On Brexit, What the EU Tells You 10 Times Is True
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When she started learning to play chess, my younger daughter was aghast that the pieces could’t always go where she wanted them to; she still ignores, for the most part, her opponent’s moves, figuring it’s enough for a victory to make good ones of her own.
For two years, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May has exhibited the same behavior. She shouldn’t be surprised that on Thursday, the European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, shot down her latest plan for the future relationship between the EU and the U.K., on which May had expended much of her political capital. Nor should she be surprised that attempts to get a different reaction out of individual EU leaders will go nowhere again.
“The EU cannot — and will not — delegate the application of its customs policy and rules, VAT and excise duty collection to a non-member, who would not be subject to the EU’s governance structures,” Barnier said in London. “Any customs arrangements or customs union — and I have always said that the EU is open to a customs union — must respect this principle.”
That the U.K. would apply the EU’s customs rules and duties was the key proposal in the white paper May’s government published this month. That paper, which aimed to recreate frictionless trade with the EU while not being part of any of its existing structures, was the fruit of painful compromise within May’s government and party, and key ministers, such as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Brexit Secretary Davis Davis, resigned over the proposals it contains. To Brexiters such as these two, the white paper doesn’t go far enough in ensuring the U.K.’s independence. To Barnier, though, it’s the same old game the U.K. has tried to play with it since 2016: Trying to keep the benefits of being in the world’s biggest trade bloc without recognizing its jurisdiction or obeying its rules.
“Cherry picking is not an option,” Barnier said in his very first speech as chief Brexit negotiator in December 2016.
“It will not be possible to cherry-pick and be a participant in parts of the Single Market,” he repeated on March 22, 2017.
“The integrity of the Single Market will never be compromised in these negotiations,” he maintained on May 5, 2017.
“I have heard some people in the U.K. argue that one can leave the Single Market and build a customs union to achieve ‘frictionless trade’; that is not possible,” he reiterated on July 6, 2017.
“We ask you to respect the fact that we are uncompromising on the integrity of the Single Market, and on the respect of the rules on the functioning and the autonomy of decision-making in the European Union,” he reasserted on Oct. 3, 2017.
“In these negotiations, one of my main concerns is to maintain the integrity of the Single Market, which is our common good — and is not and will not be negotiable,” he explained yet again on Jan. 9, 2018.
“Outside of the Customs Union and the Single Market, there can be no frictionless trade,” he insisted on April 26, 2018.
“The United Kingdom has decided to leave the European Union’s Single Market and the Customs Union,” he reminded an audience on July 10. “This means that Brexit will create friction to trade that does not exist today.”
“What I tell you three times is true,” was the Bellman’s favorite adage in Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark.” Barnier has made the same key point far more than three times; he’s done it with the resigned patience of an answering machine.
That’s because the EU cannot create the precedent of a trade arrangement that gives a non-member all the privileges and none of the responsibilities of membership; all of its trade partners then would hold out for similar terms, and membership would stop making sense to many countries inside the EU.
In between Barnier’s restatements, May officially triggered the Brexit process, held a disastrous election, made a multitude of disorienting advances to the EU, lost a minister every six weeks on average, and approached various EU leaders to see if the bloc’s traditional disunity would give her an opening for the kind of deal Barnier wouldn’t make. (Barnier has kept repeating that this wouldn’t work; it hasn’t.)
May’s tactics are understandable from a narrowly domestic political perspective. She’s maneuvering to keep her government going and her party’s rivals at bay. From outside the U.K., however, it simply looks as though May refuses to recognize the EU’s clearly stated red lines, considering them negotiable, though no one on the EU side has ever suggested that they might be and no one considering the EU’s position would imagine them to be. It’s not a workable approach, and it’s too risky to expect EU leaders to panic and shred Barnier’s mandate at the last moment to avoid a “no deal” Brexit.
May does have a way out of this seemingly endless loop, and it’s to agree to a new Brexit referendum. For the first time, the percentage of Britons who want a second vote is now higher than the percentage who don’t. The plan that Barnier rejected on Thursday appears to have caused the shift. As people in the U.K. realize a clean break with the EU is possible only in a chaotic “no deal” scenario, they are coming closer to being fully informed about what’s on offer. That puts them in a position to make a more considered decision than the one they made in 2016.
Agreeing to a new vote wouldn’t be a loss of face for May. She has repeatedly gone out of her comfort zone to try for the impossible. But the chess pieces can go only where the rules allow. May should watch public opinion closely, and if it continues to support a second vote, she should accept the need to hold it.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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