Liam Halligan

Boris Johnson’s proposal for a bridge across the Channel isn’t crazy – but the backlash is

Boris Johnson’s proposal for a bridge across the Channel isn’t crazy – but the backlash is
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Building a physical bridge between the UK and France is, apparently, ridiculous. I know that because, ever since Boris Johnson raised the prospect at the Anglo-French summit, my Twitter feed has been full of comments from various bien pensants ridiculing the idea.

‘If you like the Boris bridge idea, wait ‘til you hear about Liam’s plans for a zip wire from Washington DC to Washington, Tyne & Wear,’ quipped one commentator, referring not to me (on this occasion) but to Trade Secretary Liam Fox. ‘David Davis wants a pedalo from Boston, Massachusetts to Boston, Lincolnshire!’ parlayed another keyboard wag.

As it happens, the construction of a bridge across the English Channel bridge is entirely feasible. Detailed plans, drawn up by an engineering consortium, with finance in place, were considered by the Department of Transport as long ago as 1981.

Three years later, five schemes for a permanent cross-Channel link were investigated by Whitehall – including bridges, tunnels and bridge-tunnel combinations – before the present Chunnel design was agreed and then built, opening in 1994.

A 20-mile bridge across open water was technologically doable, then, back in the early 1980s – and is even more doable now. Asked about Johnson’s comment, Ian Frith, former President of the Institution of Structural Engineers, replied: ‘that’s absolutely possible’.

If the French President wants to grab some cheap headlines by offering to lend Britain the Bayeux Tapestry, it makes perfect sense for the British Foreign Secretary to then resurrect the long-standing idea of building a bridge across La Manche.

Emmanuel Macron’s gesture, presented as bonhomie to ease the Brexit talk tensions, was also a pointed reminder of the Battle of Hastings – a French military triumph. Johnson’s riposte was also friendly but, similarly, a statement – the UK is leaving the EU not Europe, so shouldn’t the fifth and sixth biggest economies on earth be working together?

The domestic atmosphere around the UK’s Brexit negotiations is, once again, getting nasty. The completion of the first round in mid-December offered some respite, but hostilities have now resumed. Project Fear is back in full swing – with at least three major reports predicting economic meltdown once we leave since Parliament returned from Christmas recess. And much of the ultra-Remain media class is, once again, ridiculing UK diplomacy in lockstep, while those chic Continentals can do no wrong.

This was the week when the EU Withdrawal Bill cleared the House of Commons – repealing the 1972 European Communities Act, while transferring existing Brussels legislation into UK law. This milestone seemed to attract less comment than the observation from former Attorney General Dominic Grieve, that leaving the EU with no deal would be: ‘the single most catastrophic act perpetrated by any government on this country in modern history’.

Hyperbole aside, this ignores the reality that preparing for an outcome where we don’t strike a free trade agreement (FTA) with the EU before March 2019, or even by the end of the expected two-year ‘implementation period’, is absolutely vital. Not making such preparations to trade instead under World Trade Organisation rules – including expanded customs facilities and other technological upgrades – means the UK will be forced to accept any trade deal the EU offers, including a very bad one. That would put our exporters at a disadvantage for years to come. Negotiating with no alternative is worse than dumb, then. It’s also deeply irresponsible.

The truth is that striking an FTA before Brexit happens, and getting it ratified by countless national and regional EU parliaments, may now anyway be impossible – leaving us with WTO rules whether we like it or not. If the EU’s negotiating stance continues to be driven by intransigent Brussels-based eurocrats, determined to punish Britain, we’ll simply run out of time.

Yet with WTO rules as a solid platform, it is by no means essential – despite scaremongering by Grieve and others – to strike a UK–EU FTA in a hurry. Failing to grasp that amounts to a major strategic error. Doing a comprehensive trade deal with the EU after Brexit, once the dust has settled and political tempers are less frayed, could well lead to a much better long-term outcome for the UK.

But trading under WTO with the EU would be ‘unthinkable’, nay ‘disastrous’ we are so often told. Really? Consider that the UK’s trade with the United States – our biggest single-country trading partner – is under WTO rules. Consider that some 60 per cent of the UK’s total exports are now sold outside the EU – outside the single market and largely under WTO rules. And on such trade, the UK generates a healthy import-export surplus.

Yes, of course we want a FTA with the EU, but we don’t want any FTA. A trade deal cut up against a deadline, with the British media screaming for blood – ‘Just sign it! Just sign it!’ – is unlikely to be in our long-term interests.

Failing to secure a trade deal with the EU will, when the time comes, if it comes, no doubt be presented by almost the entire UK commentariat as a sign of weakness. With suitable preparations, though, and the EU set to pay far more in tariffs to us than vice-versa given its UK trading surplus, not signing is actually a display of strength.

And, in the meantime, if we do leave with no deal, it is ‘perfectly manageable’ for Britain to trade with the EU under WTO rules. That was the phrase used by Roberto Azevedo in an interview with me for the Telegraph at the end of last year. And, as Head of the WTO, the world’s most important trade diplomat, he ought to know.

I don’t expect my colleagues in the British business press to be ‘patriotic’ or always to side with the UK. I’ve taken hefty rhetorical chunks out of successive governments myself, over many years – and will continue to do so. That is my job.

But I do expect them not to systemically skew the facts – just because they’re still angry their side lost the referendum. One fact is that trading with the EU under WTO rules, while not the best long-term outcome for the UK, is by no means a disaster – and could act as a useful negotiating position or, indeed, end up as a necessary stopgap.

Another fact is that the longest bridge in the world ¬– the Danyang-Kunshan Grand Bridge on the Beijing-to-Shanghai high-speed rail link, completed in 2010 – stretches no less than 102 miles. That’s getting on for five times the length of any that might one day cross the Channel.

China has two other bridges that are around 70 miles long, and a 50-miler too. The Peoples’ Republic boasts no less than six of the world’s eight longest bridges, with the other two also in Asia. And that’s the point.

The EU, around 30 per cent of the world economy when we joined back in 1973, will be less than 15 per cent when we leave – even though it will be made up of 27 countries, far more than the original six. The world’s growth markets – in terms of demography, technology, natural resources and raw buying power are no longer in our part of the world. And the EU’s protectionist instincts, not least it’s often stifling regulation and absurd customs union, make it far more difficult for the UK to tap into those giant Eastern markets, as we must, if we are to secure the economic futures of our children and grandchildren.

Boris Johnson isn’t crazy to suggest building a bridge across the Channel. What’s crazy is that two of the biggest economies on earth are connected by just one, relatively infrequent railway line when they’re only 20 miles apart.

Liam Halligan is the co-author of Clean Brexit: How to make a success of leaving the EU, published by Biteback.

Follow him on Twitter @liamhalligan