A while back I wrote about the UK’s approach to the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) and Trade & Cooperation Agreement (TCA), arguing that this was driven by a lack of strategic intent, resulting in constant efforts to keep things up in the air.
In so doing, the UK aims to avoid falling into any settled pattern of interaction with the EU that would – by the simple facts of its existence and stability – provide a template for future relations.
Put simply, the UK doesn’t seem to want to find itself stuck in a rut, with all the path dependency and sunk cost issues that come with that.
At the time, the way the UK was pursuing this objective of intentional instability was through a high-stress holding model.
This involved an active campaign of raising problems with the treaties (both on what they contain and what they don’t contain) plus non-implementation (or at least very slow implementation).
Hence the seemingly endless list of problems that could be drawn upon, from the role of the CJEU to VAT rules. The spring’s challenges of chilled meats in Northern Ireland might have been met by the Commission’s proposals this autumn, but the UK had already run on ahead to the next thing.
This coupled up with very strong language about using provisions such as Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, to attempt to create an image of being ready to walk away from it all, for the noble intent of protecting peace.
A review of this model suggests that while it might have nudged the Commission to offer more than it might have on the Protocol implementation problems, it has largely not worked and has little prospect of working.
At the root of this failure has been a lack of conviction on the EU’s part that the UK would make good on its promises/threats. Yes, the WA/TCA combo has its problems, but these are as nothing to the costs of pursuing any other route. The UK can’t unilaterally change the terms of the treaties, and the economic and political damage of collapsing them both (and the EU has been very clear that they are a linked pair) should be evident to even the most die-hard Brexiteer.
If the UK doesn’t have a credible alternative (and also doesn’t have a hard consensus that it thinks it has one), then the threats look empty and the main effect is simply to weaken trust. Which is a problem if you’re aiming to get buy-in to any new system you might propose.
Hence the apparent shift in the past couple of weeks to what we might term a low-stress model.
Instead of the active antagonism, there is instead engagement in negotiations, covered by a rhetorical frame of trying to solve problems together.
However, given the very slow pace of those discussions, it looks more like a move to kick things into the very long grass of endless debate.
Yes, there’s interaction, but it also allows for a ‘temporary’ suspension of punitive measures and of full implementation of treaty provisions. In short, it creates its own version of the stable situation trap: the UK gets to say in 6 months that obviously these temporary arrangements work.
Of course, the EU is well aware of this, and is looking to move negotiations to some conclusion in short order. But the ability to combat this low-stress approach is rather less. The Commission might have its spectrum of responses in place for an Article 16 notification, but it’s much harder to avoid looking ungenerous when faced with a counterparty that wants to talk.
But it’s not impossible, and at some point it becomes difficult to mask that you’re stringing out talks for their own sake. Even if that means a less fraught outcome than a collapse of the high-stress model, it still leaves the UK having to make a decision about what it wants. And there’s still no sign that it has any sense of achieving that under this government.