Five minutes to midnight. A deal with the European Union — or no deal? I don’t know about you, but I’m on the edge of my seat.
But something happened yesterday that made me feel a little cheerier. Our medicines regulator approved the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for immediate use.
It’s likely that if we weren’t finally cutting our links with the EU on December 31, we would have waited until the European Medicines Agency (EMA) delivers its verdict at the end of this month.
The EMA and several European politicians are tut-tutting, implying that our regulator has jumped the gun.
Will there be an EU deal? That is a question no one can answer decisively — not Boris Johnson (pictured on Wednesday) nor Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, though he sounded quite optimistic yesterday
I listen to Dr David Nabarro, a leading expert at the World Health Organisation, who says that in the licensing of medicines: ‘British expertise has always been taken seriously’.
Might it be that our own regulators are just as good as the EU’s? That they are more fleet of foot because they’re not bound in red tape? That the speed of this decision is a portent of what it will be like to run our own show?
I’d venture ‘Yes’ to all three questions. Whatever happens in the next few days, deal or no deal, there will be many advantages to not waiting while important decisions are taken by others on our behalf.
All the same, I hope there is an agreement. The Office for Budget Responsibility recently stated that a No Deal Brexit could reduce GDP by 2 per cent next year on top of the economic bloodbath caused by Covid.
Our medicines regulator approved the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine (stock picture) for immediate use
Manufacturers — especially car-makers — and farmers would take a big hit in the event of No Deal as a result of tariffs.
Though Nicola Sturgeon would complain like billy-o, there would be an extra spring in her step because she knows that the ructions of leaving the EU without an agreement would help the nationalist cause.
There is another important reason for wanting to strike a deal with the EU. If we don’t, relations with our European neighbours might be poisoned for years.
Each side would blame the other. Natural friends would become unhappy foes. Surely no one wants that.
Will there be a deal? That is a question no one can answer decisively — not Boris Johnson nor Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, though he sounded quite optimistic yesterday.
Both parties are going down to the wire. It is possible they will end up going over the cliff.
There must be compromise on both sides. With the three main bones of contention that separate us — fishing, a so-called ‘level playing field’ in respect of state aid, and an acceptable mechanism for settling disputes — the EU is at the 11th hour still treating the UK as though it is not a fully independent country.
For example, it began by arguing that EU member states should continue to have the same access to British fishing waters. Then it softened a bit. Barnier offered to hand a few fish back.
For example, it began by arguing that EU member states should continue to have the same access to British fishing waters. Then it softened a bit. Michel Barnier (pictured on Wednesday) offered to hand a few fish back
Remember, he is first of all a Frenchman, and second a former French Minister of Foreign Affairs. His heart lies in the Quai D’Orsay. Even so, he has reportedly irritated President Emmanuel Macron recently for offering too many concessions to the British.
Macron — who doesn’t want to annoy notoriously bolshie French fishermen with a presidential election not far away –— appears obdurate. On Tuesday he said the preservation of ‘the activities of our fishermen in British waters is an essential condition’ for any deal.
The Government will have to give French and other European fishermen limited access to British waters for the foreseeable future. But this can only be done if the EU accepts, in the recent words of Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, that the UK is ‘an independent coastal state and we’ve got to be able to control our waters’.
It’s no good saying, by the way, that fish don’t matter as the industry only accounts for a fraction of 1 per cent of British GDP. If the waters around our coast were empty of fish, sovereignty over them would still be important. President Macron can surely grasp that.
Give and take is necessary on both sides. My sense is that the Government is willing to yield a little on fish and other matters, but that the EU is more unbending, especially over fish. We’ll see.
It’s a fine line for Boris Johnson to tread. He must compromise without any hint of a sell-out. I forecast that if there is a deal, the PM will be criticised by ardent Remainers and hard-line Brexiteers in eerily similar terms.
Pfizer's 'freezer farm', a football field-sized facility for storing finished COVID-19 vaccines, in Puurs, Belgium
The former will say that Britain has signed up to a subservient, colonial relationship with the EU, and was far better off when it had a seat at the table and was treated as an equal in Brussels.
The latter, doubtless led by the irrepressible Nigel Farage, will declare that people didn’t vote Leave in 2016 to have French boats trailing their nets in British waters and the Government kowtowing to EU rules on state aid.
Both sides will be wrong — unless there is a capitulation by Boris Johnson, which I don’t foresee. A little judicious compromise will not undermine the rewards this country has earned after its long battle to extricate itself from the EU.
We’ll no longer be part of the bandwagon that was ineluctably dragging us towards a European federal superstate — and had already covered a fair bit of ground — without the say-so of the British people.
We’ll have a foreign policy determined in London to suit our own requirements and allegiances, not one shaped in Brussels to take account of European interests, which are often foggy and sometimes in conflict.
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We’ll be able to develop an independent trade policy to suit British needs. Agreements have already been made with many important countries, including Japan, Norway and Switzerland.
We’ll have our own agricultural and environmental policies — a glimpse of which the Government gave us earlier this week — rather than the costly and wasteful Common Agricultural Policy, which has ruined large parts of the British countryside.
In short, we’ll get back control. We will be an independent country, governed by politicians we vote for — rather than shadowy, unelected figures in Brussels — who can be held accountable to the British people for their errors and abuses.
It’s true we will regain all these freedoms whatever happens, deal or no deal. But the path will be much stonier if there is no agreement — and more forbidding than it would have been without the depredations of Covid.
Naturally, we must study the small print. A sell-out would please no one and help no one. It would be a betrayal the British people would not forgive. But I don’t think it is going to happen.
There’s not much time left. The ball lies more in President Macron’s court than anyone else’s. In November 1944, Charles de Gaulle visited Paris with Winston Churchill, who received a delirious reception. De Gaulle had crossed swords with the British prime minister many times, and resented the British.
Nevertheless, the patriotic French leader rose to the occasion, speaking of ‘our old and brave ally, England … that saved the liberty of the world’. If only Emmanuel Macron can summon the same generosity of spirit.