Here we go again. As we return, haggard and hungover, from the Christmas break, the Brexit deal is heading back to parliament. And presumably the debate will also continue where it left off. Prepare for a succession of Brexiteers touting the idea of a “managed no deal” as an appealing alternative to either the deal on offer or the prospect of a no-deal outcome. They’re wrong.
It’s worth tracing the “logic” deployed by proponents of this approach, because it has gone through three distinct stages.
The first was to argue that no deal would be just fine for the UK, and that an immediate move to “WTO [World Trade Organization] rules” would not result in any new barriers to trade, because the EU would be obliged to recognise that the UK already complies with all EU regulatory standards. This zombie claim, made most notably by the Economists for Free Trade, has been debunked by almost every UK trade expert.
The EU intends to treat the UK as a third country – as is its right and, in some respects, its obligation – from day one. And our much-vaunted WTO membership will do little to mitigate this situation. Moreover, as Alex Stojanovic, a researcher at the thinktank the Institute of Government, has pointed out, the WTO makes no provision for things such as truck drivers licensing, pilot certification, or transfer of data. In other words, the potential consequences of a “chaotic” Brexit go far beyond just the implications for trade and supply chains, but extend to medicines, transport and the status of EU citizens in the UK and that of Brits in the EU.
Repeated assertions that the EU was bluffing, and would eventually back down, have proved to be just that – assertions
Recognising this, the proponents of no deal have pivoted. Their new approach is a rebranding exercise – not simply “no deal”, still less “crashing out”, but the far more cuddly sounding “managed no deal”. David Davis, for example, explains that it is simply an “illusion” to suggest that no deal means, er, no deal. “Leaving without a withdrawal agreement is not the same as leaving without agreements.”
But while the EU has indeed set out some contingency plans for no deal – and it is true that those will enable us to avoid the most catastrophic scenarios – these are very different from the kind of side deals that Davis seems to envisage. They are distinctly one-sided, temporary, and intended to defend the EU against the worst of the disruption resulting from a no-deal outcome. And they leave important gaps.
So, for instance, while they would allow point-to-point flying between UK and EU cities, as yet they provide no concessions on ownership rules. That means, for example, that International Airlines Group (which owns British Airways and Iberia) will have difficulties maintaining its EU licence. Equally, key areas such as medicines and data are simply not covered. And Michel Barnier has insisted that mini-deals to supplement these basic plans are off the table.
How to solve the Irish question in the event of no deal is perhaps the most glaring omission from the narratives spun by those who claim no deal is not something we should worry about. Showcasing his trademark disdain for detail, Mr Davis airily dismisses the notion that a no-deal outcome would require a border in Ireland – Shanker Singham says we won’t need one, apparently. This argument is unlikely to reassure the 1,000 English and Scottish police officers who will be taken away from their day jobs of actually fighting crime to be trained – at the request of the Police Service of Northern Ireland – for deployment in Northern Ireland in the case of Brexit-related disorder.
The third leg of the no-deal argument, then, is not to claim that no deal will be easy or painless – but that it will be just as painful for the EU27, which will suffer disruption to their largest single trading partner and the massive hole in the EU budget that will result. The logic here is that some member states simply won’t tolerate the minimalist arrangements being proposed. After all, around 13,000 Irish truckers use the UK as a land bridge to the EU, via the Channel Tunnel. The Spanish will be concerned about Iberia’s rights. The French would not want long queues at Calais.
If we just hold our nerve, then, up to and possibly even after 29 March, the EU27 will come to their senses and give us what we want – a stripped-down version of the withdrawal agreement that includes a two-year transition period, avoiding any immediate disruption, and which does not include the “backstop”. Versions of this argument have been advanced both by Boris Johnson and, extraordinarily, by the leader of the House of Commons, Andrea Leadsom.
But this simply reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the UK’s bargaining position. The EU insisted from the start on the withdrawal agreement as a precursor to talks on trade because member states identified as the priority issues the rights of EU citizens, the Brexit bill and the Irish border, and it was prepared to leverage the threat of no deal ruthlessly to ensure that. Repeated assertions that the EU was somehow bluffing, and would eventually back down, have proved to be just that – assertions.
It also speaks to a fundamental misunderstanding of what article 50 is all about. For all its flaws – and there are more than enough of these to make one wonder why Lord Kerr is so keen to claim authorship – it provides a unique way of managing the passage from membership to non-membership. Not least, it allows for a transition period – basically a unique form of EU relationship with a third state – to be agreed by qualified majority vote. Should there be no withdrawal agreement, there would be no such mechanism to allow for a temporary new relationship to be agreed.
Of course the EU has much to lose from no deal. But both sides know, and have known all along, who has more to lose. As we get closer to 29 March – and even more so, in the weeks after, as reality bites – our negotiating position becomes weaker, not stronger. Our basic choices and trade-offs will not have fundamentally changed – they will just have become even more constrained. So while the snake-oil salesmen have repeatedly reformulated their product, it’s still not a cure for the UK’s current woes.
• Anand Menon is director of The UK in a Changing Europe, and professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College London. Jonathan Portes is professor of economics and public policy at Kings College London