January 25th 2020

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Wildfires: Lessons from the past not yet learnt

EDITORIAL America 'resets' foreign policy on China and Russia

CANBERRA OBSERVED After the fires, we still need an economy and to power it

GENDER POLITICS In trans Newspeak, parental consent is a 'hurdle'

REFLECTION Conjugal honour: Love of husband and wife joined together in pure intimacy

LIFE ISSUES Pro-lifers punished for exposing baby harvesting

LAW AND SOCIETY Cardinal Pell and the Appeal Court judges

LITERATURE AND SOCIETY The poetry of Distributism

AUSTRALIAN HISTORY Botany Bay: Always more than a dumping ground

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Finally getting Brexit done

HUMOUR The MacStuttles probe

MUSIC From retch to wretched

CINEMA Three times the bravura: 1917, The Gentlemen, Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon

BOOK REVIEW The contradictions of the dominant ideology

BOOK REVIEW Novel celebrates inventor of literary fairytales



HUMAN RIGHTS A Magnitsky-style law for Australia?

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Finally getting Brexit done

by Colin Teese

News Weekly, January 25, 2020

Boris Johnson’s handsome win in the British election was hardly surprising, really, given the policy Jeremy Corbyn’s Labor put to the electorate.

You figure it out. Labor promised to negotiate a new deal with Brussels for Britain’s exit from the European Union. That deal would be put to the electorate at a new referendum. Labor would encourage the electorate to vote against it.

Is it any wonder that traditional Labor voters turned to the Tory party in droves?

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is now in a strong position. Unlike the government of the hapless Theresa May, Johnson’s Conservatives are now purged of the disruptive elements that wanted to reverse the outcome of the 2016 referendum and keep Britain in the EU.

Dissident elements not only made it impossible for Mrs May to govern effectively, they handed the EU negotiators a critically important negotiating advantage, which was ruthlessly exploited.

None of these problems confront Boris Johnson. His government enjoys a functioning majority fully behind the leader’s policy for leaving the EU.

The new PM’s renegotiated transition agreement will soon be passed into law by the new Parliament. As of February 1, 2020, Britain will have formally left the EU. Formally, but not yet entirely. Nothing about Brexit is simple.

February 1 marks the start of a transition period during which the two parties will attempt to conclude the necessary arrangements for a future relationship between the EU and Britain. During the transition, Britain will be in a kind of limbo – not entirely in, not entirely out of the EU. Importantly, though, Britain will be able, simultaneously, to begin negotiations on bilateral trade agreements with other countries, which can come into effect after December 31, 2020.

Such negotiations are already under way.

With or without an agreement, the transition period will end on December 31 2020. Prime Minister Johnson has made that clear.

Compare this with what happened under the government of Theresa May. Dissident members of her government who wanted to remain in the EU closed off the option of leaving without an agreement. As a result, negotiations effectively came to a halt.

Boris Johnson’s win has changed all of that. Under his leadership, deal or no deal, Britain will be out of Europe on January 1, 2021. This certainty is important. Under Mrs May’s government, all the negotiating advantage lay with the EU. Now the position is reversed. Britain has the upper hand.

With a departure date set in stone, the pressure is on the EU negotiators to conclude a reasonable deal with Britain; and that pressure will come not merely from the British, but from those powerful member states of the EU: especially Germany and France, which have vital trading links with Britain. A no-deal Brexit would leave them seriously disadvantaged.

During Mrs May’s prime-ministership, those countries were happy enough to go along with the “take no prisoners” approach of the EU negotiators, on the basis that there was no prospect of Britain leaving without a deal. “Remainers” in Mrs May’s government would see to that.

Curiously, very little has been heard publicly from the EU side since Johnson’s election – except from the EU’s principal negotiator, Monsieur Michel Barnier. He has expressed doubts about whether a trade agreement can be concluded within a year. Thus far, nobody on his own side has endorsed that view.

More about that later but, in the meantime, a point should be underlined. If most, but not all, of an agreement is agreed by December 31, 2020, it would not be unreasonable for Johnson to agree to a short extension (say, a few weeks) to finalise details of a deal.

But what about Barnier’s point? Is it impossible to conclude an agreement by the end of 2020? It depends. What mainly remains to be agreed is the future trading relationship. Most, if not all, of the other important issues have been settled, at least in principle. Filling in the gaps will not be difficult or time consuming.

