Christian Schweiger, Visiting Professor at the Chair for Comparative European Governance Systems in the Institute for Political Science at the Chemnitz University of Technology in Germany, reflects on why finding a compromise has proved so hard for the UK and the EU and what the risks are for both sides in case of a no-deal Brexit.
Sputnik: EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreed on Sunday to continue post-Brexit trade talks in search of a deal. How likely is it that they will reach an agreement?
Christian Schweiger: Any of these details regarding fisheries, regarding what a trade deal would have to look like or should look like will not emerge as long as the conservative government, Boris Johnson himself, and those that support him in the Conservative Party do not show a willingness to compromise. The sticking points are essentially those that emerged from the referendum. Boris Johnson led the vote leave campaign based on the promise – we will take back control. He listed the major areas that concern British sovereignty – ‘our money, our borders, our laws’. These are three important issues here. And basically, he wanted to retain full control over particularly the legal aspects of governance. That means anything that happens in the UK is decided in the British parliament and is, if it's a legal question, is decided by British courts. So the conservative hard-liners and Johnson himself refuse to make any compromise on what the EU is demanding if it offers a trade deal, essentially agreeing to common standards that are also partly EU standards and having these standards supervised and in a way repeatedly assessed by the European Court of Justice as the arbitrator in case of a dispute on trade, on fisheries and other things that the conservative hard-liners and Johnson himself refused, but they basically want access to the single European market. They want the benefits of open trade with the single European market, with Europe, with the European Union-27. And still, they do not accept what the European Union asks in return, which all the other partners that have trade associations or trade agreements with the European Union, with the single market, accept, again, EU standards and the European Court of Justice as a sort of superior arbitrator in case of a dispute. So that is the main sticking point and that leads to all the other things, fisheries policy, what a trade deal would look like.
Sputnik: What does the UK need to agree to in order to enjoy single market access and form a “special trade relationship”?
Christian Schweiger: The EU is obviously having to insist, and in this case the commission, the negotiation team, Barnier, and now also increasingly von der Leyen because it's moved obviously to the higher level between Johnson and von der Leyen in a frantic attempt to resolve this disagreement, in order for the European Union to offer anything, they would have to get agreement from the British government that they are willing to show compromise on the issue of jurisdiction.
There is no willingness from the Johnson government to do this. This is the sticking point in the negotiations. The British media, those that are not Eurosceptic and biased, like, for example, The Guardian and today, the Sunday paper, The Observer, they are highlighting, obviously, that the Johnson government is playing games with the European Union, is playing a sort of double game between what they promised the British people domestically. Here they go back to the promises they made during the referendum when they were talking about the possibility of taking back full control over all the issues, the economy, the borders, all the legal aspects, and still form a privileged partnership with the European Union, which would all almost be equal to full membership. That was the promise. Most people at the time, including obviously those that campaigned for remain, including David Cameron, said this is a lie, this is not possible.
But Johnson and his team, Michael Gove, others that are still influential in the government, kept claiming that that is possible because they were saying the European Union is a sum of its parts, we can negotiate with Berlin, with the Germans, with Paris, with the French, with the Polish in Warsaw and so on, with the Italians, and sooner or later they will fall apart as a European Union. They will offer us bilateral concessions. This has not happened. The game is back in the hands of the commission. It remains in the hands of the commission. The commission is representing the EU-27 position, which is unified, which says if you want benefits and access to the single market, you must give some concessions.
This is obviously not the same as if you are a full member, but at least some basic concessions, like again, accepting EU law as superior, accepting the European Court of Justice as a superior arbitrator has to be accepted. The Johnson government obviously refuses that.
And in return, we now see again this blame game coming out from the UK - threats, for example, which is almost ridiculous that in case there is no agreement on the fisheries policy that the British will use military patrol boats, speedboats, or whatever, to stop, for example, French fishing vessels from entering UK waters. All this is not helping.
Sputnik: How might both of these challenges - fisheries and the level playing field - play out in case of a “no-deal” Brexit?
Christian Schweiger: All this is playing games that are addressed towards the domestic audience - you know, we are a tough government. We stand up for British sovereignty, but this is not helping the negotiations. So, again, what would need to happen? The Johnson government would need to realise that it is very close to the cliff, to the cliff edge, very close to taking it - already taken out – taking the UK very, very close to taking the UK into the uncharted waters of having left the European Union and not having any sort of access negotiated to the single market, not having negotiated any of the issues that you are raising - what should the cooperation in terms of fisheries look like? How can we form a sort of close relationship with the European Union even if you're not a member? All this doesn't seem to matter to the Johnson government. And I don't see any solution to this, to be honest with you. I think they will risk this. And this is also what the British media reports today. They will risk a no-deal, a post Brexit, no-deal scenario.
They will blame the European Union for this. We will have to see if they get away with this.
I doubt that in the long term, the Conservative Party and the Johnson government will be able to get away with this. I think they will be heavily punished for this at the next general election. I think the Labour Party is able to capitalise on this if it points out that anything that emerges from this post potentially mass unemployment, massive damage to British industry, generally a shortage of goods from the European Union, particularly in the area of food in the UK, prices rising for EU goods and so on.
