It is no mean achievement, but over Brexit the UK this week managed to make the European Commission appear statesmanlike and principled. This has probably never happened before, but it is clear now that when the EU says it will give no more ground it means it. The decision has been made – it will circle its 27 wagons to protect what it sees as vital interests. These are the single market, free movement of people and a ‘Fortress Europe’ approach to imports.
It was not the votes in the House of Commons that were the lowest ebb this week for the Government. That came in its crazy plans for tariffs in the event of a no deal Brexit. That plan was so crazy it must have convinced many MPs to finally put a halt to talk of leaving the EU with no deal at the end of this month. We already know that would have devastated agriculture, but it has become clear that the same applies to the rest of the economy and millions of UK jobs.
As for the tariff plan, whoever came up with what was tabled on Wednesday must not have a single commercial bone in their body. At its centre was the suggestion that goods from the Republic of Ireland would face no tariffs coming into Northern Ireland. Put that another way and it would have meant goods could come from an EU member state to the UK, without tariffs, but not the other way around. In seconds people saw the obvious flaw. Someone south of the border has a friend in Spain that wants to get their ham into the UK without tariffs. Easy peasy – ship it to them and they will send it to Northern Ireland for onward shipment to Great Britain. Scale this up and it would have taken thousands of customs officers and years of court time to prevent this happening.
As crazy ideas go this plunged new depths, but with no deal now off the table at least the tariff plan has receded. What has happened over Brexit is a huge disappointment for those that supported it, and that includes plenty of farmers who wanted to escape regulations. Since the referendum vote 33 months ago we have made no progress and from the outset the whole issue has been mismanaged politically and practically. All that has come from the Government are assurances that it will stick to more and more EU regulations, particularly in areas such as the environment. The UK is to have a new Office for Environmental Protection, yet greening and cross compliance in the CAP were major reasons farmers voted to escape the EU.
The reality may well be that it is impossible after 45 years to have a clean break with the EU, but that was the outcome promised by leave advocates back in 2016. They should have admitted then that the only way this could be achieved would be by taking an enormous risk with the UK economy. That is now all water under an increasingly shaky Brexit bridge.
As things stand, and they could change again next week, the options are clear. Politicians can accept the Theresa May withdrawal deal on offer, as an alternative to a softer or non-existent Brexit; or they can continue fighting like recalcitrant children and ignore the stark writing on the Westminster political wall. It seems it is now no longer a case of the withdrawal deal or no deal – it is fast becoming the withdrawal deal or no Brexit. The EU is not going to shift and politicians at Westminster need to learn that compromise and common sense are not dirty words.
Hopefully agriculture can move on from this bruising experience. The farming lobby has, wrongly, taken political flack for standing up for its members and wanting to avoid an outcome that would have devastated the industry. Politicians need to eat some humble pie over this before they come seeking farmer support in the May local elections. They have a right and a duty to uphold their views, but seeking to turn issues raised on behalf of farmers into a political battle was entirely wrong. As the no deal politics recede, farmers will soon find out that what happens next is not and end point, but the start of equally long and difficult negotiations on future trading arrangements with the EU-27.