The speech in Strasbourg this week by the European Commission president, Jean Claude Juncker, was a major blow for those opposed to Brexit.
Even the use of the term, ‘State of European Union’ underlined Juncker’s ambitions to forge a federalist United States of Europe. The term might be new in Europe, but US presidents have delivered annual state of the union addresses since 1913.
The Juncker speech was something of a light bulb moment. Reading what he said, it was clear the UK could never have stayed in the federalist Europe that is now the direction of travel. More and more national power will have to be surrendered to Brussels to deliver what Juncker wants; there will be no space for those outside the euro or the oversight of the European Central Bank. There was never any prospect the UK would accept this approach. Juncker and other federalists are probably glad that the UK is leaving, so that they can pursue their ambitions. The irony is that Juncker will be gone soon after Brexit, and his successor may be less enthusiastic about the federalist agenda.
That is all now water under the bridge. The EU being forged would always have been untenable for the UK. This means we have to find ways to make a success of Brexit, and as things stand that is a tall order. The government has no plan that could be deemed viable, in that its ideas are not being accepted in the EU-27. It is also clear from Juncker’s dismissive comments on Brexit that the hard core in Brussels is not greatly interested in the UK’s future political or trade relations with the EU. This is a big mistake on their part. The UK remains a vital market for the EU 27, and it is also a bigger economy than most of the EU 27. However it is politics that are driving the process, with trade a long way down the agenda. That is the opposite of what is needed in both Brussels and London, but it is not going to change.
If this is a disappointment for those who wanted to remain in the EU, the political shenanigans at Westminster over the EU withdrawal legislation – dubbed the great Repeal Bill – are just as frustrating for leave advocates. These underline that Brexit can be neither simple or even a certain process, adding to fears that business and trade interests are not central to the debate. Those that voted for Brexit, particularly amongst farmers, thought it would sweep away the dead hand of EU regulation. However what the Repeal Bill does is change that legislation from EU to UK rules.
The real challenge will be to persuade ministers to dismantle these rules. Indeed if the comments of the DEFRA Secretary, Michael Gove, are anything to go by he is keen to go further with green rules than the CAP. At the same time we will have to continue to meet many of the CAP rules if we want to supply food into the EU-27 market. As the price of doing business with the EU-27 many of the rules of the CAP will remain in force, the only difference being that they will be UK rather than EU legislation.
This might prove better, but my impression of visiting other EU member states over the years is that the most draconian interpretation of EU rules is by UK officials. Those will be the same people administering UK legislation. It is difficult to see the UK civil service, or indeed ministers, having the zeal to scrap regulations now that we are leaving the EU. As an example, compare some legislation here, for example in rural development and farm business schemes, to the situation south of the border where the red tape touch is a lot more gentle.
Beyond agricultural regulations there are also swathes of rules on the environment, health and safety and many other areas of business life. Those hoping these will be swept away are also in for a disappointment. It is difficult to see any government, and in particular one like we have now holding onto power by its fingertips, scrapping any regulations in areas popular with the general public. On that basis, Brexit or not, we face years of plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose – the more things change, the more they stay the same.