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ANDREW NEIL: No Deal would be nail in coffin of Western democracy and celebrated by Russia and China

The mood music emanating from the Brexit talks has turned cheerier. Let’s hope the tune continues to be upbeat in the few days remaining to clinch a deal.

For No Deal won’t just have serious, negative consequences for Britain and the European Union. It would be a setback for the West and democracies everywhere.

The 21st century was meant to clinch the ultimate triumph of democracy. Instead, its first two decades have been marked by the rise of authoritarianism.

From Beijing to Moscow through Ankara, Riyadh and other major capitals of the world, we’ve witnessed the rise of the strongman and retreat of democratic progress.

For No Deal won’t just have serious, negative consequences for Britain and the European Union. It would be a setback for the West and democracies everywhere (file photo)

Failure

Even established democracies have not been immune to the cult of the autocrat, as Donald Trump’s America, Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil and Narendra Modi’s India all illustrate.

The failure of Western economies to bounce back strongly from the Great Crash of 2008 (and the rising inequalities exacerbated by slow growth) encouraged authoritarians everywhere to argue that free markets were no longer the best engine for economic growth and prosperity.

The inability of the West to get a grip of the Covid pandemic (in stark contrast to the success of many Asian countries) has further emboldened authoritarian regimes.

Britain and the EU share the most fundamental of values: liberal democracy, market economics, the rule of law, with equality for all under the law.

They have so many common interests: joint defences against authoritarian aggression, security and intelligence co-operation against the ever-present terrorist threat, support for free trade among nations to spur prosperity across the globe, a commitment to net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

If two entities that share so much that is good in the world, and are largely united in hostility to what is bad, cannot agree their post-Brexit arrangements in harmony and with mutual respect, then be in no doubt — authoritarians everywhere will be celebrating.

They will see it as yet another nail in the coffin of Western democracy. They will be more sure than ever that the 21st century belongs to them.

The 21st century was meant to clinch the ultimate triumph of democracy. Instead, its first two decades have been marked by the rise of authoritarianism ()

The 21st century was meant to clinch the ultimate triumph of democracy. Instead, its first two decades have been marked by the rise of authoritarianism ()

So the penalty for failure in the Brexit talks is far greater than the cost of tariffs on British lamb or the inconvenience of long queues at Dover.

Those mired in the details of these talks should raise their heads for just a moment and appreciate the huge price of failure, which could blight us all for years to come.

It would be especially ludicrous to fail to agree now when about 98 per cent of the Brexit deal has already been settled. To allow the remaining 2 per cent to get in the way would be a monumental failure of statecraft, on a par with the democracies’ appeasement of Nazi Germany in the 1930s and the Anglo-French invasion of Suez in 1956 on a false prospectus.

Of course, the final 2 per cent is important. It always is. But if, as looks likely, the EU is now prepared to abandon its insistence on a ‘ratchet clause’ — whereby Brussels could unilaterally impose wide-ranging tariffs and/or quotas on British exports to the EU should it deem Britain is failing to keep in line with EU rules and regulations — then there is a deal to be done.

If, as is possible, Britain diverges from EU standards as the years pass (not to lower standards but to different ones) then Brussels might well have grounds to complain. Provided this is done through independent arbitration and any penalties are limited in scope (to the sector where the divergence has happened) then Britain should be able to live with that.

Yes, Brexit should mean greater British sovereignty. But sovereignty is not cost-free. It can have consequences. If exercising our right to diverge results in an adverse EU response then that is something we will have to weigh in the balance at the time. We could still decide to go our own way if we thought it was to our overall benefit.

However, one thing is crystal clear now: if the choice is between the certainty of widespread tariffs on January 1 (no deal) and the possibility of limited tariffs in some sectors in the years to come (deal) then surely the latter would be good old-fashioned British pragmatism in action.

What seems important to our economy now might not be so in future. So why not suck it and see?

If these so-called ‘level playing field’ issues can be resolved in this manner then that would leave fish.

President Emmanuel Macron has upped the ante on this. He’s terrified that French fishermen will become the new gilets jaunes (yellow vests), dumping tons of cod on the Champs-Élysée and sparking a new round of street protests, with a presidential election less than 18 months away and the biggest threat to him from the populist Right.

But if Britain is prepared to accept less than ideal level-playing-field arrangements, the EU in general — and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel in particular — should be prepared to lean on President Macron.

Scupper

Extra compensation for French fisherman and a higher French share of post-Brexit EU fish quotas (sorry Ireland, you’ll lose — but no deal would be worst of all for you) should do the trick. If fish quotas are allowed to scupper a deal then presidents Xi and Putin will conclude we have lost the plot.

They will see it as yet another nail in the coffin of Western democracy. So the penalty for failure in the Brexit talks is far greater than the cost of tariffs on British lamb or the inconvenience of long queues at Dover (pictured on December 11)

They will see it as yet another nail in the coffin of Western democracy. So the penalty for failure in the Brexit talks is far greater than the cost of tariffs on British lamb or the inconvenience of long queues at Dover (pictured on December 11)

Brexiteer true believers will hate a deal along these lines. It will be a skinny deal — not so much the Canada+ they promised, more Canada Dry. But Brexiteers assured us during and after the referendum that a free trade deal with Brussels would be the easiest and most far-reaching in history. So their credibility when it comes to deal-making is not high.

There will be many at the heart of the EU who will also be unhappy about the likely deal (if there is one). But the talks were soured from the start by the desire of the Brussels elite to punish Britain for having the temerity to leave the EU — and to make it so unpleasant that no other EU member would follow suit.

The EU position was always illogical. It thought Brexit was an incalculable act of self-harm on Britain’s part. Yet it also wanted to confine a post-Brexit Britain so it could not go too far out on its own. Just why a country they thought was heading for basket-case status needed to be so shackled was never explained.

Precipice

I suspect the real fear in Brussels all along has been that Britain would make a success of Brexit. That remains to be seen. What is important now is that a deal is done and that politicians on both sides of the Channel then concentrate on the future, which is not necessarily bright.

The Eurozone is likely to be the last major world region to recover economically from the pandemic. The euro is soaring, pricing European exports out of overseas markets, the European Central Bank is running out of firepower further to stimulate the European economy and core inflation is heading for zero — all of which adds up to a continent on a Japanese-style deflationary precipice, with stagnation as far as the eye can see.

Britain should take no satisfaction from this. We need a dynamic eurozone to prosper ourselves. And our politicians have their own work cut out. They need to tell us what exactly a post-Brexit Britain is going to do with its newly returned sovereignty.

What is the strategy for putting the country at the forefront of artificial intelligence, pharma, robotics, digitisation and 5G — all of which could boom in a Britain no longer held back by the EU’s over-cautious regulation.

British politicians have been silent on what it is they plan to do with Brexit. After January 1, there will be no excuse for any further silence.


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