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Wednesday 22 January 2020

It’s a delightful thought, Michel Barnier and his entourage huffing and puffing behind closed doors after they had it so easy at the last negotiation. Again, the clock is ticking, but everything else has changed. The British prime minister has a massive majority, unheard of power in this century, and the intent to go to the wire that was so lacking in his predecessor. Both of these factors gave Brussels the high ground between 2017 and 2019, December’s election smashed those pillars of strength to dust.

The EU is in no position to complain, it could have refused the two extensions to Article 50. In either case, Remainer MPs would have panicked and voted for Theresa May’s dreadful deal knowing that by staying in the EU in all but name we would easily be able to slip back into the fold at a later date, Brexit would never have happened. “It’s a most delicious irony that pro-Remain hubris on both sides of the Channel actively delivered the biggest Tory majority in decades.”

By agreeing to two extensions in the vain hope Brexit would be reversed, EU member states fastened a noose around their necks. In doing so, they reduced the follow-up negotiating period from 21 months to just 11. They’re in no position to complain about lack of time. In spite of that moral impediment, Brussels and other EU capitals constantly grumble there’s not enough time to get an adequate deal delivered. 

The hope among the Eurocracy had been that as soon as he got his big majority Boris would pivot to the globalist centre and start asking for lots of access to different dysfunctional parts of the European single market, services, goods, capital etc. In which case, Mr Barnier, standing alongside the new European Commission president Ursula Von Der Leyen, would re-issue the same old verse about continued “alignment” with EU regulations as a quid pro quo, but that argument carries no weight when the other side is saying what it doesn’t want rather than what it does, alignment being at the top of the rejection pile.

The EU’s tired old arguments, which have made the last three and half years feel like an eternity, have been ruthlessly pre-empted by those dastardly Brits with an intimidating legacy of winning. Last week, Sajid Javid now infamously declared: “There will not be alignment, we will not be a rule-taker, we will not be in the single market and we will not be in the customs union — and we will do this by the end of the year.”

We can’t be sure how committed to this laudable objective the chancellor is, but we can at least be satisfied that it puts Brussels in a bind. How can you treat a negotiating partner like a spoilt child when they’re not asking for anything?

The EU has been struggling with its posture for a while now. Just days after the general election Boris said Britain would not be hugging to ruinous EU rules in return for a comprehensive commercial deal with Brussels and “frictionless trade” the catchphrase that so defines the poverty of ambition under Mrs May. On January 8, Von der Leyen arrived in London to meet the British prime minister and trotted tout those lines about access and alignment to a partisan crowd at the London School of Economics. Unsurprisingly, the attack line didn’t land in the British media, a great ally of Brussels for so long, it was clear her people would need a better angle of assault.

Two weeks later we’ve finally got it, and it’s predictably lame. Today’s Telegraph reports Brussels is preparing a threadbare deal with the UK to compare unfavourably with existing big deals with Canada and Japan.

The warning comes at the sharp end of a plea to Britain to hold onto EU regulations. Brussels fears the UK will not only abandon infuriating product standards that kill innovation and growth but also “horizontal” enforced paradigms on the environment and workers’ rights. The wholesale reshaping of the UK economy will be like parking Singapore – which contrary to lefty-liberal is not a wild and loose western economy which punishes the weak – next to Sierra Leone. 

The government earnestly claims that the EU should not fear the abandonment of horizontal regulations (although we’d be quite pleased if he did give them a thorough rethink) as Boris’s administration has enshrined in law the same carbon reduction targets as the Eurozone – all the while hundreds of coal plants keep European manufacturing going, one power station in Poland produces more carbon dioxide than all of New Zealand. Raising the minimum wage was a cornerstone of the Conservative manifesto that saw the party plunder Britain’s remaining manufacturing heartlands. All of this the EU wants to ignore. It doesn’t fit into their new self-defeating line of attack.

“We will not blindly delegate the recognition of EU standards.Companies have had plenty of notice about how to get certified in the EU,” an EU official told the Telegraph. The EU’s big fear is that Boris will supercharge the UK economy and become an untameable beast in the productive North West corner of Europe. “Why would we rush into providing the UK a competitive edge to have the UK as an authorised testing lab on our shores?” the official added.

Finally, it is Brussels facing the dilemmas. The EU27, particularly President Macron’s France are petrified of a powerful UK economy undercutting the Continent – surely it’s for them to regulate their economy properly if that’s the case. But instead of looking for the right solution, Brussels is threatening to cut off its nose to spite its own face by reducing access to the UK market, which accounts for more than Canadian and Japanese trade combined. Indeed, the UK is comfortably the EU’s biggest trade partner. The trade surplus in goods is a staggering £94bn. Britain has a surplus in services – which will not be much affected by Brexit, deal or no deal – but even with that accounted for, the EU’s surplus is still a massive £66bn.

It used to be Theresa May with the bad bluffs, remember “no deal is better than a bade deal”. From the looks of it, Barnier and Von der Leyen have copied her playbook. We pity them.