Since mid-January, a series of winter storms have rolled in from the North Atlantic, bringing widespread gales, severe flooding and more rainfall than has been seen before during the month of February for as long as people have been keeping records of such things.
For fishermen, winter is the best time to fish the waters off northwest Europe, but the poor weather has meant most boats have only been to sea for less than seven days during the entire first two months of 2020. And when fishermen are not at sea, they’re not making money.
For that reason alone, continued access to the rich fishing waters off the coast of the United Kingdom is a pressing matter in Brussels.
On Monday last, just as Storm Jorge was clearing the British Isles, British and European Union negotiated on the first of a series of high-stakes talks aimed at forging a new post-Brexit relationship.
The timing on these talks is tight — a free trade deal is supposed to be wrapped up by the end of the year — and as with all things Brexit-related, both sides are far apart on key issues.
There are roughly 100 officials on both sides trying to hammer out agreements on everything ranging from security access, banking and financial ties, common health policies, air traffic rights, access to markets, making goods move as seamlessly as possible now that the Brits are out of the EU market of 500 million, and generally keeping things as close as possible to normal as things were when the Brits were in the Brussels club for 47 years.
The real battleground will be fishing — with Ireland, France and Spain insisting on future access if the UK wants to keep the City of London’s vast financial access to Europe. And Captain Boris will toss his fishermen overboard — the catch is too big to lose.
There’s little hope, given the time frame that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has committed to December 31, that anything other than the barest of bare-bones frameworks will be agreed. Yes, the bar is set that low. That end-of-year date is the end of the UK’s transition period during which it trades with the other 27 EU nations and those in the European Economic Area too without tariffs or other barriers.
Spectre of no deal
Johnson, for his part, has ruled out any extension to the transition period, and the real crunch will come in June in a EU-UK summit — a serious assessment of the negotiations. Yes, the spectre of no deal is possible again — and that means tariffs and checks and all of the things that had simply been put on hold when Johnson got his withdrawal deal approved by the UK parliament in late December.
That withdrawal deal merely kicked the canned effects of withdrawal down the road to this set of talks on the future relationship between London and Brussels.
If you thought the atmosphere between both sides was bad in the three years of talks before the UK left, well right now there’s nothing but distrust on both sides, with London and Brussels accusing each other of reneging on the lofty ideals set out in the political declaration struck late last year.
The last thing the EU needs is a UK trading off its shores that undercuts Europe-wide standards of labour, environment, security, manufacturing standards — anything and everything that would give Britain a competitive edge allowing it to undercut and undersell European counterparts.
But now that Boris has taken Britain out of the EU, he is insisting that Britannia waives the EU rules and charts its own course in the name of its newly recovered economic and political independence.
New currency equation
If there’s a way of measuring the acrimony then perhaps the value of the pound against the euro, the common currency used by 19 or the 27 EU nations, might be a good barometer. No sooner had the EU’s top negotiator Michel Barnier met with David Frost, his British counterpart than the pound lost 1.3 per cent of its value over fears the hardline UK stance would hurt its economy.
Barnier is highly experienced in such talks and led the EU’s negotiators during the years of Brexit talks. In an uncharacteristic display of podium pounding, Barnier has warned the Brits that any attempt to backslide on the Brexit deal will torpedo the trade talks before they begin in earnest.
And once more, that issue of the Irish border is again critical. That withdrawal deal — now formally lodged with the UN as an international treaty, means that goods travelling across the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK must be formally checked. Johnson now says that is not necessary which, even for him and his admirable record of speaking from both sides of his mouth, is quite the blatant untruth.
So how is this going to unfold?
No one is holding their breaths for a long-form deal parsed with precision. Instead, after all of this political posturing, the outcome will be a limited free trade deal on certain goods and services. And checks on most items crossing the English Channel.
But the real battleground will be fishing — with Ireland, France and Spain insisting on future access if the UK wants to keep the City of London’s vast financial access to Europe. And Captain Boris will toss his fishermen overboard — the catch is too big to lose.