Julie Ward on an unseemly end to a near 50-year partnership
At the end of a long, productive, mutually beneficial and largely friendly period where we occupied a privileged position as an exceptional yet rather eccentric member of the European Union with various privileges, opt outs and rebates, the 47-year relationship between the EU and the UK finally concluded with an unseemly fish fight.
Being an island nation with mainly porous borders might have contributed to the rise of our favourite takeaway, but it has not done us any favours in the field of international diplomacy. The English Channel quite literally keeps us apart from our nearest neighbours, which is worrying at a time when we need to align more closely and demonstrate that same Dunkirk spirit of solidarity in the face of multiple global crises which mobilised us during the fight against fascism.
The 20-mile stretch of water between Dover and Cap Gris Nez near Calais begins to feel like an ocean these days with Boris Johnson setting a course for Australia rather than building bridges to continental Europe. With Tony Abbott on board there won’t be much room for manoeuvre in respect of a level playing field.
As I write Macron has said he won’t sacrifice the fisherfolk of Boulogne Sur Mer in order to throw Barnier a line and Johnson is thinking more about Aussie-style barbecues than cod and chips. The Belgian Ambassador to the EU, Willem van de Voorde, meanwhile introduced a little known historical fact into a meeting with fellow ambassadors on October 7th, citing a treaty signed some 350 years ago by King Charles II which had granted 50 Flemish fishermen from Bruges “eternal rights” to English fishing waters. Does Johnson know about these archaic rights? Will the hapless Bruges fishermen who still choose to exercise this right be subjected to detention and deportation along with the desperate refugees who risk their lives to reach our wretched country? Or worse still, imprisonment in the Tower of London along with activist lawyers and arch Remainers (like me) who are reviled by Priti Patel and condemned as traitors by the Murdoch press?
Meanwhile, new borders with Europe are being created in the leafy lanes of Kent, much to the consternation of locals, many of whom voted Leave. They were not fully informed of how withdrawal from the single market and the customs union would in fact create even more red tape than that required by Brussels, along with the creation of gargantuan ugly lorry parks and a surfeit of portaloos in their own backyard.
Our other border, with the Republic of Ireland, appears to have moved into the Irish Sea where it’s impossible for the fish to know which side they are on. To be fair, however, the cows would have the same trouble with a land border on the island of Ireland – the grass is always greener…
As the 27 heads of the European Council prepared to meet on October 16 with major disagreements on several substantive issues it became increasingly hard to predict the outcome of one of the most ill-tempered divorce settlements ever.
Across the pond in the USA, the UK fish market is non-existent and the offer of chlorinated chicken and hormone-injected beef for our children’s school dinners is fading along with Trump’s fake tan as his popularity in the polls wanes and Covid deaths rise. Biden is more predisposed to the EU than the incumbent clown with a squirrel on his head, and our breaking of international law has gone down badly with Joe’s team.
It is hard to predict just quite how lonely we will be as an independent nation on January 1st 2021, but even if there is an agreement between the UK and the EU it is likely to be a bare-bones ‘fig leaf’ deal which will leave many issues still to be discussed, thereby prolonging the pain of complete excision for a decade at least. Meanwhile, the matter of state aid, which has little to do with fish (but everything to do with fishiness), should give British citizens cause for concern as Dominic Cummings has a cunning plan to chuck generous subsidies in the general direction of tech-mates as part of his plan to completely get rid of the civil service and run the country on artificial intelligence.
Like most of the Europeans, including the French, Michel Barnier is probably hoping that all this is a bad dream and that we will soon wake up – it will be June 24th 2016 and Remain has won the referendum.