Failing? Blame someone else!

Michel Barnier
Photo by EU Council Eurozone is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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The Daily Telegraph carried a remarkable article yesterday claiming that the main obstacle to getting a post Brexit deal on trade (and other matters) with the EU is simply the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier.

Blaming a Frenchman always goes down well with parts of the British public, but lashing out at Barnier is facile. Barnier negotiates on the basis of a mandate given him by the elected governments of the 27 EU member countries. He reports back to them after every meeting. He is also grilled by elected MEPs in the European Parliament. To suggest that it is all his fault, and that sacking him is the solution that would immediately unblock the deadlock, is ludicrous.

The talks are in deadlock because the government is reneging on commitments that were spelled out in the Brexit deal, signed by Johnson last autumn, and approved by parliament in January. Johnson made these commitments to get the deal through – and promptly did a U-turn straight afterwards, as he does on so many issues.

The deal had two parts: a withdrawal agreement (the divorce arrangements) and a political declaration (spelling out what both sides agreed for the future relationship). The current negotiations are about implementing the latter.

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One of the things Britain accepted was that, if it wants unfettered access to the EU market for its exports (upon which millions of jobs depend), it must meet the same standards of consumer protection and fair competition. Thus, paragraph 77 of the political declaration said that “the Parties should … maintain environmental, social and employment standards at the current high levels provided by the existing common standards” (those standards being the EU standards that we have helped to shape over the last half century).

To ensure a common application of those standards, the agreement provided (para 131) that, “should a dispute raise a question of interpretation of provisions or concepts of Union law, [they will] refer the question to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) as the sole arbiter of Union law, for a binding ruling as regards the interpretation of Union law. Conversely, there should be no reference to the CJEU where a dispute does not raise such a question.”

It is these commitments that Johnson is now trying to pretend don’t exist. Yet they are the guarantee for Britain that it will still be able to access the single market without tariffs (border taxes), quotas and regulatory bureaucracy. Why is he doing this? Because he wants Britain to abandon our high European standards on food safety, workers’ rights, consumer protection, animal welfare, and the environment in order to embrace lower US standards and secure a trade deal with the USA. 

Unsurprisingly, our European neighbours (with whom we conduct most of our trade) do not look favourably on the idea of letting sub-standard products onto their market. And they are aghast that the government wants to tear up what had previously been agreed. Replacing Mr Barnier would not change that one iota. 

Richard Corbett is former MEP for Yorkshire and Humber and former Labour leader in the European Parliament.

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