C'est la vie.
Boris Johnson has walked into a diplomatic row with one of the UK’s closest allies after claiming the prime minister of the Netherlands had been seeking to “mediate” between Brussels and London over the post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland.
Speaking to reporters on a plane to New York for a meeting of the UN general assembly, the prime minister suggested the Dutch government was looking to act as a mediator between the European Commission and London on the differences that have arisen in recent months.
“I talked to Mark Rutte [the Dutch PM] the other night, who wanted to come and see if he could mediate on the issue and I said, you know, we really want to make progress,” Johnson had said. “We seek a solution, but it has to be one that allows the free movement of goods between all parts of our country.”
Dutch diplomatic sources expressed surprise at the prime minister’s comments, insisting that Rutte had instead specifically urged Johnson to be pragmatic in his dealings with the European Commission.
“The [Dutch] prime minister called on Boris Johnson to be constructive, pragmatic and engage with the commission,” a Dutch diplomatic source said of last week’s meeting between the two leaders. “Both the UK and EU share the responsibility to make the protocol as negotiated and ratified on both sides of the Channel work for the people in Northern Ireland.”
Boris Johnson has accepted that the UK will not get a quick trade deal with the US, in an embarrassing admission as he prepares for his first White House meeting with president Joe Biden.
Speaking ahead of Tuesday’s encounter, the prime minister made clear that he recognised a free trade agreement (FTA) with Britain was not a priority for Mr Biden, who he said had “a lot of fish to fry”.
A swift transatlantic FTA was repeatedly trumpeted by Leave campaigners, including Mr Johnson, as the biggest prize from Brexit, and the prime minister made clear on his arrival in Downing Street in 2019 that he was hopeful of a quick deal on tariff-free commerce with the then president Donald Trump.
The Department for International Trade has estimated the benefits of a deal at up to £7.7bn, or 0.36 per cent of GDP – well short of the predicted losses from EU withdrawal.
But the chances of a deal with Mr Trump foundered over UK concerns about chlorinated chicken, hormone-pumped beef and protections for the NHS, and Mr Biden’s arrival in office has pushed the prospect of agreement further into the future.
When Johnson was asked on Tuesday whether he still hoped to strike a free-trade agreement with the US by the time of the next general election, opening the way to lower tariffs and a closer economic relationship, he said “we’re going as fast as we can”, but declined to confirm whether it could be achieved before 2024.
When the US president was asked about the prospects of a deal as the pair met in the Oval Office, he said: “We’re going to talk about trade a little bit today, and we’re going to have to work that through.”
The UK is now understood to be considering alternative options, including seeking to join the US-Canada-Mexico trade deal instead of striking a bilateral agreement with Washington.
Exports from Great Britain to Ireland fell by almost £2.5bn in the first seven months of the year with Brexit emerging as a major factor, according to official Irish government data.
The figures from Ireland’s Central Statistics Office (CSO) come just days after Marks & Spencer said it was scrapping 800 product lines from its stores in the republic of Ireland because of “excessive paperwork” and health controls on food.
The CSO recorded the value of goods imported from Great Britain for January to July 2021 as €6.3bn (£5.4bn), a 32% decrease year on year, equivalent to €2.9bn in sales compared with the same period in 2020.
Imports in July alone were down 32% compared with the same month in 2020, with the largest decrease seen in food and live animals.
These categories of goods have all been subject to new physical and documentary controls on entry to Ireland since Brexit came into force in January.
However goods travelling in the other direction are not subjected to the same controls with the government last week announcing that checks due to be implemented in October and January would be delayed by up to nine months.
The asymmetrical trading relationship now appears to be translating into visible wins and losses. Sales rocketed for Irish traders by almost £500m year on year, up 60% (€567m) in July to €1.5bn, and up 26% in the first seven months of 2021.
The largest increases in sales to Great Britain were in the chemicals and related products sector, which is not yet subjected to the stringent regulatory controls on entering Great Britain.
M&S last week blamed “pointless” paperwork for exports into France and Ireland, announcing it was closing 11 of its French stores because of problems supplying them with fresh produce since Brexit. It has said it will now try to source more product locally in Ireland, a strategy successfully deployed for the last decade by Aldi and Lidl in Ireland.
