with another homily about time being short, he said that, "if no agreement could be reached, the UK and the EU would part as friends, with the UK trading with the EU on Australian-style terms".

At several levels, therefore, Johnson has continued to confirm to the world that he is an idiot, not least in his persistent references to " Australian-style terms". This just goes to show how terminally inflexible his thinking is, after it has long been pointed out that the term is meaningless.

But, like so many of his predecessors, Johnson continues to struggle with the concept of sovereignty. Yet, looking at the first part of his statement on fisheries, his claim is not only conceptually dubious, but also factually wrong.

The UK, Johnson avers, "could not accept a situation where it was the only sovereign country in the world not to be able to control access to its own waters for an extended period". Yet all he has to do is look as some of the EU's bilateral fishing agreements with third countries.

For the exchange of cash, the EU takes control of lucrative fishing areas in the territorial waters of other sovereign states, often buying up exclusive access to the detriment of the artisan fishermen in those waters very much to the detriment of local industries which rely on locally caught fish for canneries and other enterprises.

The point is that access to fisheries is a tradable commodity. A sovereign nation may freely decide to allow foreign fishing vessels into its waters, just as it can decide to exclude them. What counts in terms of the ability to make that decision is sovereignty. Whether the nation then has the power to enforce that decision is another different if allied issue.

In the UK context, it is very clear that the EU recognises the sovereign rights of the UK, otherwise it wouldn't be sitting at a table trying to barter a deal on fisheries. The very fact that it accepts that it must have a deal in order for vessels to continue fishing is de facto recognition of our sovereignty.

Whether Johnson then cares to trade access (and quota) as part of a broader deal is entirely up to him (and his government) and the fact that he is prepared to reject EU demands and walk away without a deal again is an expression of sovereignty.

Whether, of course, the UK is in a position fully to enforce a fishing ban on EU vessels is another matter. Certainly, the UK has enough financial clout to make the resources available, adding ships and aircraft to its fleet to ensure that any intruders are seen off, or impounded.

Should the latter be the case, then the UK will reserve the sovereign right to hold on to the property of foreign nationals, to try foreign skippers in its own courts and impose penalties dictated by British law, and take measures to enforce them all expressions of sovereignty.

Oddly enough, one of the few sources which is reasonably sound on this issue is the Financial Times which had yesterday its columnist Philip Stephens make the point that the Brexiters' fatal confusion between sovereignty and power is about to be exposed.

The point is actually better made by Martin Wolf in May 2016, where he writes under the headline, "Brexit: sovereignty is not the same as power", with the sub-head: "The very fact that the UK is holding a vote on membership of the EU shows that it is sovereign".

This effectively means that Johnson is fighting the wrong battles over the wrong issues. If he was secure in the knowledge that the UK retains its sovereignty, come what may and retained it during our period of membership of the EU it gives him far more freedom to barter, without getting on his high horse.

Some years ago, I worked up an outline, independent fishing policy for the UK, then estimating that it would take at least ten years to develop and implement a fully-fledged policy and roll it out throughout the UK. Acting logically, we can afford that much time to allow the EU to transition, without in any way breaching our sovereignty.

But, as we've seen so often, Johnson doesn't have time for nuance or subtlety. This is the man who, as foreign secretary, complained of the EU's stance being akin to administering "punishment beatings", penalising our "escape" from the EU.

This is not a man who is temperamentally or intellectually equipped to lead a complex negotiation with the EU and, at this eleventh hour, he is showing up his own inadequacies.

But, as we face yet another deadline, the issue of the moment is whether it will hold. After Sunday comes Monday the ultimate statement of the bleedin' obvious. Where will we be then?

Also published on Turbulent Times.