Boris Johnson has allowed himself to be snookered by the EU

16 December 2020

12:23 AM

16 December 2020

12:23 AM

The UK-EU trade negotiations have heated up again, albeit from a very cold state. Boris seems to have conceded ground on the ‘evolution clause’ to the European Union, making a path to an agreement on the level playing field issues at least plausible. The UK has accepted that divergence should come at some cost — although the details of how that cost should be managed appear to still be a live issue. With that comes the last hurdle: fishing.

Boris Johnson has allowed himself to be snookered by the EU. More than anything else I could point to, leaving fishing to the very end demonstrates the folly of Johnson’s overall negotiating strategy.

Johnson should have prioritised fish from the start. Remainers like to go on about how small the fishing industry is economically, but this is again to confuse Brexit as principally an economic argument. While the details of ratchet clauses in level playing field agreements pass a lot of people by, everyone understands the basics of fishing. It is the most visible symbol of ‘taking back control’.

Had the Tories made securing the best possible rights for Britain’s fishermen the ultimate goal in the negotiations, Boris would most likely have come away with a trade deal already. The EU was never going to back down on anything crucial to the integrity of the single market; the battle over the level playing field was always going to be lost by the UK if the British government really wanted a trade agreement before the end of 2020.

Meanwhile, fisherman’s territorial rights, while obviously politically loaded in countries such as France, were never life or death. The EU might have given a lot of ground if they had been forced to choose between no deal and weaker fishing rights, so long as British demands were presented consistently and early enough in the negotiations. By setting up fish versus all else as a negotiating strategy, Boris would have given himself the best chance of agreeing a deal that could have been sold as a victory.

Instead, the Prime Minister has allowed himself to be backed into a corner. This is not incidental — it is the direct result of Johnson’s strategy. The idea was to push for everything the UK wanted on all issues, instead of prioritising the UK’s ultimate goals. The hope was that the EU would fracture and British negotiators would be able to pick off individual nation states, securing British demands in the face of European disfunction. Now, even if the EU bends a lot on fishing just to get a deal, it will be seen as a huge fold by Johnson. He has allowed things to drag on, meaning expectations have been driven sky high in Britain on the topic. Farage, himself a keen sea fisherman, has now effectively set the stage; any compromise by Boris will be presented as a huge sell-out regardless of how good a deal it is for the UK.

By leaving fishing as the last straw, Johnson has allowed the choices available to him to be either no-deal Brexit and all that entails, or an agreement that will be fodder for a new, anti-Tory right-wing movement to take real flight. In other words, he has put himself in a position in which there are two choices, both of which have huge political downsides for him. By buying into the notion that the EU was going to split all sorts of ways, Boris has denied himself the chance of being seen as a hero, even if temporarily.

Is it too late to salvage any of this? Unless something miraculous happens, I would say yes. Despite the talk of a breakthrough on certain elements, no-deal remains both the most likely result come 1 January 2021 and Johnson’s best option in a very bad choice. Sadly for the Prime Minister, it didn’t need to be like this. By choosing fishing as his red line from the start of 2020, he could have created a situation in which what the UK wanted above all else wasn’t something the EU would have found itself unable to give. The UK-EU negotiations this year would have been difficult instead of impossible.

If I had suggested in 2015 that a vote to leave the EU would have ultimately led to a situation in which the UK was mere days away from leaving the single market and the customs union with no follow-up arrangement, all because of fishing, I would have been accused of peddling Project Fear on steroids. Yet here we are; it’s all come down to fish. If only Boris had understood this from the start, everything could have been different.

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