By MARCUS STEAD
THE DEAL struck between the United Kingdom government and the European Union would’ve received much more scrutiny but for two things: Firstly, because it concluded during a particularly grim period of a global pandemic. Secondly, because it concluded on the afternoon of Christmas Eve.
So what are we to make of it? There is a great deal of room for cautious optimism. This deal isn’t perfect, the United Kingdom hasn’t got everything it wants, there will be bumps in the road ahead, but Boris Johnson was given a mandate by the electorate a little over a year ago to get Brexit done, and on that, he has delivered.
Just think of how far we’ve come in the last two years. We had Prime Minister Theresa May and her Chequers surrender, a Withdrawal Agreement she’d negotiated that would’ve left us with Brexit in name only, leaving the United Kingdom with EU vassal status indefinitely. We had the disgraceful spectacle of a Parliament and a Speaker of the House of Commons doing everything they could to try to frustrate, delay, water down and preferably block Brexit. It felt at that time as though the best we could hope for was membership of EFTA, with a Norway-style arrangement. What we’ve now got is something far better.
Unlike Norway, the UK won’t have to pay a penny to Brussels for access to the Single Market. Boris Johnson’s team, headed by David Frost, has negotiated the first no-tariffs, no-quotas deal the EU has agreed with any other country.
Freedom of movement will end. European Court of Justice jurisdiction will end. We will regain control of our money, our borders and our laws.
Those who still don’t really accept the result of the 2016 referendum are talking a lot about the Erasmus European student exchange programme, which will no longer be accessible to British students. But the good news is it’s being replaced by a new scheme, named after the British Enigma genius Alan Turing, which’ll give students the chance to attend the best universities not just in Europe but anywhere the world.
The chairman of Tesco supermarkets, John Allen, says any changes to food prices after the deal has been implemented are likely to be ‘very modest indeed’ and would ‘hardly be felt in terms of the prices consumers are paying’.
Before and after the referendum, much of the mainstream British media, especially the BBC, has engaged in ‘Project Fear’. And the scaremongering has continued in recent months, especially from the BBC – and people are noticing. Last month, the media regular Ofcom showed just 58% of viewers trust BBC News to be impartial, that figure was below all the other mainstream TV news providers in the UK – Sky News , Channel 4, ITV and Channel 5. The BBC is the least trusted of them, and that is extraordinary.
Inevitably with this deal, the devil is in the detail. It was struck on Christmas Eve, most people’s minds have been on other things in the last few days. We’ve had 500 pages released already, with another 1,500 still to come. There are likely to be some unpleasant details buried deep in there, put in by sneaky but clever EU lawyers.
There are two main areas of concern: The first is over fisheries. Since entering what was then the EEC in 1973, the British fishing industry has been utterly decimated as a direct consequence. Fishing rights feel ‘emotionally important’ in negotiations as a result, but in terms of fishing’s economic importance, it is minuscule. In 2016, turnover for the entire UK fishing industry was £725 million. To put that into perspective, the turnover for Harrods department store alone was £2 billion.
Those in what’s left of our fishing industry have good reason to be disappointed with this agreement, foreign vessels will still be allowed to trawl our waters and take a large chunk of the catch for the next five-and-a-half years. But come 2026, we’ll assume full autonomy over our fisheries, but on the plus side, that’ll give us time to rebuild our fishing fleet with the help of Government grants.
The other area that gives some cause for concern is regulatory alignment. There are level playing field measures which commit both the UK and the EU to maintain common standards on workers’ rights, as well as many social and environmental regulations. They don’t have to be identical, so the UK does not have to follow EU law, but they do have to be seen to protect fair competition. The UK has also agreed to stick to common principles on how state aid regimes work, and to an independent competition agency which will assess them – how ‘independent’ will that agency really be? That is a step too far for my liking, I’d prefer it if this wasn’t the case, but it’s something we can live with. It also means that the Government would likely face obstacles if it tried to nationalise a major industry or played a major interventionalist role in certain sectors. Could, for example, the Government create a major state-owned ship building company under this deal? Quite possibly not.
The United Kingdom and the European Union have never been a comfortable fit, going right back to when Prime Minister Edward Heath took us into what was then the EEC in 1973. At that time, and in the referendum of 1975, the British people were told that this was essentially about creating closer trading links, but in reality it has always been a political project, and the concept of ‘ever closer union’ in terms of political union has never sat very easily with the United Kingdom. And from the time of the Maastricht Treaty onwards, it was very clear indeed that this was more about politics than about trade – principles of sovereignty, parliamentary democracy and accountability were at stake.
The European Union is not so much a capitalist institution, it’s more corporatist. It is a friend to big multinationals but it isn’t on the side of small and medium sized businesses. An important point that’s often overlooked is that big, multinational corporations very often support layers of bureaucracy and new regulations, because they have the money and resources to implement them, but they also know full well that small and medium sized business very often will be severely damaged by more regulations and red tape. For small and medium sized business to thrive, they need flexibility and a much lower level of regulation.
There was always a tension because of our histories. Continental Europe has a history of Civil Law. The United Kingdom’s legal system is based on Common Law, the Magna Carta, Habeus Corpus, and the relationship between the citizen and the state is completely different. In the United Kingdom, the principle always was that you were free to do whatever you wished unless it was prohibited by law. In many European countries, the state tells you what your rights as citizens are. And because of these very different systems and ways of interpreting law, implementing EU law in the United Kingdom has often been an uncomfortable experience.
It’s also important to point out that because EU law overrode laws made by the House of Commons, as far as the British people were concerned, whatever you want, you cannot have. It didn’t matter if all 650 MPs in the House of Commons were opposed to a piece of legislation. EU law always took precedent over what was decided in the UK Parliament.
So now that we are free from the shackles of the EU, we have some big decisions to make as to what sort of a country we want to build. Do we want to go down the route of Singapore, with an entrepreneurial, low-regulation economy, or do we favour a different model along socialist, interventionist lines, which would also have been impossible while in the EU? There’s a big debate to be had about that, the size of the task is enormous – there are a significant number of MPs in the House of Commons who are not up to the job, the calibre of elected representative across all parties will need to improve, but it’s an important debate to have now we have the flexibility we didn’t have in the EU.
Is this deal absolute perfection? No. Is it considerably better than Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement? Definitely. Is it better than being part of the undemocratic and bureaucratic European Union? Undoubtedly, yes.
There will be some teething troubles and some bumps along the road in the months ahead, but all in all, there’s much to celebrate with this agreement. People in so-called ‘red wall’ seats that had been Labour for generations took a huge leap of faith last December by electing Conservative MPs on a key manifesto pledge of getting Brexit done. On that, Boris Johnson has delivered.