The UK government said it was postponing checks on British borders because of the pandemic and global supply chain issues. But border posts were not ready and work has not yet started at either Dover in England or Holyhead in Wales, the two main gateways into the UK.
The UK recently chose a site for its border-control post at Parc Cybi in Holyhead in Anglesey, but on Monday it was clear work had not yet started.
Rarely do we see thinking of the other side of a negotiation so quickly, while the trail is still warm. Michel Barnier’s new book helps explain why Britain ended up being comprehensively out-negotiated over Brexit and saddled with a flawed withdrawal agreement and a deeply disadvantageous future relationship, both of which will cause us major problems for decades to come. This is therefore an important account.
That said, Barnier may be an excellent haute fonctionnaire, but judging by the stilted prose of this “secret diary” he is definitely not an author. We learn little about the newly declared French presidential candidate other than that he admires General De Gaulle. There are no startling revelations and there is more technical detail – much more – than most people will want. Nor does this read like a genuinely contemporaneous diary; a giveaway is that he too often knows the future, writing, for example, that: “I will have Martin Selmayr on the line several times over the next few days.”
Nevertheless, five basic reasons for the EU’s success and the UK’s failure jump out of these pages, which, as a result, contain valuable lessons.
First, the EU side was professional and properly prepared, whereas the UK was not. Barnier was across the detail at every stage, and even read Stanley Johnson’s 1987 novel The Commissioner to try to understand his son. He focused from the beginning on the landing zone for the negotiation and prepared a full legal text of the free trade agreement before the talks began. When negotiations opened, the media made much of a photo of Barnier sitting with a file full of papers on the table in front of him while David Davis had nothing at all. The reality was far worse. Barnier was astounded by Davis’s “nonchalant” approach: “As is always the case with him we rarely get into the substance of things,” he writes about one subsequent encounter.
Second, Barnier says it was the unity of the 27, “so unexpected for the British, that forced them to finally agree to pay their full share”. The British side repeatedly tried to negotiate with individual member states rather than the Commission, but kept being sent back to Barnier. Even at the last moment, Boris Johnson tried to phone Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, but both leaders refused to take his call. Barnier spends a vast amount of his time keeping member states on side, travelling endlessly to capitals and engaging with ministers. He saw off repeated British attempts to negotiate directly with the cabinet of the president of the commission, and Barnier reserves a special place in hell for the notorious Selmayr, Jean-Claude Juncker’s chief of staff, acidly commenting: “It is just a pity that he has difficulty in accepting the limits of his role.”
Third, the EU knew what it wanted and stuck to it. The British government spent a year negotiating rancorously and publicly with itself, which allowed the EU to take the initiative, set the agenda and frame the negotiations as it wished. It decided from the beginning that it would separate the divorce agreement from discussions on the future relationship, so the British could not use paying the leaving bill to buy access to parts of the single market. Britain tilted hopelessly at trying to change that sequence and tied its hands early on by setting out its red lines. Listening to Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech, Barnier marvelled at “the sheer number of doors she is closing here! Has she thought it through?” The EU watched with amusement and horror as the British tore themselves apart. Barnier writes of May that “this is not really a negotiation with the EU but a far more intense negotiation, on an almost hourly basis, with her own ministers and her own majority”.
The fourth reason for British failure was that Johnson made the disastrous tactical decision to try to provoke the EU in the hope it would be shaken, even briefing it as “the mad man strategy”. Barnier spotted this straight away. In the face of “threats and unpredictability” he decided to remain “calm, confident and solid” and just keep going. The British approach backfired spectacularly. In October 2020, David Frost cancelled negotiations and refused to resume them unless the EU publicly changed its position and recognised UK “sovereignty”. A week later he had to humiliatingly crawl back to the table. Most disastrously, the threat of a no deal fell flat. Barnier comments: “The British want us to believe that they are not afraid of a no deal”; they are playing a “game of chicken” and the EU task is to “keep our cool”. When the British resorted to reneging on what they had just agreed in the Northern Ireland Protocol and breaking international law with the Internal Market Bill, far from forcing the EU into concessions, they destroyed the little trust that still existed.
