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Sensemaker: End game in Brussels

Monday 7 December 2020

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Nicolás Maduro claimed victory in Venezuelan parliamentary elections boycotted by the opposition.
  • Chungha, the K-pop star, and Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, tested positive for Covid.
  • Kayleigh McEnany, Trump’s press secretary, appeared to accept Joe Biden had won last month’s election.

End game in Brussels

There are two ways of looking at the Brexit talks that kept lights on until after midnight last night in the Berlaymont. One is that the fact they are continuing today is a sign there is a good and improving chance of a last-minute deal:

  • The European Commission’s Ursula von der Leyen and Boris Johnson decided on Saturday it was worth keeping on talking.
  • The EU side spoke yesterday of a breakthrough on fisheries; specifically on a 5-to-7-year timetable for adjusting to new and restricted access to UK waters for EU boats. (The British side denied any such breakthrough but in this analysis it had to, to mollify the Tory absolutists who’ve threatened a leadership challenge against Johnson in the event of anything that can possibly be seen as a concession.)
  • There was a more conciliatory tone from the EU side on divergence. By some accounts Johnson persuaded von der Leyen in their Saturday call that he won’t be able to sell a deal that seems to hold the UK to the level playing field rules that the EU has hitherto said are non-negotiable. A few hours later Clément Beaune, France’s minister of state for European affairs, said slightly sniffily: “We are ready to put in place a system in which a divergence of standards would be allowed but beyond which corrective measures would be taken.”

The other way of looking at the talks as of Monday morning is that they are doomed:

  • The problem of divergence discussed here on Friday remains fundamental.
  • Britain is demanding access to the EU single market on terms the EU cannot afford to grant. 
  • If Johnson reinserts law-breaking clauses on the Northern Ireland Protocol into the Internal Market Bill before a Commons vote today, as planned, that would burn what little goodwill remains between him and von der Leyen and the EU generally. 

Which of these is the right way of looking at this mess? Probably the first. Quite possibly the second. 

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

China is booming
Chinese exports are soaring as its factories operate at full tilt and the world keeps buying stuff, while western manufacturers stumble along under varying degrees of lockdown. Exports in November were 21 per cent higher than in the same month last year. They were growing nearly twice as fast as in the previous month, producing a record monthly trade surplus with the rest of the world of $75 billion, almost half of which was with the US. If there was one number President Trump wanted to reduce to zero or below during his time in office it was China’s trade surplus with the US. At the time of his inauguration in January 2017 it stood at $24 billion. It now stands at $37 billion. 

New things technology, science, engineering

Drones and homes
Future homes may need drone pads. Architects are producing new-build designs with roof sections that retract to reveal mini helipads where tomorrow’s shopping will arrive. Apartment buildings may have platforms at every level or shared pads on the roof, with automated, gravity-assisted delivery to individual flats via special chutes. And so on ($), the WSJ reports. What’s wrong with gardens? Well, not everyone has them and some have trees, telephone wires, washing lines and other impediments to safe landings. And why take any of this seriously? It’s a fair question. Driverless cars, for example, seem to have been overhyped, at least for now. But drone delivery really might happen. It involves no fumes, no (terrestrial) traffic and no people. It offers a neat way of getting prescription drugs to the housebound, for example. And the promise of a rooftop “skyport” for drones is already boosting prices in at least one new high-rise development in Miami. 

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

Cold chain split
The first Pfizer/BioNTech Covid vaccines for public use arrived in the UK from Belgium at the weekend. Vaccination starts tomorrow (not today as reported last week). Hospitals taking delivery of the vaccines in low-tech cardboard boxes were excited. Inside the cardboard boxes are slightly higher-tech polystyrene containers in which dry ice keeps the vaccines at minus 70 degrees C. They come in batches of 975 doses which can’t be split without special approval, so strict are the rules set by the manufacturer to keep the cold chain cold. But 975 is many more than most care homes need, and they need the vaccine as urgently as anyone. So the first job of the UK regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, after approving the vaccine last week, was to approve a way of splitting the batches, which it has now done. As a result care home workers and residents should start getting vaccinated within two weeks. Meanwhile those who get their first shot in hospital tomorrow could get their second on 29 December, in time for New Year’s Eve. Party on. 

