It’s a strange thing but there is a sense that the effects of the global pandemic currently ravaging the globe have been an almost welcome distraction from the other big current news event in the UK – Brexit. Quite rightly, the media’s attention has been focused on the UK’s response to Covid-19; the progress of Brexit negotiations makes an odd appearance in the middle pages of the newspapers, but nothing more. Even with the expected Winter “second-strike” of the virus though, I suspect that is going to change as we move ever closer to deadline day on 1 January.
This is a difficult one for the negotiator to analyse because so much of the face-to-face meetings remain unreported other than in the odd informal comment made by either of the teams – the European team lead by Michel Barnier and the UK team by David Frost. A recently leaked Government document speaks of food and fuel shortages in the UK; public disorder and price rises; troops being drafted onto the streets to help police maintain control and the Royal Navy being deployed in UK waters to protect them against European fishermen. Oh, and did anyone mention Covid-19?
Barnier is apparently keen to resolve areas of difference especially on fishing rights and the so-called “level playing field”, but Frost finds himself in a difficult space for the negotiator – playing to numerous conductors, all with their own spin on what a good exit deal looks like. You have the hardliners, represented by the likes of Nigel Farage and the European Research Group, a lobbying group of MPs within the conservative party. They are almost keen for a “hard” Brexit, it would seem. The more they lobby and pressurise, the more the likelihood that they will get their wish (hard Brexit). Then you have the soft majority of “leave voters”, did they vote for such a hardline result? Probably not.
Maybe the most influential person in all of this is Boris Johnson’s advisor, Dominic Cummings. According to the Financial Times, he favours a “minimal, light-touch regime for state aid for British business”. It appears that there is no chance that the EU will conclude an agreement on those terms, though. Others believe that a kind of fudged deal will emerge that allows the UK room to diverge from EU rules on human rights, state aid and certain standards, but then not implement any of the changes. The likes of the ERG will not accept this watered-down version.
To be honest, it looks like a clean break “hard” Brexit, which brings us back to troops and the Royal Navy. Sometimes, when there is no overlap, no meeting of minds, no convergence of interests, there is no deal. For purists, that looks like good news but for pragmatists – maybe not.