Lesley Riddoch: Is Boris Johnson bluffing on hard-line stance

Downing Street sources busily briefed newspapers this weekend about the Prime Minister’s new tough stance. He will be love-bombing Scotland, standing up to Brussels and ensuring our diplomats don’t sit down with EU Ambassadors.

Hard-line is the new look for Boris, as he’ll make clear in a speech later today. There will be no convergence with EU regulations. No being ruled by the European Court of Justice. And if No Deal is the consequence, so be it. Boris will even accept border checks if there’s no other way to “take back control”

How EU negotiators must be supremely bored with this strutting, petulant, posturing behaviour. Once they finally get shot of Britain, the Eurocrats should be the obvious joint winners of the next Nobel Peace Prize.

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Still, it’s no big surprise that No Deal Brexit has raised its ugly head again, that the EU are being made to look like evil bogeymen or that Nigel Farage has re-appeared on Andrew Marr’s sofa. Now Boris has a whopping majority, there’s no-one else to blame if Brexit goes belly up. It must be scary. He needs his pals on TV.

The only good news for Scots Remainers, dragged out of the EU against our collective will on Friday, is the sudden evaporation of any moral pressure to persuade our unbiddable neighbours about the madness of Brexit. It’s over. Gone. If any Scot wants to be an EU citizen, the only routes now are marriage, moving abroad or voting for an independent Scotland. It’s suddenly that clear and that simple.

But is the British Government really as “angry” as the headlines suggest, or are we witnessing a big bit of bluster - with all the fake hurt, choreographed moves and mock aggression of the wrestling ring? Yesterday Dominic Raab said the Withdrawal Agreement ‘made clear” that Britain could be offered a Canada style deal resulting in tariff and quota-free trade. But now that’s “suddenly” dependent on the UK adhering to EU rules about state aid, EU regulations and allowing the European Court of Justice to adjudicate disputes.


Didn’t a clever fellow like Boris Johnson see that coming? Look at the Canada CETA deal; “All imports from Canada must continue to meet EU rules and regulations.” Look at non-EU member Norway, which implements a higher percent of EU regulations to access the single market in EFTA than full EU member Sweden. Did anyone think the EU won’t vigorously protect their precious single market by demanding matching standards?

Of course not.

In truth, there are two Boris Johnsons.

One playing hardball to satisfy victorious Brexiters and a Tory Party united on Europe for the first time in decades. Keeping them happy means no talk of convergence with EU rules, regulations, systems or governance arrangements. But the other Boris knows Britain’s future prosperity and the success of any trade deal actually depends on matching EU standards, for one simple reason - the folk who trade most have most voice.

And the EU 27 trade infinitely more than the UK.

So, the idea that Britain will lead the world into some new regulatory dawn is patent nonsense. The world is fast forming into large trade blocks of hemisphere-straddling dimensions. Many non-aligned countries are adopting EU regulations, to guarantee the free movement of goods and services in the knowledge China will soon bulldoze into this cosy club with its own (probably lower) standards. In this battle, little Britain won’t get mutual recognition from anyone. Much as it maddens Brexiters to hear the unvarnished truth, the UK will be rule-takers not rule-makers. The only question is, whose rules do we adopt?

EU Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen has placed a “New Green Deal” at the heart of her new strategy - and unlike half-hearted Britain, she means it. So, the EU will shift towards import duties that protect the environment and don’t let China - or anyone else - undercut the eco-businesses developing across the 27 member states.  If Britain veers further towards US rules as part of a trade deal with Donald Trump, “rules of origin” will create similar obstacles to seamless trade.

Much depends on whether the US and EU can sink their differences and forge a common position on regulations governing product standards, a process begun in the controversial TTIP negotiations which formed a transatlantic alliance to protect the developed world against China in the economic sphere.

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So, where does the UK hope to go, if it’s not dynamic alignment with EU standards? Britain’s importance in the world has been steadily diminishing, but took another nosedive on Friday. As Europhile and former Tory Home Secretary Kenneth Clark told the BBC’s Any Questions; “Britain is now just Canada with nukes.”

Even that lowly comparison aims far too high, from Scotland’s perspective. Canadian provinces had seats at the CETA negotiating table because the country’s federal system gives Ottawa no constitutional way to bypass them. Scotland, by contrast, has had no involvement in the Brexit talks and doubtless never will.

Interestingly, Canada-EU began in 2009 and the resulting CETA agreement has yet to be ratified by all EU member states, eleven long years later.

So that’s where we are, no matter how much sabre-rattling Boris Johnson performs this week. In Brexit trade talks, the UK are the minnows, the EU are fairly well-developed wild salmon.

The Prime Minister may have political pressure to diverge but all the economic pressure is on convergence.

And that suits supporters of Scottish independence too.

This weekend, Donald Tusk said he and EU leaders feel empathy for Scotland’s situation, but must have “formalities” and treaty agreements in place before an independent Scotland can join. “Formalities” are widely thought to mean joining the Euro and reducing levels of debt. But far more important is remaining compliant with the EU’s four acquis, their standards and regulations - one reason for Nicola Sturgeon’s avowed preference for a second independence referendum during this transition year, while British, Scottish and EU standards remain converged.

So, whilst it’s uplifting to hear two former EU Presidents voice support for Scotland entering the EU, the really big question is how far Scotland’s been forced to diverge from European standards by the time indyref2 is held.

Is Boris bluffing with his “my way or the highway” EU stance?

We’ll soon find out.