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Sensemaker: Brexit – to the wire

Monday 16 November 2020

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Peru’s new president resigned amid violent protests over parliament’s removal of his predecessor a week ago.
  • Donald Trump’s new acting defence secretary said it was time to bring home America’s remaining troops from Afghanistan.
  • Boris Johnson went into self-isolation after being “pinged” by the UK’s otherwise largely ineffective Covid test and trace system.

Brexit: to the wire

As a journalist it never hurt Johnson to push a deadline. As PM? We’ll see. Brussels is prone to deadline-itis too, and the upshot is that four years after the referendum there are now three days to reach an EU-UK trade deal. Both sides say the very latest that terms can be agreed to give parliaments time to ratify them is Thursday, when EU heads of government meet by video.

Johnson says Britain can prosper mightily without a deal. Reality suggests otherwise. The government’s own modelling says no deal would mean 8 per cent of GDP growth foregone over 15 years compared with staying in the EU, and that compares with 5 per cent foregone even with the kind of no-frills deal being discussed.

So what are the chances? On the plus side Downing Street is reaching for a constructive new look after the departure of Dominic Cummings’ break-everything school of political management. Also: David Frost, the chief UK negotiator, and Simon Coveney, the Irish foreign minister, agree it’s worth continuing to talk.

That said…

  • Coveney has said that if the UK reinstates the clauses in its Internal Market Bill that assert the right to break international law – clauses the Lords removed last week – there won’t be a deal that the EU parliament can approve.
  • Frost insists that for all the talk of a Downing Street reset there’ll be no substantive change to the UK ‘s negotiating stance, which is that Britain is taking back control of “our laws, our trade and our waters” (my italics).
  • Fisheries remain emotive and stuck. As of 2018 French boats were landing ten times as much fish in British waters by value as British boats were landing in French waters, and the political cost in France of giving up that access is on a par with the political cost in the UK of letting it continue.

Someone has to blink. Given that fisheries account for less than 0.1 per cent of the UK economy, and that places like Grimsby now depend more on exporting what they process than boosting their catch, it would be nice to think Johnson might see the big picture and do the blinking. Just don’t bet on it.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Road pricing
As driving goes electric, where are governments going to find the revenue they used to raise by taxing fuel? The Times reports that the UK is thinking of doing it by pricing road usage. There will be howls of protest but road pricing makes better sense than ever. The tech exists to do it digitally and (relatively) painlessly using the same vehicle tracking systems that power your sat nav. The revenue shortfall will be big, since the Treasury currently relies on road transport for a total of £40 billion a year and the Johnson government wants to bring forward a ban on new petrol and diesel car sales to 2030. And Britain lags in road pricing anyway – even compared with the US. Bring it on.

New things technology, science, engineering

Orbit outsourced
SpaceX’s first operational flight to orbit for Nasa astronauts was hugely exciting for space nuts but actually not such a big deal. The technical feat of recovering the first-stage booster on a drone barge in the Atlantic, though madly impressive, has been done before. The principle of ensuring a properly diverse crew (this one was 25 per cent female, 25 per cent Black male, 25 per cent white male and 25 per cent Japanese) is well established. The idea of outsourcing space work to the private sector is familiar (think Boeing before SpaceX). What remains is the question of how a company that still likes to think of itself as a start-up could have come so far so fast. The SpaceX story is remarkable, but would never have unfolded as it has without the colossal US government investment in space travel, over many decades, that produced a generation of highly specialised engineers looking for jobs in the private sector in the first decade of this century. Nasa is to SpaceX as DARPA was to the web. Discuss.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Save the ANWR
Last week we included protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on a list of quick and easy environmental wins available to an incoming Biden administration. That may have been hasty. Bloomberg reported on Friday that, starting today, Team Trump would solicit “nominations” from oil companies as to which sections of the refuge to open to exploration. This feels partly like a way of taunting environmentalists while there’s still time before Biden takes over. But the upshot could be more serious than that. Any legal entitlements to drill on Alaska’s fragile North Slope that get locked in over the next two months could be hard to unravel.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public policy

Vaccine roll-out
In the UK we are told the army will be brought in to help with mass vaccination when a jab vaccine becomes available. In Germany the Paul Ehrlich Institute for Vaccines and Biomedicines (part of the ministry of health) will take the lead, coordinating with the health ministers of the 16 federal states, and commandeering hundreds of under-used exhibition halls for the purpose. It will be a huge task and Deutsche Welle reports that not everyone is convinced preparations are far enough advanced, but at least German logistics firms are giving thought to the global scale of the challenge. Top stat: the air freight volume required to distribute the 65,000 tonnes of vaccine the world is going to need is equivalent to 700 fully-loaded Boeing 747s.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

US scouting in the dock
More than 82,000 claims of sexual abuse have been submitted by former boy scouts before a deadline that falls today in a bankruptcy case that’s likely to determine the future of scouting in America. The scale of the scandal was known to be large, but lawyers fielding the claims were still stunned by how many poured in as the deadline approached last night. They come from alleged victims from all 50 states as well as people claiming to have been abused in US Scout troops on military bases all over the world. The number of claims far exceeds those leveled at the Catholic Church, the New York Times reports. Boy Scouts of America has assets worth around $1 billion, many of which are expected to be liquidated for a victims’ compensation fund.

the week ahead

16/11 – Brexit talks resume in Brussels; Channel port operators give evidence to Lords select committee; pilot Covid-19 testing for families visiting care homes begins; High Court judgement expected in libel action by Jamal Hijazi against Tommy Robinson, 17/11 – culture secretary Oliver Dowden holds summit on future of English football; Bank of England governor Andrew Bailey speaks at CityUK conference, 18/11 – UK government’s 10-point plan for net zero due to be published, 19/11 – EU leaders summit, with Brexit on the agenda; PlayStation 5’s UK release; Booker Prize winner announced; High Court hears libel claim brought by Rebekah Vardy against Coleen Rooney, 20/11 – Northern Ireland circuit breaker restrictions due to be lifted, 21/11 – 100th anniversary of Bloody Sunday

16/11 – hearing on legality of removal of Peruvian president Martin Vizcarra; US secretary of state Mike Pompeo visits France; BioNTech CEO Uğur Şahin speaks at Süddeutsche Zeitung Economic Summit, 17/11 – former US president Barack Obama’s memoirs released; German chancellor Angela Merkel speaks at Süddeutsche Zeitung Economic Summit; easyJet reports full-year results; US retail sales figures released, 18/11 – ISS astronauts set to conduct spacewalk; US secretary of state Mike Pompeo visits Israel, 19/11 – Bill Gates speaks at New Economy Forum, 20/11 – 75th anniversary of the start of the Nuremberg trials, 21/11 – Saudi Arabia hosts G20 summit

We’re not running a Matt d’Ancona column today because he’s filed an audio essay on Halloween in Downing Street instead (out tomorrow). But he did submit this haiku:

Blessed is the Tortoise 

Who slowly but on time

Makes sense

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Giles Whittell