“Michel Barnier has said Britain would get a better brexit deal if he were negotiating with himself”
— attributed to comedian Henning Wehn.
The sad thing is, the quip is probably true! The real problems lie not between the UK and EU, nor even between political parties here, but within the governing Tory party.
I’ve been meaning to write most of this post – less the above joke – for a long time. I think since last December, when they announced the ‘backstop’ agreement to the Irish border issue. An agreement that was never going to be acceptable to the hardliners, and looked set up as vehicle for pushing blame onto the EU when the UK started to mess with it. But if so, that looks to be failing, as it seems the hardliners eschew such a “double-cross them later” fudge and reject it now.
So what is standing in the way of an agreement? At the core of it are two red lines:
EU red line: the integrity of the rules and regulations that protect our people and other things we care about.
Brexiteer red line: we must not be bound by EU rules: they stand in the way of trade agreements.
OK, that’s a bit abstract. There’s exactly one trade agreement that’s at issue here, and (so far as I’m aware) just one set of EU rules that’s really relevant. The trade agreement is of course with the US, and the rules in question are food safety. Because the US red line that has prevented a big US-EU trade agreement over many years is their freedom to export to us a range of foods that are banned here. I don’t have the expertise to say who is right or wrong when it comes to America’s wide range of genetically modified foods, chlorinated chicken, or beef pumped full of growth hormone (though I’d want to avoid the latter myself if I ate meat in the first place), but we’ll have to accept them if we want that US trade agreement.
So that’s the UK importing all those foods, now legally. And the US exporting them in bulk. And with consequential issues: the US will want to prevent backdoor restraint of trade, so a US importer should have a clear case in law against a British supermarket that uses a labelling scheme (like red tractor) prejudicial to the imports. And that’s a problem for British farmers: how are they to compete if we hold them to higher standards? What happens to the countryside if we lower our own standards to help them compete?
The EU wants to keep them out. It knows there will be smuggling (as with illegal drugs), but we must at least seek to minimise it: confine it to the margins. In the absence of proper border checks, the only limit on smuggling is the capacity of transport links between Belfast and Dublin. Hence the problem over that Irish border.
And it seems the EU really are insisting on the open border if we’re to have agreement. They made concessions in aid of that at the outset: notably the declaration that the Irish border is a unique case, thus avoiding problems like the Spanish feeling the need to veto an agreement that would be unacceptable to them on the Gibraltar border.
Looks like stalemate. Who will blink?
Mrs May has tried to deal with that by preserving regulatory alignment on goods – including of course food standards. But the US lobbyists in her own party won’t stand for that. So unless she can beat them, probably with help from other parties in parliament, that’s going nowhere. And her compromise-attempt was wrapped in a package so convoluted as to present problems to more than just the hard-brexiteers.
Still looks like stalemate. Who will blink?
What about the brexiteer proposal that technology can be a solution? The only real question there is, why do our mainstream media allow such disingenuous distraction to stand? Technology might serve to implement a solution, but that can only happen if and when there’s a political solution to implement! Claiming it as a solution in itself is about as useful to that as supplying bikes to fish: its only purpose is to confuse the issue and throw a spanner in negotiations. I consider the failure to debunk it comprehensively to be Gross Negligence on the part of the mainstream media.
 I wonder if that even need have been true if our politicians hadn’t made such a big issue of the standards? If we could have honestly said to the US “our hands are tied”, might a maverick like Trump have moved his red lines (with, no doubt, some give-and-take elsewhere) in the interests of showing the world “look, we can have a trade agreement”?