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

No snow ahead
With due respect and sympathy for whoever picked the weekend subbing shift for the BBC News website, “Snowy UK winters could become thing of the past” gets my vote for lamest seasonal headline of the decade. And the story underneath it isn’t much more surprising. Where to start? How about with “what snowy UK winters?”? They haven’t been snowy for years, except above about 1500 feet in Cumbria, the Peak District and Scotland. They are already a thing of the past. Just look at the updated Bonacina/O’Hara snow records for an overview from 1875 to the present. Yes, we used to get them. No, we don’t any more. The word “could” injects an element of uncertainty that simply doesn’t exist in any future UK climate scenario except one based on global carbon sequestration on a truly colossal and revolutionary scale. This story is based on Met Office projections of the dwindling number of sub-zero days per winter between now and 2060. But you need so much more than sub-zero temperatures for snow. Its departure from our seasons is one of the great tragedies of the age and it’s not a possibility. It’s a certainty. Don’t get me started.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Detained in Belarus
Belarusian police said they arrested more than 300 people yesterday as crowds took to the streets of Minsk on the 18th consecutive weekend of protests against President Lukashenko. One human rights group in the capital said the number of arrests was smaller, emphasising the regime’s strategy of not only detaining its enemies but publicising arrests and if necessary exaggerating their numbers to spread fear. The protesters are not afraid yet. They chanted “We will win!” and split up into small groups to defy police as far as possible. Yet nor is Lukashenko showing any sign of giving up. He seems instead to be taking his cues from Moscow and Beijing: eschew mass shootings, say little in public, play the long game and grind it out. As in Hong Kong, so in Minsk, this is how modern autocrats prevail. They’re quite happy to win ugly as long as they win.

The week ahead

7/12 – Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen to speak by phone; Internal Market Bill comes before Commons, 8/12 – Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine rollout begins to over-80s, healthcare workers and care home residents in England, and to frontline staff in Wales; EU ministers responsible for European affairs hold talks; Scottish parliament hears evidence on harassment complaints against former first minister Alex Salmond, 9/12 – England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, and chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, appear before select committee; Taxation (Post-transition period) Bill comes before Commons; Joseph Rowntree Foundation publishes report on destitution in UK, 10/12 – EU leaders’ summit begins; ONS monthly GDP estimate published; deadline for Labour draft action plan on anti-semitism; BMA and Care England appear at select committee session on government procurement and PPE contracts, 11/12 – Northern Ireland circuit breaker Covid restrictions due to be lifted, 12/12 – UK hosts UN Climate Ambition summit; one-year anniversary of Conservative election victory

7/12 – pre-trial hearings begin for 16 accused in 2016 terror attacks in Brussels; G7 finance ministers and central bank governors hold video conference; alleged Liberian warlord, Alieu Kosiah, to testify at Federal Criminal Court in Switzerland, 8/12 – US infectious disease chief, Anthony Fauci, and Hong Kong chief executive, Carrie Lam, speak at WSJ CEO council, 10/12 – Hanukkah begins; tech group Oracle reports third quarter results; FDA vaccine advisory committee discusses authorisation of Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for use in US; European Medicines Agency chief, Emer Cooke, appears before European Parliament hearing on Covid vaccines, 12/12 – International Olympic Committee hosts Olympic Games summit; March for Trump rally set to take place in Washington DC; fifth anniversary of adoption of Paris Agreement, 13/12 – Geminid meteor shower set to reach its peak

Matthew d’Ancona: Brexit is for life, not just for Christmas

Whether or not we get a deal by the end of year, Britain is now going to enter a state of endless negotiation

First Long Covid, now Long Brexit. Both conditions involve protracted symptoms of depression, palpitations, and, in some cases, irreversible damage. Both deny the afflicted – patient or nation – the sense of release and rejuvenation they hoped for. 

It is almost a year since the Conservatives won a historic general election victory with a single, high-impact promise: to “Get Brexit Done”. As the exhausted negotiators shuttle between London and Brussels in preparation for the meeting of the European Council on Thursday and Friday, much hinges on this evening’s telephone call between Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen, president of European Commission.

Can the greatest chancer ever to occupy Number 10 pull off a last-minute trade deal in the same flamboyant manner in which he secured the underlying Brexit withdrawal agreement in October 2019?

It matters a great deal that he succeeds. Failure would lead to tariffs, border checks, and nightmarish disruption at ports; the status of aviation would be unclear; new travel restrictions would apply to UK citizens entering the EU, as would mobile phone roaming charges; collaboration in healthcare, research and security would be jeopardised; and the Irish border would become a scene of confusion, commercial chaos and diplomatic tension – especially if the Internal Market Bill, back in the Commons this week, includes the so-called “safety net” clauses enabling UK ministers to breach the Northern Ireland Protocol that is a crucial element of the 2019 withdrawal agreement.

According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, a no-deal finale to the year’s diplomatic drama would instantly slice 2 per cent off GDP in 2021 – hardly an ideal context for Rishi Sunak’s strategy to repair the Covid-scarred economy.

Yet here is the figure that often gets overlooked: the OBR forecasts a long-run 4 per cent decline in GDP even if Johnson does get a trade deal. In other words, the economic options ahead of the UK appear to be: (a) bad and (b) worse.

This matters enormously because of the way Brexit has been framed since the 2016 referendum. We are habituated to thinking of a choice between “hard” and “soft” versions of departure from the EU, between a sharp breach and continued collaboration. In reality, however, that choice vanished when Johnson became prime minister – perhaps earlier, given the narrowing range of options available to Theresa May. The Brexit choices available today are “hard” and “harder”.

In the past 24 hours, much has been made of the gap between spectacle and reality in the UK negotiating posture. True, Johnson enjoys brinkmanship, and – for entirely practical reasons, related to economic reality – would prefer a deal. But it is a grave error to assume that he and his fellow Brexiteers are bluffing entirely when they say that they could live with a no-deal outcome.

