How utterly predictable. As I wrote here on 5 July, Michel Barnier’s ‘considered’ judgement has been to pour a very large bucket of eau onto Theresa May’s carefully-crafted proposals to try to reach a compromise with the EU. Her time, her officials’ time and the time her cabinet spent at Chequers was utterly wasted. Barnier was always going to turn his nose up at whatever Britain proposed. It has been clear for months that that is his strategy: to stonewall all proposals put to him by Britain in the hope that he will be able to bounce Britain into a bad deal (for us) at the last moment. Just read his statement:
“The EU cannot and the EU will not delegate the application of its customs policy, of its rules, VAT and excise duty collections to a non-member who would not be subject to the EU’s governance structures.”
It is quite clear from this that he will not accept any customs arrangement which falls short of Britain continuing to be a member of the customs union, subject to all its rules and strictures even though we will have had no say in them. Some this week have raised the possibility of a Norway-style deal, where Britain stays in the single market but not the customs union. But Barnier will continue to use the pretext of the Irish border to frustrate this – customs union membership, and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice it would have to be.
That would mean Britain being unable to make any deals with outside countries – which, of course, is the whole point. Michel Barnier sees his job as neutralising a post-Brexit Britain as an economic threat to the protectionist EU. He will tolerate no arrangement which would allow Britain to develop a liberalised economy which sucks trade and investment from the rest of Europe. But then that is one of the whole points of Brexit: to free up trade with the wider world. Without the freedom to do that there is no point in Brexit whatsoever.
The question now is how much longer May wants to carry on with these farcical negotiations with Barnier. By sending herself and her ministers to talk with EU governments directly she is at last realising the need to appeal over Barnier’s head. Barnier yesterday scoffed at the suggestion that the government will find any chink in the EU’s armour this way. There is some reason to question his confidence on this, given that May is reported to have cleared her Brexit plan with Angela Merkel before presenting it to her cabinet. But if the charm offensive on the EU’s other governments fails to produce instant results there really is only one option: to walk away from the negotiations and prepare for a ‘no deal’ Brexit – preparations which must include an aggressive programme of trade negotiations with other countries plus cutting taxes and other barriers to attract investment in Britain.
At the same time, Theresa May should be saying to the EU: we are very keen to restart trade negotiations with the EU, too – providing, that is, they do not involve Michel Barnier, because if they do they will be doomed to fail.
I say there is no alternative to this. There is, of course, an alternative of sorts: capitulation, involving Britain either accepting everything Barnier wants, or abandoning Brexit altogether and staying in the EU under current arrangements.
Trouble is, capitulation will get May marched to the scaffold within five minutes. It is not a comfortable choice which awaits her, but it is really not a difficult one.