The panic is palpable. No one is making any effort to hide it now as the EU’s chief negotiator on Brexit, Frenchman Michel Barnier, began his telephone calls to EU leaders to intervene in the talks with Britain – which are quickly heading towards a no deal Brexit and the UK resorting to WTO rules at the end of the year.
There’s no more time for EU bluffing. Before, we witnessed a lot of this from Barnier and some EU leaders who stood by the “Britain needs EU trade much more than 27 member states” preposterous mantra. But the desperation on the EU side now is lucid. EU leaders and the Commission now can see that Britain crashing out of the EU presents two seismic problem for Brussels which would only add to its already political crisis: firstly, it would make Britain a ‘survivor’ in a bitter battle (which sets a terrible precedent for other Eurosceptic member states); and secondly, it presents a political problem in Germany and France as the former might face job losses in its car sector when UK can no longer afford BMWs, while the latter will be hit by the massive loss in business in the food and wine sector.
It’s often forgotten that the UK is France’s largest consumer of champagne and in Germany, BMW bosses have enjoyed years of the UK being the number one member state for car sales in the entire EU.
But if either of those two sectors are hit hard by Brexit, then a political earthquake will erupt and the consequences will be felt both inside those countries and also in Brussels at the European Commission itself.
The row itself, boiled down, comes down to the UK taking back full control of the waters which it lost when it became a fully signed-up member state in 1973. It also focuses on how Britain will use state aid, once it becomes full detached from the EU.
And this explains a number of contradictory reports in the press in recent days. In the last days of August, it was reported that the call from Barnier to EU member states themselves to step in and save the day, was rebuffed. This move itself could be seen as insidious desperation from a man who has really lost all credibility as a ‘negotiator’. It was more or less a begging call.
But then the U-turn came when the European Commission’s chief Ursula von der Leyen, stepped in, and, according to reports on September 5th, was preparing for the European Council (an opaque yet powerful institution in Brussels which represents EU governments) will take over the talks as Barnier gets pushed aside and is replaced by council president Charles Michel.
Once these reports were written up by mainstream media, strong denials on the EU side were issued out of respect for Barnier, and published dutifully by, among others, Bloomberg.
But whether these measures are false, or exaggerated, something has to be done as the bickering and backstabbing between the UK’s negotiator and Barnier had reached a point where neither one wished to stand down and give ground. The problem is that the EU always had deluded views about its strength (which have massively crashed down to earth in recent weeks), against Britain who has a leader who sees a no deal Brexit as a victory – as it would force the EU in 2021 to come back to the negotiating table and treat Britain with more respect.
Is that already happening now?
To some extent, yes. For the European Council to negotiate directly on behalf of EU leaders makes a difference, if that is to be the case. Firstly, the move is without a doubt whatsoever a climb down from the EU and gives Britain’s negotiators more leverage. Secondly, it dispatches into the long grass the lie that the EU has been bandying about, which is that the UK has more to lose in a no-deal scenario.
What is not helping though is France’s dirty game of allowing more and more refugees camped on its shores to easily make their way across the channel to claim asylum in the UK. Macron is allowing this to happen deliberately as it sends a message to the UK: ‘even if you win the talks with Brussels, it will be our ports which your lorries will have to deal with’.
In other words, if Britain wins a deal in Brussels and gets its waters back, it will be French fisherman who will be allowed to block France’s ports, so that British lorries carrying perishable goods, will not be able to enter the EU to make deliveries under either a new trade deal or even WTO rules. Boris Johnson needs to talk to Dutch and Danish governments to plan different routes for haulage operators, for sure. The French government has a long history of playing such dirty games and this is where the real standoff with France will come, when Macron has to tell French fisherman that their quotas have been slashed as the UK won the right to take back its waters. As we saw in Beirut, the French president has a shocking contempt for media – he had a tantrum with one journalist who leaked details of talks with Hezbollah – and so expect much fake news being spread via his press people when the blockades start. But the question is, does the pusillanimous Macron have the guts to stand by his own fisherman when a total blockade of all French goods by the British is an inevitable retaliation? It’s unlikely that in such a standoff situation that he can handle the heat. Unfortunately though, such leaders insist on staying in the kitchen. Watch closely how France will come under pressure from Germany and other EU member states who want more sensible and grown-up dealings with the UK. Expect another Macron tantrum. In fact, expect Brexit being used as a scapegoat for a number of Macron failures while still in office.