The UK-EU Talks Are Not About Trade, But Ideology

The negotiations between London and Brussels are not about trade but the totality of how the British state is organized. Reporting on the BBC and in the London media once again is letting down British citizens by discussing the negotiations simply as aiming for a free trade deal. Ideology lies at the heart of the British approach.

One of the great misnomers about the UK-EU talks is that they are about trade.  They are of course in part, but trade is only one of the eleven working parties of UK and EU negotiators that are taking place – Corona Virus permitting – every fortnight either in Brussels or London.

Boris Johnson may publish his version of a free trade Treaty in order to rally his Brexit troops, but for the rest of Europe Johnson might as well publish the Eurostar timetable.

If Johnson expects 27 sovereign governments to roll over, to give Britain privileges that they do not have themselves, then he has the oddest idea of how any negotiations, let alone those for an international treaty, operate.

The formal list of headings for the EU-UK talks cover the totality of how a modern state operates. All discussion in the London media focuses on possible queues at Dover and Michael Gove’s Commons statement that 50,000 new bureaucrats would have to be hired to help fill in endless paperwork; these new bureaucrats being needed as Britain becomes a third country, completely outside the rules and regulations that have governed all trade in goods for 50 years.

Britain Loses Money Exporting Goods to Europe

More important for the British economy is the massive selling to Europe of UK based banks, insurance firms, all city operations, management consultancy, legal services, education, especially in universities, and made-in-US TV shows which are sold via London to 27 national groups of private TV stations. That is where the UK makes its real money from Europe, not physical goods where we run a trade deficit.

So the second heading for the EU-UK talks is “trade in services and investment and other issues.” That’s followed by aviation, as we take 73 million flights to Europe every year. The Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, now says the UK will quit the European Aviation Safety Agency even though non-EU member states are members.

So that’s quite a tricky dossier to sort out in  a few months. Next comes fishing, with fishing communities along the Atlantic and North Sea coast, from Germany to Spain, telling their political leaders they will blockade ports and create maritime havoc, as well as ban exports of UK landed catches to Europe. Given two-thirds of all that boats land in the UK is sold to EU fish processors, the proud boast that Brexit means a shining new future for British fishing communities is hollow.

Singapore-on-Thames Right-wing Fantasy

Then there are negotiations on what’s called “level playing field”, which is jargon for the UK not giving trade distorting subsidies to firms in Britain so they can produce more cheaply than equivalent sectors in Ireland or across the Channel.

This is sometimes called “social dumping” and trade unions in the EU will watch carefully to see if competing firms in Britain get special tax breaks or other subsidies from Johnson to undercut the same product made in Europe.

This is wrongly called the Singapore-on-Thames model. Though Brexit’s unshining knights in armour, like Sir Iain Duncan Smith or Sir John Redwood, who advocate adopting the Singapore model appear not to know that 25 per cent of the Singapore economy is manufacturing – three times more as a share of GDP than Britain - that all land in Singapore belongs to the state, or that the Singapore government is the majority shareholder in a third of all top firms listed on the Singapore stock exchange. In other words, Singapore is more like a socialist economy Jeremy Corbyn might endorse than some uncontrolled free market paradise that will overnight emerge in Britain outside the EU.

UK Police Aghast at Losing European Arrest Warrant

Then there is a heading for the negotiations on “law enforcement and judicial cooperation in criminal matters.” This is the question of the European Arrest Warrant (EAW), which allowed the UK to bring to justice the 2005 London terrorists, after they fled to Rome. The EAW meant they were returned swiftly to London. Without the EAW they would still be fighting extradition with the help of Italian lawyers.

Tory right-wingers, like Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, have always hated the EAW, but every police officer and counter-terrorist security official in Britain says the EAW has been the best thing to happen in trans-national crime fighting.

Four other areas of negotiation include participation in union programmes like Erasmus or Galileo, the EU satellite network that allows us to use mobile phone or watch sport from anywhere in Europe. Then there is “mobility and social security coordination.” This is about protecting the rights of up to 2 million Brits who live all or part of the year in Europe or who work there.

Right now their rights to health care and access to social security is guaranteed as they have the same rights as all EU citizens until 31st December. Afterwards, who knows, but 27 governments have different rules on 3rd country nationals. Agreements will have to be reached on data exchange, the ability to transmit any data about individuasl between companies in the UK and in Europe.

Totality of British State Operations Now in Question

There are two more headings covering future joint research programmes, as well as endless paragraphs on governance, including what to do if there is a dispute between the UK and EU on any aspect of any future Treaty or agreement.

In short, it is the totality of British state, administrative, social, economy, educational and legal systems that has to be agreed in a very short time-frame.

The Swiss voted in 1992 against joining the European Economic Area, which Norway is a member of, and which could have been a holding place for the UK after the 2016 referendum, if Theresa May had not decided to adopt UKIP and Johnson-Gove hardline positions on the EU. We would be outside the Treaty and thus have left the EU, as mandated by the June 2016 plebiscite, but still keep trade links, market access and the right of Brits to live, work and retire in Europe.

The Swiss began negotiating agreements for specific sectors in 1993. So far they have managed to conclude about 100, each covering different aspects of Switzerland’s relationship with its neighbours, who are all EU member states.

Boris Johnson and his anti-European cabinet are not going to wait that long. They want to use Brexit as an excuse to remodel Britain along the lines of a deregulated state, shorn of the social laws and sense of mutual responsibility between capital and labour, between different regions, and between different generations.

Britain’s Right-wing Revolutionary Moment

It is a Britain advocated by right-wing think-tanks, journals like the Spectator, and some prominent writers. To get Britain ready for this right-wing revolutionary moment, Johnson needs to create a crisis about the negotiations and thus have an excuse to walk out accusing the EU of intransigence.

Then as frontiers close, and there is a crisis of lorry queues at Dover, he can force through legislation with his majority, with support from the off-shore owned press and the enfeebled Labour opposition, still badly wounded after the Corbyn years, unable to mobilise a strong response.

Brexit was never about taking back control but handing control over to new forces, mainly organised American right-wing privatised capitalism, in the belief that is the only future for a Britain in which the 21st Conservative Party can exercise control.

Never before in history has Britain, or indeed any major nation, sought such a mammoth change in its economic and social structures short of a war-time defeat and reconstruction or the left and right revolutions that devoured Europe between 1917 and 1933.

The CoronaVirus epidemic is confusing the picture, but Johnson is in a hurry to create a crisis of rupture with Europe, before the US election which might see his friend Donald Trump defeated, as Democratic voters turn their back on their local Jeremy Corbyn – Bernie Sanders.

It suits Johnson to have all the discussion on the EU-UK talks described as trade talks or the hunt for a Free Trade Agreement. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is an audacious political project and the sooner the scope of what is being envisaged is understood the better.

By Denis MacShane - former Labour Minister of Europe. His latest book is “Brexiternty. The Uncertain Fate of Britain” (IB Tauris-Bloomsbury)

Join us as an LME member here.

Subscribe to our newsletter here to get these articles straight into your inbox.