If the Labour Party manages to show the British people that the Johnson government, because of its lack of willingness to compromise, because of its lack of understanding, maybe also of the effects of what is decided, then I think there will be a landslide victory for Labour at the next election and the Conservatives will be heavily punished. But this is obviously the future scenario. For now, and obviously, what would need to happen is to sit down and to say how can we find mutual agreement on our different interests.
What would a fisheries quota have to look like between the UK and the European Union-27 that suits both sides? I don't see the Johnson government doing any of this. They are unwilling to go even into the negotiation details. They play this game, which is essentially, and this is my final point, focused on a sort of notion of superiority being above basically the European Union, that the Johnson government obviously thinks the UK is so important for the European Union that they can risk this no deal.
And at the last minute, they will offer some big concession that allows the UK to have access to the single market. I think they are wrong. They said this at the beginning of the negotiations. Straight after the referendum, David Davis, the then-negotiator for the UK, was saying they cannot risk - they the European Union - particularly Angela Merkel in Germany. They cannot risk not to sell their products. They cannot risk selling their cars particularly, the German car industry to the UK, they need this market and now we see, of course, that the EU is saying and Germany is saying, yes, this is an important market for us, but it is not so important that we can risk damaging the unity of the single market, that we can risk damaging our principles, which obviously means we have certain standards, legal standards, and we have certain procedures.
The European Court of Justice as the Superior Court that is supervising and watching over EU law and that binds all the EU member states and the partners to this law.
We cannot risk damaging this because the UK wants here a sort of special deal, a sort of special exemption, a compromise in the end - not a compromise, but just going along with what the Conservative Party in the UK wants. We will wait and see, wait and see how this plays out. But I think it is now too late to reach any sort of deal as long as the European Union is not deciding to extend this transition period further.
This is likely. I think this could happen if they consider a chance for Johnson and his ministers to maybe show more willingness after COVID to negotiate. I think this is the way the European Union has been going in the past. If this results in anything if they say we give you another six months, we give you another 12 months, we will negotiate until mid-2021 or at the end of 2021, until January 2022. We have to wait and see. I don't think the Johnson government would change its mind at all. If you give them another 10-year extension, if they would be in government, they would still come up with the same approach that I've just described in great detail. It has been going on for four years now, not just under Johnson, but already under May, again with David Davis, the same approach - we are too important for the European Union, for them not to offer us concessions that no other country actually has. And they believe that the Conservative Party believes that. And they don't want to see reality. And if they see reality, they pretend they can ignore it. So that is the main sticking point. And I don't think the UK will show a more cooperative and pragmatic approach as long as the Conservative Party is in government with a majority. I think the best chance the European Union has and the best chance for the future relations between the UK and the EU to be resolved is after the next general election if there is a change of government.
The Labour Party also has a lot of unresolved questions regarding what it really wants in detailed areas like, for example, freedom of movement and other things. But at least under the Labour Party, under the current leadership of Keir Starmer, you would expect that there would be a deal possible based on the willingness to compromise to, for example, say we accept EU standards. And if there's a trade dispute, we have no problem with this being resolved by the European Court of Justice. I do not see this happening at all under the Conservative Party. And this is my final point. The main reason for this is also Nigel Farage with his former Brexit party. And now it's called...what is it called? Again, I can't remember the name that he has his new party or this new movement, which essentially he himself personally and the people around Farage are constantly saying if the Conservatives give any ground on this, what the EU wants, you know, does not deliver taking back control in absolute terms, then we will start to protest. We will start to run again in elections. And this is what the Conservatives actually fear.
And, of course, many within the Conservative Party, if you look at, for example, people like Jacob Rees-Mogg - are Eurosceptic hardliners who simply do not care if the UK is associated with the European Union. They believe that the UK has a global vocation.
That means it's globally orientated. It can form special deals with America, with Australia, with the former Commonwealth countries. It can basically act as a global nation and form a new dense network of global bilateral deals with other countries. They believe it does not need the European Union. This is, of course, wrong, because all the figures show the UK is quite heavily dependent on the European Union trade with its member states, but this is how they've been socialised, in the belief that it's a bit like you can call it a little England, nationalism in the belief that England and the UK as a small island is basically small but very, very important. And others consider this the same.
But if you look closely, of course, America and other partners say we consider the UK only important in the European context and that they don't see it like that. So it's a bit of self-delusion and the usual self-delusion we have been seeing from the Conservatives until probably now, I could say.
Sputnik: Just how far might the EU be willing to go compromise to ensure this special cooperation with the UK?
Christian Schweiger: I think at some point the European Union will either say there's no way forward and we terminate these negotiations and this is simply how it is. Or they might just push it into the long game and give another extension and leave the ball in the court of the British government in London, pressures that obviously will mount on Johnson to deliver something. The media will pick on this, but I don't see any major changes happening if there's an extension or not. And you understand how I'm seeing this, the scenario that is emerging now.
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