Finally, the EU used deadlines effectively to get its way, whereas the UK walked into a series of traps. May unnecessarily triggered Article 50, which started a two-year stopwatch, without a clear vision of what she wanted. When Davis tried to hurry Barnier up, his response was that “[Davis] is mistaken. We have time on our side”. Barnier may be unreasonably proud of his catchphrase – “the clock is ticking” – adopted right from the beginning, but he is right that the British set a time limit that worked against themselves.
Sadly, Northern Ireland became collateral damage in this farrago. From the beginning Barnier saw that the “Irish question is the stumbling block”. May and her chief official, Olly Robbins, tried hard to protect the Good Friday Agreement with an increasingly Heath Robinson-esque structure by which the whole UK remained in the Customs Union. But Johnson never took Northern Ireland seriously, proposing fictional technological solutions for the border. At one stage, Barnier had to tell a group of European Research Group MPs that the health of cows could not be assessed by drone. It is clear from Barnier’s account that Johnson knew absolutely what he was agreeing to when he signed up to a border in the Irish Sea. And Barnier was appalled when Johnson told the press shortly after that there would be no controls on goods between Britain and Northern Ireland – “which is not what the withdrawal agreement says”.
The fact is, the die was cast from the beginning. The EU set the framework and the UK was unable to escape. As Barnier writes: “I still think it is insane that a great country like the UK is conducting such a negotiation and taking such a decision … without having any clear vision of it or a majority to support it.” His conclusion, with which I agree, is that: “There is most definitely something wrong with the British system … every passing day shows that they have not realised the consequences of what is truly at stake here.” There ought to a be an inquiry into why, when we pride ourselves on our diplomatic prowess, we were so comprehensively defeated at the negotiation table, but this diary is probably the closest we will get.
And it is understood that up to 5,000 temporary visas will be granted for HGV drivers.
However, even as the plans were formally announced, Marco Digioia, the head of the European Road Haulers Association which represents more than 200,000 trucking companies across the continent, told the Observer that “much more would be needed” than a temporary relaxation of immigration rules. “There is a driver shortage across Europe,” he said. “I am not sure how many would want to go to the UK.”
Andrew Opie, from the British Retail Consortium, said the 5,000 limit would “do little to alleviate the current shortfall”.
The criticisms emerged as the supply-chain crisis spread:
• Ambulance and care workers have been affected by queues for petrol, following reports that some forecourts have not received expected petrol deliveries.
• There were warnings that as many as one in five deliveries may not be reaching major supermarket chains on time or at all.
• Polling suggested that a majority of voters, including 52% of Leave voters, believed Brexit was partly to blame for the crisis.
Digioia said European driver salaries were generally higher than in Britain; new EU rules had improved working conditions; and billions of euros had been offered to fund parking areas and support companies.
Three-quarters of small French fishing boats could be denied access to British waters under a post-Brexit regime in a move that risks further damaging Anglo-French relations.
The UK government had granted only 12 out of a total of 47 applications for licences for the French vessels under 12 metres long to fish the UK’s inshore waters.
Responding to the government’s announcement on Tuesday night,
France’s maritime minister, Annick Girardin, condemned the decision. “It’s a new refusal by the British to implement the conditions of the Brexit agreement despite all the work we have done together,” she said in a statement. “French fishing should not be taken hostage by the British for political ends.”
France was reportedly waiting for responses to requests for fishing licences in the Channel Islands, where 168 were due from Guernsey and 169 from Jersey, which is expected to make a statement on Wednesday.
France’s Europe minister, Clément Beaune, had told a French parliamentary hearing last week: “We are at the end of our patience. We are continuing our fight.” He accused the UK of being “unsportsmanlike” in its handling of the licence requests.
France and Britain had seen diplomatic tensions rise over the summer due to the number of small vessels carrying migrants crossing over the Channel.
Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, and the French president, Emmanuel Macron, had also publicly disagreed over the UK’s decision to sign up to the Aukus defence pact, which cost France a submarine contract worth billions of dollars.
In May, France’s response to post-Brexit fishing restrictions around the island of Jersey was described as “pretty close to an act of war” by fishing community leaders in St Helier.
They said they have been told 100 boats were being lined up in France on 6 May for a 6am blockade at the main Channel Island port, threatening food and energy supplies.
A UK government spokesperson said: “Our approach has been reasonable and fully in line with our commitments in the trade and cooperation agreement.”