Ministers urgently need to hash out what a ‘Skeleton Deal’ with the EU would look like

Ministers urgently need to hash out what a ‘Skeleton Deal’ with the EU would look like

Things are going well on the Brexit front. The Government is holding its nerve, and while the Lords may rage and rant and delay (all to the disbenefit of the UK, but that doesn’t seem to bother them), it looks like the key red lines – control of our borders, control of our laws and ability to do our own trade deals with the rest of the world – will be kept to by the Government. The last of these, particularly, is what Lord Ashcroft’s most recent poll says is what the electorate overall most wants. If the Government fails to stick with these red lines, it would likely result in the end of the Conservative Party for a generation, and the rise of a new era of different political parties in the UK. Whatever deal is done, hard or soft, the red lines must be kept to. A good deal for both the EU and the UK should be possible while sticking with them.

Having said that, nobody has ever lost money by overestimating the capacity of the European Union to do something utterly foolish, and for sure, there are those in Brussels who believe their own arrogant statements regarding the need to punish the UK for daring to leave the wonderful EU, and the imperative to discourage others from leaving. If, then, Brussels proves immovable, while the British red lines are maintained, then we move into ‘No Deal’ territory.

Brexiteers are, in general, sanguine about this possibility. Trading with the EU on WTO rules is not the end of the world, and the EU knows it cannot, under WTO regulation, discriminate against the UK more than it does against the rest of the world. Thus, to take an example, if the EU really intends to confine clearing of Euro-denominated products to locations only within the EU (something that may be illegal in and of itself, and that I don’t anyway believe that they seriously intend to do – it is just yet another scare story that the Project Fear mob like to excitedly brandish at us) – then they would have to impose the same prohibition on New York, Singapore, Tokyo etc. This would result in instant retaliation, and an even worse outcome for the EU than if they foolishly divorced themselves from the City of London’s stellar capabilities in Euro-clearing.

The same can be applied across a whole range of fear stories. We will be fine, trading with the EU on WTO. They won’t block Calais, because the WTO would intervene immediately if they did (and if they did so “unofficially” with ‘worker blockades’ and the like, Calais would soon, and permanently, lose half its business to Rotterdam, just like the Port of London lost its business to Felixstowe when dockers started working to rule. Those who run the Pas de Calais economic region would quickly intervene to stop any such nonsense).

The difference is whether we get ‘No Deal’, or a ‘No-Deal deal’. The former means that we leave without anything having been agreed. There will be no formal agreement on air traffic control; nothing on cross-border electricity transfers in Ireland; nothing on the Channel Tunnel, and so forth. There are probably a few hundred “essentials” of that kind, and a similar number of ‘pretty essential desirables’ (such as some of the details on cooperation on security and policing) as well. A ‘no-deal’ deal or ‘skeleton deal’ means that on these essentials and desirables, agreement is reached and everything on them proceeds smoothly as before. There’s no trade deal, but there are cooperation deals.

If it wasn’t that politicians are so focused on the moment and today’s headlines, whether in the Commons or the Lords here, or in Brussels, then there would have been, the moment the vote to Leave was taken, an urgent agreement to start contingency discussions between the EU and ourselves on these matters. If there are no air traffic control agreements, then in the very worst case, EU planes will be forced to fly to the US south of the Azores instead of up over Iceland. To be clear: I’m sure this won’t happen. The cost and disruption to the EU if it did, though, would be enormous.

Similarly, the impact on Ireland of various aspects, such as electricity and farming produce, would be catastrophic for Ireland (which makes Leo Varadkar’s recent posturing utterly ridiculous – Ireland is appallingly dependent upon a smooth Brexit occurring. Presumably Varadkar was indulging in a sort of virtue signalling to those who might otherwise vote for the more nationalist Sinn Féin).

Again, with no ‘No-Deal deal’, trade with the EU wouldn’t fall apart, but the operations of the Channel Tunnel, for a year or two, might well – for what? Some mad obstructionist principle promulgated by the Commission in Brussels?

I’m told that Michel Barnier is a sequentialist individual, incapable of thinking on parallel tracks. This may or may not be the case. It’s a problem if so, but then others must now rally round quickly to point out that there are only fourteen months to go: a contingency plan absolutely has to be drawn up for these ‘essentials’ and ‘near-essential desirables’, as a sensible precautionary approach. What is needed is for someone senior in our government to stand up now, and propose that separate teams be deployed, from our side within DExEU, and from the EU side within the appropriate team in Brussels, to hash out what a ‘Skeleton Deal’ would look like. Each of the few hundred issues must be thrashed out and each must be agreed, ahead of time.

This will be needed in any event – whether there is the hardest of all Brexits in March 2019, or the softest of all in, say, September 2020. The deal on each of these items will always be much the same (i.e. in most cases a continuation of the current status quo) whatever the final deal we strike is. Both the EU and the British Government owe it to their respective populations not to muck about with our lives and livelihoods when at the end of the day, we know these matters must be sorted, and we all know how they will be sorted, and we all know they need to be sorted now, not in the last minute rush when so many other matters will be under discussion.

Let us hope our Government steps forward and makes such a proposal, soon. Let us hope that they already, within DExEU, have a dedicated group of people who are setting out to list these ‘essentials’ and ‘near-essentials’, and are starting to draft out some agreement that would, in parallel rather than sequentially with the other negotiations, take these matters onto the fast track and sort them out. For the EU and Britain not to not agree swiftly on these matters would be disgraceful and irresponsible, and would not be forgotten easily by the electorates of any of the various countries involved.