This is because the essence of Brexit has always been divergence – the UK’s ability to set its own laws, regulations and standards as a sovereign nation – and Johnson has often said as much (especially so in private).

Naturally, as a politician whose defining characteristic is a desire to have his cake and eat it, he wants access to the single market without the corresponding responsibility to stick to its rules. He will blag whatever deal he can from the EU, and present it as a triumph. 

But he is perfectly aware of the contradictions inherent in any such pact; and will always reserve the right to renege on its terms, to shift the goal-posts on state aid – government subsidy that could threaten fair competition and trade – and environmental, agricultural, food, social, workplace and other regulations.

In practice, all the talk of a “level playing field” is delusional: the whole point of Brexit has always been to ensure that the field is tilted in Britain’s favour. Otherwise, what was the point of leaving?

In anticipation of such mischief, the EU wants so-called “non-regression” clauses in the deal that will prevent the UK backsliding, and the right to retaliate with sanctions if it does. Which, by the way, is a perfectly rational position for Brussels to adopt. 

Yes, the economic risk of a no-deal outcome weighs heavily with the prime minister. He is fearful, I am told, that posterity (which bothers him a lot) will chalk up such an outcome as a personal failure, and with good reason. Yet it is hugely important not to forget the role that the politics of identity also plays in his deliberations.

For much of the time, Johnson is a cynic, a pragmatist and an extremely adaptable builder of electoral coalitions (compare the formerly liberal mayor of London to the right-wing prime minister who conquered Labour’s “red wall” in December). 

But if there is a governing principle to his politics, it is a belief in British (in truth, mostly English) exceptionalism: a conviction that this country is best when left to its own devices, and that, when it fails, someone else must axiomatically be to blame.

“Let the lion roar,” he told the 2017 Conservative conference. It’s a rousing applause line. But – really – what does it even mean? Such rhetoric is intended to make Britain look big. But it is invariably underpinned by a pinched, mean-spirited perspective upon the world. It is made nonsensical by the contracting horizons of post-Brexit Britain.

As one former Cabinet minister who voted for Johnson in last year’s leadership contest told me: “Somehow, we are getting smaller, when the promise was that we would get bigger. I don’t see how we punch our weight now, let alone above it. My country seems to be shrinking.”

This ought not to be so: next month, the UK assumes the presidency of the G7; takes the helm of the UN Security Council in February; and – most important of all – is hosting the postponed COP26 climate conference in November 2021. The year ahead ought to be a celebration of Britain’s continued strategic might, proof that it grasps the deep interdependence of modern geopolitics.

Yet there is a pinched nationalism threatening such an outcome in 2021. Why was international development the only significant line item to be cut in Rishi Sunak’s Spending Review last week? Why does the PM scorn overseas aid as a “giant cashpoint in the sky”? Why has Priti Patel, the home secretary, militarised her campaign to keep out migrants rowing across the Channel in pathetic dinghies, and why did she think it would be consistent with basic British decency to send asylum seekers to a South Atlantic volcanic island?

It is true that Johnson is wary of the hardline Tory Brexiteers – the caucus led by Steve Baker, MP for Wycombe – some of whom are already muttering about a vote of no-confidence in his leadership of the party (it is just shy of two years since his predecessor, Theresa May, survived such a test).

For his part, Iain Duncan Smith, who has first-hand experience of being sacked as Tory leader by his own MPs, has been telling allies that Johnson’s premiership will be in grave danger if he concedes too much to Brussels. The PM was indeed rattled last week when 55 Conservatives rebelled against the new Covid tier system – a libertarian alliance of backbenchers that overlaps considerably with the hardcore Brexiteer faction.

The point, however, is this: Johnson certainly doesn’t want the rebels to cohere into a permanent sectarian menace to his Commons majority. But, crucially, he doesn’t want to disappoint these MPs, either. His self-image, his sense of self-worth, depends upon being perceived as the valiant deliverer of Brexit, rather than as the PM who blinked and (in the eyes of these true believers) sold out to Brussels.

This is the political-cultural context in which the final days of negotiations will be carried out. Of course, Johnson does not want his Brexit strategy to threaten economic recovery. But even that consideration is trumped by his fear of the charge of “treachery”, of letting down the nation by yielding too much to perfidious Brussels. If you think this is no way for a grown man to approach the governance of an advanced democracy, you’d be right. Such is the infantilism at the core of populist politics.

All of which helps to explain why, whatever happens this week, our troubles are just beginning. The EU knows how vigilant it must be in its dealings with post-Brexit Britain – deal or no deal. A thousand smaller battles lie ahead, a thousand abrasive arguments, a thousand confrontations great and small.

This is not the end of negotiations, but the start of negotiations that last forever. This is what our departure from the EU was always going to mean: a permanent state of attrition, a mode of apprehension from which there is no relief or release. Get Brexit done? More like Brexit forever.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around. 

Giles Whittell

Photographs Getty Images