The British will be entitled to say in response to Barnier, if so many trade issues remain unresolved, that is because the EU is dragging its feet. From the very beginning it has refused to discuss trade until all other issues had been resolved. It is the EU that must now unblock the path to an agreement.

Much of the commentariat insists that trade agreements take years to negotiate. Canada/EU, they say, is a case in point. Certainly, that is true, if the parties are starting from scratch. But Britain and the EU have been trading inside a free trade agreement for over 40 years. All aspects of the trading relationship between them are fully exposed. What the parties must now decide is how much of the existing relationship can be retained in the new circumstances.

The difficulties here are more political than economic. Theoretically, the negotiation ahead is between Britain and the EU. However, another negotiation will be under way simultaneously. The dominant member states (Germany and France) will be pushing their own agendas on the EU administration and its negotiators.

Once trade negotiations start touching on vital economic interests of major EU powers, the capacity of the EU administration to make decisions of behalf of the entire European Community is diminished. The big powers will start calling the shots, in order to safeguard their trading arrangements.

On the other hand, the EU administration’s overwhelming aim is to uphold the integrity of the European project. Resolving the conflicts these interests generate may not be easy.

The simple solution would be to keep the present arrangements on trade. This the EU administration will not tolerate. It would leave Britain with all the advantages of EU membership with none of the commitments, notably to free movement of people, goods, finance and services. That could sink the European project.

Britain’s hope will be that German and French economic interests will moderate EU political considerations at least to the point of permitting a tidy deal to emerge: one that preserves most of the important elements of existing arrangements. In its more conciliatory moments, the EU has hinted at a “Canada-plus agreement”: that is, something more extensive than what has been agreed with Canada.

Anything more ambitious than that immediately raises the question of trade-offs. Here Boris Johnson starts with the advantage. A “no deal” is his default position. Among other things, that means that, from the end of next year, the EU and Britain will be trading under World Trade Organisation rules. Take fishing rights: EU states will no longer be able to fish in British waters. Forty years of fishing rights will disappear overnight.

If the EU wants to keep some or all of what at present exists, concessions will have to be made to Britain. Once that starts, as explained earlier, the EU will be negotiating as much with its own member states as with Britain. The pressure will be on the EU negotiators to keep as much as possible of the existing arrangements. Achieving that will test the EU negotiators’ capacity for flexibility and creative thinking.

Wolfgang Münchau, a leading expert on EU affairs, who writes for London’s Financial Times, doubts whether the EU or its negotiators can rise to the occasion.

There is every reason to take him seriously. However, much of current thinking has centred on the idea that Britain has handled the negotiations badly to date.

Another view, closer to my own position, is that opposition to the very idea of Brexit within Mrs May’s government made it impossible for earlier British negotiators to deploy their best weapon – a no-deal Brexit.

That constraint is now gone. Whether the EU is in a position to construct a negotiating position appropriate to the changed circumstances remains the big question. Münchau believes not. I disagree.

The EU makes much of its obligation to have a negotiating position endorsed by 28 countries. This is nonsense. Germany and France call the shots on policy formation, which is largely created to serve their interest. It is up to the EU negotiators to bring the rest into line. I believe a trade deal will emerge which will be satisfactory for Britain by the end of next year.

No less important is what will follow. Britain will make its deals with other countries and time will tell what is now impossible to judge: whether Britain will be better or worse off as a result of the change.

The same is true about what might be the future of Europe without Britain.

But there are other considerations – perhaps less important globally, but nonetheless significant. Ireland, for one. Given how important Britain is for the Republic of Ireland, it is doubtful that Ireland can remain in Europe with Britain out. Noises to this effect are already being heard within the Republic.

The second is Scotland. If Britain leaves, Scotland, currently part of Britain, will, as a consequence, also leave. If it wants to continue with Europe, Scotland will have to break with Britain and apply to join the EU in its own right. At the very least it will have to take up the European currency (the Euro) and abandon the use of the British pound.

Difficult choices.

Putting all of this together, whatever else happens, the ultimate consequences of Brexit will perhaps reach further and go deeper than most of us had imagined.

Finally, on a personal note: whatever happens, I believe that Britain will emerge from it all as well off or better off than before.

Colin Teese is a former deputy secretary of the Department of Trade.

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