The Spectator

Call Barnier’s bluff

EU commercial interests are not going to tolerate the chief negotiator’s obstinacy for ever

There is a growing perception that Britain is floundering in its EU negotiations, with a professional team from Brussels running rings around our bumbling amateurs. It is an idea that is being put about by the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, who this week appealed for Britain to begin ‘negotiating seriously’. As he has found out, the strange dynamic of British public debate at present means that EU spin is repeated uncritically by those hostile to Brexit. It can seem, at times, as if we are in the grip of hysteria normally seen during the final days of an election campaign.

This is not to say that the British side has been faultless. The government has struggled to articulate the clear case for Brexit that we heard during the Leave campaign. It also seems to be repeating David Cameron’s pre-referendum mistake of assuming that a good deal is inevitable. The Prime Minister has said that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ but no longer seems to believe it. Her argument is that the European countries have as much to gain from a free-trade deal as Britain does — but we are not negotiating with those countries. We’re talking to a dysfunctional EU apparatus, and a team of negotiators that has never succeeded in agreeing a deal with one of Europe’s top five trading partners.

As M. Barnier says, time is passing quickly. So the British government must go over the heads of Barnier and his team and start appealing directly to the governments, people and commercial interests of other EU nations. As many governments recognise, there should be no practical obstacles to Britain establishing a post–Brexit trade deal with the EU. We are starting from a straightforward position of free trade. Inevitably, there will be some sticking points — the main one is bound to be agricultural goods.

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