The Government must hold firm against the demand for future alignment of the British and EU economies

The Government must hold firm against the demand for future alignment of the British and EU economies

When news that a Brexit withdrawal deal had been reached, its fate at the hands of MPs on Saturday hung in the balance. MPs gunning to vote it down saw their numbers potentially boosted by the DUP, to whom the four pronged Northern Ireland backstop falls short on customs, VAT and consent. But now Jean-Claude Junker has made it clear with an emphatic ‘No!’ that he does not think there should be another extension. That gives the prospect of a Halloween exit a big boost.

Boris Johnson has therefore co-authored a new twist in the Brexit story. The EU, with considerable success, having all along pursued its longer term political and economic goals, was ready to cut its losses. Politically it wanted from the outset to punish the UK, make exit impossibly difficult, deter other member states from pursuing their own Brexit and, as happened in the May deal, impose a Carthaginian peace. Economically, the aim throughout was to subjugate the UK economy to Brussels’ system of control, under single market and customs union rules, EU law and ECJ jurisdiction.

Since 2017 the EU seemed to be succeeding. Each time it applied pressure, each time the UK capitulated, bringing the EU’s political and economic goal ever closer, tantalisingly within grasp. From the outset they set the talks agenda, secured their first-stage demands, ruled out trade talks, then limited its future basis, all the way to Theresa May’s Chequers capitulation, and then to what appeared last November to be the jackpot, May’s ‘deal’. The UK would have to accept its future economy subjugated to the EU rulebook, with no voice, no vote. Though Parliament rejected that deal, for a variety of reasons, the Government refused to accept the rejection.

Ultimately the British people, who include some of the most savvy voters the world has known, made clear through their votes at the local council and EU parliamentary elections earlier this year that Mrs May must pack her bags and go, in favour of a leader who would honour the referendum decision – Boris Johnson.

The EU, which had refused to re-open the May deal, saw in Johnson a leader with whom they could do business and prepare to cut their losses. Politically it has already had one win: Britain’s turmoil is a more powerful deterrent to future exits than the EU could have imagined. To that, Johnson – who understands that the new Roman Empire needed more than the security blanket of UK turmoil – could add a handsome payment in excess of £39bn, and the trophy of territory – a shared stake in Northern Ireland. Thus they could show their rebellious subjects in the EU27 that it doesn’t pay to rebel. Moreover the leaders of the EU’s two most powerful countries, France and Germany, considered the time has come to get on without the UK so they can get on with the EU. France, under the presidency of Emmanuel Macron, is keen to restore life to the project that was buffeted by economic, unemployment and migration crises for a decade. Then came Brexit.

The EU was originally the brainchild of France’s post-war leaders, who aimed to tie Germany, their former enemy, into cooperation in a centrally controlled joint economy. Over the decades these two powers achieved leadership – political, economic and constitutional – of the continent. To France it brought stability and the chance once more of Napoleonic glory, and Germany the rehabilitation and economic hegemony of the continent to which governments aspired in the 20th century. Today, the long-serving and highly respected Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is the real President of Europe, but now she is about to bow out. President Macron, the heir apparent, and most implacable foe of Brexit, may judge it best to let the UK go its own way, while he takes over Angela Merkel’s leadership, supported by the new President of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, his nominee.

None of this is to say that EU leaders have given up their long-term economic goal – of subjugating the UK economy to EU law. Their insistence over the details of the Irish arrangements point to an attempt to use it as they intended to use the last backstop to keep the UK economy bound and gagged when it comes to the next stage of negotiations, the free trade agreement. There is reason to suspect an ulterior motive for such thick red lines having been drawn by the EU. Already the 8,000 miles of land borders with 19 non-EU countries (including some unstable or autocratic or undemocratic regimes, and leaky borders), offer far greater opportunities for smuggling than the 310-mile Irish border between two neighbouring, friendly common law countries, with far more in common with each other than either has with the EU.

The Prime Minister understands that people voted for sovereignty and intends to honour their wish. He made it clear to Donald Tusk in the summer that when the UK left the EU and after any transition, ‘we will leave the Single Market and the Customs Union… the [UK’s] laws and regulations… will potentially diverge from those of the EU. That is the point of our exit and our ability to enable this is central to our future democracy.’

Though the EU may still be unwilling to accept such UK independence, which it sees as a threat, it may hope to use the status of Northern Ireland as a bartering chip to secure its economic aim of extracting as part of a free trade deal a commitment to future alignment of UK law with the bloc.

The Government needs, therefore, to be vigilant. Even the prize of a free trade deal is not worth winning if in the ​years to come it is at the price of the UK’s economic independence. How the British economy is run is for British voters to decide, not the EU. For that reason, Johnson must hold firm against the demand for future alignment so that British voters can decide at the ballot box whether to opt for his vision of the future economy, or Mr Corbyn’s preference for a marriage between Brussels and Venezuela.