Brexit, fish and the sovereignty chimera

Boris Johnson speaking in the USA when he was foreign secretary
U.S. Department of State from United States / Public domain

Johnson and von der Leyen are said to have spoken for an hour yesterday before deciding to push the whole thing back to their exhausted chief negotiators who couldn’t agree on Friday, in the hope they have suddenly discovered a way to bridge the huge ideological differences in their respective mandates in two days, after months of near constant dialogue.

Talks are to resume today in Brussels in what looks increasingly like a pointless exercise.

With just 25 days to go there is still no sign of a treaty and Brexit has turned from tragedy to farce, says Bernd Lange, German MEP and chair of the European Parliament Trade Committee, pointing out it takes 136 days on average to scrutinise a trade deal. There are just 25 days to go and still no sign of the treaty.

Ursula von der Leyen looked tired and depressed as she made a brief statement after speaking to Boris Johnson in the late afternoon. It cannot be easy trying to reach agreement with a man who has only the sketchiest idea of what’s going on anyway.

Johnson’s decision to refuse an extension last June was always a bad one, but if the talks simply run out of time it will look catastrophic. He may have a lot of explaining to do.

Earlier, Tony Connelly at the Irish broadcaster RTE, tweeted an insight into where we are on the three long-running, painful and politically charged issues of fish, governance and the level playing field. The EU seems to be absolutely rock solid. Anyone who thought Barnier was going soft, or offering too much, would be reassured that he is indeed holding firm.

Connelly claims on fishing, the UK has offered a three-year status quo on access for EU registered vessels in the 12-mile to 200-mile sea area of the UK’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), after which the UK would regain total control of access.

On quotas, the UK is apparently seeking €300m of demersal (bottom-feeding) fish to be transferred from the value of what the EU currently catches.

Barnier has countered with a demand for ten years reciprocal access, with penalties to be applied if the UK restricts EU vessels after that. On quotas he has stuck to his offer to restore 15 to 18 percent of the fish caught by EU fleets in British waters to the UK, which has already been rejected.

Difficult and iconic as it is, fishing looks easier to resolve, since it’s a matter of dividing up the access and quotas in a way that both sides find acceptable. Also, fishing is just too small to allow the entire agreement to fall.

The bigger problem is sovereignty, on which the UK remains ‘hardcore’ or so Connelly has been told. If talks do breakdown, it will surely be on the interlinked issues of the level playing field and governance, and the extent to which we follow EU principles if not their rules, on environmental, employment and other flanking policies. The UK is seeking to diverge, whilst keeping tariff and quota-free access to the single market.

The issues touch on the whole question of national sovereignty, as seen by the UK government. A post on the LSE blog last month questioned the way Brexiters like Johnson (if indeed that is what he is) have defined sovereignty, and it draws a distinction between sovereignty and national interests. The writer, Nicholas Westcott, a research associate at the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy, University of London, says:

“Real sovereignty is about protecting a country’s interests, not simply its borders and laws, and by that measure every form of Brexit now on offer reduces Britain’s sovereignty, and a ‘no deal’ Brexit damages it most”.

Westcott argues Brexiters’ definition of sovereignty is wrong. Trading across borders means regulating across borders, and the more you want to trade, the more regulation you need.

‘Sovereignty’ in this context means having control not only of regulation in your domestic market but in the markets that you sell to and buy from.

Membership of the single market has allowed us to extend our sovereignty to mainland Europe, giving us “far greater influence over the shape of regulation in our main market, as well as on the position of Europe in international affairs – an issue that matters more and more. It provided a de facto veto on both. That is, you won’t always get your own way, but you can prevent your neighbours from going the wrong way”.

Brexit, Westcott adds, delivers a chimera – a paper-only sovereignty – and although it sounds good, it has no practical effect. We become a rule-taker from countries and Unions bigger than us, rather than a rule-maker.

Finally, from The Times yesterday morning a “senior government figure” said there was concern that January could bring a confluence of crises that would test Mr Johnson and the fragile machine behind him to the limits.

“January is going to be a shitshow, we’re preparing for the mother of all Januaries. Deal or no deal there are major issues at the borders, the weather is worse, you could get a third Covid peak . . . If we can get through to spring things can get better. But we’ve got a series of potentially once-in-a-generation crises coming all at the same time.”

A “senior government figure” in The Times 5 December 2020

You have been warned.

Can you help us reach more readers?