Brexit is not a preoccupation for Davos

The absence of senior representatives of France, the UK and the USA, three of the leading countries which created and sustained that multilateral, rules-based system of Davos, does not go unnoticed.

Brexit worries people in Davos, but it is far from being a major preoccupation. Among the famous absentees, Presidents Trump and Macron have their own domestic problems, while other leaders who have made the long journey to the Alps such as those from Brazil and China tend to see Brexit as an opportunity or another sign of the declining relevance of Europe.

Others fear (or celebrate) the declining relevance of Davos itself. The multilateral, rules-based system which characterized the post-1945 “West” and has underpinned the recent wave of globalization is under threat. The absence of senior representatives of France, the UK and the USA, three of the leading countries which created and sustained that system, does not go unnoticed. 

The House of Commons has long fascinated the rest of the world as a forum for momentous debate and fine oratory and there is no doubt that the debates on how to leave the EU, whatever one’s opinion of the quality of the arguments and rhetoric, outdo anything Netflix can produce by way of political drama. However, suspense is wearing thin as one episode after another is billed as decisive and ends with confirmation of what the key protagonists do not want and little insight into their positive agenda.

The Irish backstop continues to dominate the debate. The EU does not want to reopen the agreements already reached.  However, there is said to be willingness to offer clarification or explanation in response to the concerns expressed in the House of Commons. The EU has done this before for member countries in difficulties with ratification of new treaties. It remains to be seen whether there is the same desire to help a country leaving the EU. One should not underestimate the risk of disorderly Brexit for the EU countries as well as for the UK, or their growing fatigue and disdain for the whole process and wish to concentrate on many other pressing problems. So perhaps they are sincerely keen to help.

Mrs May stands accused by her detractors of locking the UK into commitments from which there is no escape. The wicked EU has set a trap and she has walked into it. This is a misunderstanding of the backstop. There is unanimous desire not to use it at all. If it has to be used, it will be finite. However, it would terminate not on a particular date, but rather when it is superseded by entry into force of the long-term UK/EU trade agreement which both parties have committed their best endeavors to securing by 31 December 2020. The backstop is what is needed to keep the Irish land border open if and as long as those best endeavors prove insufficient. It is well known that EU trade agreements take a long time to negotiate, conclude and ratify. In particular, ratification can prove laborious and accident-prone as the national parliaments of all 27 EU countries have to give their approval, as do the regional parliaments of Belgium under that country’s constitutional arrangements. For example, the agreement between the EU and Canada, nine years in the making, has still not been ratified by all countries and so has not entered fully into force. Nevertheless, an agreement approved by the EU’s institutions can be given provisional application while awaiting member state ratification and that is the case for the Canadian agreement.

The latest flurry of rumors from London suggests that the British Government wants to bypass the EU by doing a bilateral deal with Ireland. This is denied in London and rejected in Dublin and Brussels. Ireland cannot make customs and trade agreements with foreign countries; nor can any other EU member. This is the whole point of a customs union: you do these things together. The EU has exclusive responsibility for its member states’ trade policy. That is a major reason for those wanting to leave to advocate Brexit in the first place. To expect Ireland to do unilaterally what they want to leave the EU because the UK cannot do unilaterally is bizarre.

There may be other ways of squaring circles, but Davos is not where they are being discussed. The weary call from the mountains down to the lowlands of London and Brussels is to get on with it so the world can move on and deal with other issues.

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