There is no crisis that the French cannot extend and deepen: the Tennis Court Oath and the Treaty of Versailles spring to mind. M. Michel Barnier, the EU’s Chief Brexit Negotiator since December 2016, has found it difficult to resist the call of this tradition.
Sensing Mrs May’s weakness (or ambivalence), he allowed himself to be misled into the stubbornness that sometimes passes for resolution, even when the British Parliament thrice refused to take even a teaspoonful of the addled, trap-studded pudding that was the draft Withdrawal Agreement.
I say ‘was’, but M. Barnier’s first reaction to Mr Johnson’s ascension to the UK’s highest office was a tweet saying ‘We look forward to working constructively w/ PM @BorisJohnson when he takes office, to facilitate the ratification of the withdrawal agreement and achieve an orderly #Brexit.’
However, as the new Prime Minister was quick to signal, the ratifications deserted PMTM’s sinking ship some while back. The dWA must be swiftly hauled into dry dock, have the Barnier-cles scraped off its hull and its faded pink lines given a fresh coat of red paint.
Swiftly, not for our sake, but for the EU’s: the tide is turning against them. Never mind the one-off c. £39 billion divorce payoff that is risked by Community intransigence, the net trade balance between the UK and ‘Europe’ is £64 billion per annum in the latter’s favour – partly because the UK’s major strength is in services, which (deliberately) are not allowed the same liberal EU trading terms as manufactures (when will the BBC get that across to the viewers?)
One can understand Barnier’s desire to hamper our attempts to escape: he was, after all, France’s representative in the group that wrote the Lisbon Treaty. Perhaps it was a mistake to make the same man the negotiator for the process that now threatens to spoil The Project; the mind of even the brightest enarque can be clouded by emotion.
Or is it more (or less) than spite? Is it, as Johnson himself said in 2017, an attempted ‘punishment beating’ pour discourager les autres? Trouble is, that would be a game of Blind Man’s Buff and the UK would be far from the only country to take a hit. Is the EU happy to harm manufacturing giant Germany’s economy further, when it is already stagnant in the face of global recession? That would give the Bundestag’s AfD opposition party something to beat Mrs Merkel with as she tries to hold her country together. Maybe M. Barnier really thinks he will win with his repeated de Gaulle-ish ‘Non’; maybe he is merely putting on a brave front while officials scramble about in the background to review the dWA for their own red lines.
Alternative game metaphor: when chess champion Bobby Fisher wiped the floor with Boris Spassky, he had two exercise books of move openings, one labelled ‘Spassky White’ and the other ‘Spassky Black’. Our new PM needs one for ‘Negotiated Deal’ and another for ‘No Deal,’ both meticulously thought-out. His appointment of Michael Gove for the latter option shows he knows this, and Gove’s intellect is well up to the task.
What a shame that Mrs May only had one cahier in her satchel.
And it will concentrate M. Barnier’s mind wonderfully if he is forcefully reminded of what is at stake for him personally. With reference to a State leaving the EU, Article 50 (2) of the Lisbon Treaty says ‘the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State’: clearly the onus is on the EU’s negotiating team, not on us. Lord Kerr, who wrote that Article, has explained that its function was to buy time for the EU to organise an orderly separation and reduce the "legal chaos" for the Community.
If Barnier doesn’t unfold his arms soon, he personally will have failed the EU, leaving it floundering in a Sargasso Sea of complications and costing it many much-needed billions.
Your move, Michel.