Our new man in Brussels will need the patience of a saint

Captain Birdseye Barrow is on the bridge and ready to fire the first Brexit shots.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 05 Jan 2017

I once met our new man in Brussels, the Captain Birdseye lookalike Sir Tim Barrow. This was when he was Her Majesty’s ambassador in Moscow and I came across him at a reception in his drawing room to celebrate Easyjet’s first flight into the Russian capital. The EasyJet people said he’d been a great help during the lengthy and testy negotiations with Putin’s authorities. (An indication of the precarious nature of international trade is shown by the fact that Easyjet halted its Russia service after less than three years of operation.)

Losing your main Brexit negotiator three months short of the opening bout is hardly ideal. But Barrow is the best opening bat we have to go in with David Davies for the time being. (Nigel Farage who modestly put himself forward for the position is far more suited to his newly announced gig as a small time, suburban shock-jockey on the London radio station LBC.) The former foreign office whizzkid and MT contributor Tom Fletcher is a fan of Barrow’s and Tweeted: ‘Great news. Tenacious, human, expert, connected, thick skinned enough not to worry about nutters, and will avoid poison in the chalice.’

Like many Remoaners I believe the negotiation is going to prove impossibly tough and could well lead to a dreaded ‘unruly’ exit, like falling/being pushed out of the passenger door on the autobahn. The first time the two sides meet across the table and reveal their hands, following the triggering of Article 50, is going to be quite something as the chasm is revealed in all its breadth and depth. Never mind the terms of the exit itself, the transition period agreement is likely to be a fraught discussion. For those who claim the Europeans will just roll over because they fear losing the business of the big-importing Brits, I would point to the over-used but nevertheless quite valid question: how many divorces do you know where one member of the marriage still expects to sleep with the ex-spouse?

I’m heading over to Northern Ireland next week to see what Brexit might mean for them. There is considerable anxiety over there about what might happen to the border if a hard Brexit means reintroduction of all the checking difficulties that were in place between the North and the South during The Troubles. Just about everyone on all sides of the religious and political divides agrees that a hard border which impeded people and goods would be a bad thing.

Northern Ireland, while hosting Harland and Wolff plus Bombardier and some emerging tech industries, is also heavily reliant on the business of agriculture: food and drink. Because so much of the thought, strategy and bureaucratic knowhow in this sector has been looked after on our behalf by the EU for many years - the Common Agricultural Policy provides UK farmers with £3.5 billion in subsidy annually, 55% of their income - some people in the province feel that DEFRA run by the underwhelming Andrea Leadsom is now ill-equipped to take on the burden of negotiating new agreements. They claim Whitehall is now disastrously de-skilled when it comes to protecting their producer's wafer thin 2.94% margin.

But cutting loose from the restrictive shackles of the EU - with all that agribiz red tape - is the desired goal of energetic Brexiteers. And many farmers voted Leave. If a deal with the EU cannot be reached then we will have to fall back on the ‘WTO option.’ But food tends to be the area which is most highly protected in international trade as home governments attempt to support their indigenous producers including the long-suffering farmers. One thing worth remembering is how complex these negotiations are these days. Have you ever tried getting your head around the ins and outs of ‘tariff rate quotas’ ? The EU has nearly 100 of them.

The WTO has been in existence since 1995 (its predecessor GATT since 1948) and has 634 regular staff in Geneva with many many more employed in ancillary roles. Just taking a look at its website demonstrates two things : firstly, the glacial pace at which agreements develop; and secondly, the abstruse minutiae into which the horse-trading has to go.

Of course companies trade on an ad hoc basis without formal trade agreements. They do the best they can. The most energetic like latter-day Sir Francis Drakes may strike new trade gold. But the EU has oiled the wheels of commerce on our behalf for decades and we will be novices when it comes to getting what we want and need all on our own. Sir Tim and his like are going to need all of their tenacity, expertise and, perhaps most of all, their thick skins as Mr Barnier and his team attempt to give them a keel-hauling.

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