The United Kingdom is seeking a straightforward trade deal for the benefit of both parties. The EU’s overarching negotiating imperative, however, is to do all it can to protect the political integrity of the European grand project.
It was ever thus. For the UK, EU membership was a transactional relationship, its purpose the pursuit of prosperity; for most of the 27 member states, however, the Union was, and remains, a political undertaking with federation the ultimate goal. The UK was always a semi-detached EU member, its departure probably inevitable.
That conceptual difference has become glaringly apparent in the negotiations over the future relationship. Central to the EU’s demands has been the “level playing field”, Euro-speak for the proposition that the UK should indefinitely align its regulatory standards to those of the Union.
The demand is ostensibly founded on concerns that an unconstrained United Kingdom would pursue a policy of aggressive deregulation and distortionary state aid, resulting in unfair competitive advantage.
Moreover, the EU insists that the relationship should be overseen by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), its own supreme judicial authority.
However, a level playing field is already provided for by the rules of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), of which both the UK and the EU are members, and by various other treaties to which both are signatories. State aid, for example, is specifically addressed by the WTO Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures. Similarly, any role for the CJEU is rendered unnecessary by the WTO’s Dispute Settlement System.
The fact is that the EU is attempting to retain the UK as a satellite vassal-state, bound by EU rules and politically dependent on the Union. For such reason, despite being required by the Withdrawal Agreement to use best endeavours to negotiate a comprehensive free trade agreement, for many months the EU stubbornly refused to talk about much other than the level playing field and continued access to UK fishing waters.
In short, the EU has displayed egregious bad faith. It is a tribute to the doggedness of David Frost that he has refused to buckle, but has rejected the EU’s demands and insisted that any deal should fully recognise and reflect the sovereignty of the United Kingdom.
Sovereignty, after all, is the reason the British people voted to leave the EU. The freedom to be in control of our own system of government through our own Parliament is an ideal that not only won the referendum, but delivered Boris Johnson the biggest Conservative majority in over 30 years.
The Prime Minister, I have no doubt, understands that full well. He knows that, in the dying days of the transition period, he must keep faith with the British people and resist any temptation to accept a sub-optimal deal that would cheat them of the sovereignty for which they voted.
He should by all means negotiate, if necessary, until the stroke of eleven o’clock on New Year’s Eve; but if the EU still refuses a deal that fully respects our hard-won independence, he should leave the table in the knowledge that he has the full support of his countrymen and women.