Book Review ‘Inside the Deal: How the EU got Brexit Done’, Stefaan De Rynck, Agenda, 2023
At one point in the Brexit negotiations Michel Barnier pointed out that in the area of security policy the UK was promising to do more together with the EU than it had done before; as De Rynck puts it, trying ‘briefly to hold on to its lead role on EU military operations.’ It continued to present itself as the bridge between the EU and US, except the EU ‘failed to see any benefit in not liaising directly with the US instead.’ When Johnson won the election in December 2019 this approach for a closer relationship on security and foreign policy was dropped.
What came later, we now know, is acting as an instrument of US policy in the war in Ukraine; scuppering early negotiations by promising western military support to the Ukrainian regime and continuing to ‘punch above its weight’ by promises of weapons deliveries like tanks designed more to pressurise others than to make a critical contribution itself.
De Rynck doesn’t explain the about-face, except that Trump had criticised NATO, implying a reduced priority for Europe ,while he had already promised Britain a trade deal “very quickly”. His ambassador to the UK supported Brexit – “you have a great future outside the EU” he said – while US State Department officials warned against no deal and stated their wish that security cooperation be maintained at “current levels”
De Rynck admits that the EU negotiators were initially less confident of maintaining a united front on foreign and security policy than on the economic front, and implies concern that some East European countries might want different outcomes. He argues however that Brexit has strengthened EU security arrangements and its autonomous decision making in which the UK will no longer be involved. He argues that weakening the single market would have eroded both and reduced the ‘strategic potential of a more Global Europe’. On the other hand, its development, including a ‘single market for defence industries’, is a precondition for development of this role.
This assessment is informed by the start of the war in Ukraine and the alliance with the US in opposition to Russia, including sanctions that have substituted cheaper Russian energy for more expensive US sources. The introduction of the Inflation Reduction Act in the US is now also a threat to EU industry with its subsidies attracting European industry to the US. When the problem of Ukrainian refugees is added, it is clear that the ‘strategic potential of a more Global Europe’ faces a threat from the US in relation to which Britain has acted as supplicant and surrogate.
De Rynck makes none of these observations in the book but alludes to this role in recording previous US opposition to the EU’s satellite navigation system Galileo, which Britain had at first also opposed. He reports that the EU Commission came close to abandoning the project, although went ahead when Denmark switched sides, Tony Blair withdrew British reservations and Germany promised to pay. This then gave the EU its own alternative to the American Global Positioning System.
The British claimed that they had been able to limit Galileo to civil applications, and continued to veto military uses, but by 2015 they announced their intentions to use it for military purposes, including for the guidance of targeted weapons. ‘Losing access’ to the system was therefore a significant Brexit problem.
De Rynck explains that the EU were willing to allow the UK to use the system’s military grade signal, but Britain also wanted access to the source code for economic and military purposes and complained it could not be the only member of the UN Security Council without full control of its own navigation system. After a ‘bitter’ debate, and threat and counter-threat, the purpose claimed for Brexit of “taking back control” did indeed mean losing it, and Britain did become the only member of the UN Security Council without full control of its own navigation system.
A core justification of Brexit was the ‘opportunity’ to change its policies, regulations, and product requirements. Brexit, it seemed to everyone, would be pointless without this. However, rather than see how EU rules would continue to apply post-Brexit, the EU initially concentrated on what guarantees any alternative arrangements could offer, on effective dispute settlement and on credible unilateral remedies, all of which were agreed three years later.
In between the British complained that the EU approach did not seek to replicate its trade negotiations elsewhere, like those with Japan or New Zealand. Michael Gove said Britain was willing to reintroduce tariffs in exchange for the EU lowering its demands on a level playing field only to be told that there was no time to go line by line through each product, and in any case, it would not buy a lighter version of the level playing field.
Britain made proposals and then withdrew them; it proposed a Canada style trade agreement and then backtracked when what this meant was explained to them. ‘What makes the UK “so unworthy” complained David Frost, as the British declared their sovereignty, only to be told that sovereignty was a two-way street; the EU was itself annoyed that what was on offer to them was less than what the British were offering to Japan, Ukraine and Australia.
It seems almost incredible that, given the course of the negotiations recorded in the book, the British continued to argue that cooperation should rely on trust rather than rules. The EU was perfectly aware that the negotiations were mainly just to ‘get Brexit done’ without any genuine commitment to any written agreement.
De Rynck states that ‘despite some failed EU demands and compromises, the outcome was largely in line with what the EU set out at the start.’ ‘The UK government played a game of chicken, by itself’ and ‘as a more diverse and bigger economy, the EU had no interest in accommodating the UK . . .’
The majority of the British people now regard Brexit as a mistake. The sign on the side of the bus promising money to the NHS looks like the con it was as the NHS collapses, highlighted by media reports of incidents of raw sewage pouring out inside crumbling hospitals. This, and every other Brexit promise, has literally turned to shit and the wonder is that anyone thinks being poorer is part of the solution to anything.
Guardian commentators like Polly Toynbee write articles setting out how awful Brexit has been but with no proposal to reverse it – ‘Most people are now in favour of rejoining the EU, but Labour is right to steer clear of another row over Europe’ she says. Gideon Rachman writes columns for the ‘Financial Times’ about how it can be reversed but has nothing more to propose than two referendums on the tenth anniversary of the 2016 leave vote.
The British state is in confusion about what to do, evidenced by the meeting of the great and good, leavers and remainers, reported to arise because ‘Brexit is not delivering’. Its proclaimed purpose however was “about moving on from leave and remain, and what are the issues we now have to face.” As if the issue is not what brought them together in the first place and the answer obvious.
As one commentator in ‘The Irish Times’ said, ‘it is hard to understand the 40 per cent who still agree with the decision’. On the left, among the Lexit supporters, there equally appears to be no remorse, just excuses like the assorted Tories, UKIPers, xenophobes and racists who were equally committed to a Britain-alone approach.
The book by the EU insider reveals no secrets but describes the British negotiation process as confused, inept and as full of wishful thinking as the Brexit project itself. It faithfully records the bluster and threats that no one with any appreciation of the balance of power could take seriously. It points to the folly of left supporters of Brexit who supported it when all this was obvious. Did they expect the negotiations would deliver some advance for the British working class? I suppose that they must, in which case the book is another testament to the stupidity of Brexit, Lexit or whatever its supporters want to call it, now that it’s no longer just an idea and so not what they wanted.
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