This fish spat with France is just another product of Johnson’s broken Brexit

The PM’s push to quit the European single market has proved disastrous for Britain’s standing at the key moment of Cop26

Last modified on Mon 1 Nov 2021 11.18 EDT

As Boris Johnson stumbles from cliche to cliche in Glasgow, a boatload of French fishers are making a fool of him. Posing as a world leader, he pleads that the Earth is “at one minute to midnight”, and should raise its game in the last chance saloon. Yet he cannot stop France’s Emmanuel Macron taunting him over a few boat licences, any more than he can handle the consequences of the Northern Irish protocol, or exert influence over the truce between the European Union and the United States on steel tariffs.

Being outside the EU was meant to display Britain beating its chest across the Channel and round the world, raking in lucrative new trade. Instead at Cop26, China, Russia and India have all found better things to do than listen to Johnson’s tired metaphors amid piles of rain-soaked rubbish.

The fishing dispute with France is complex and unimportant, and 55% of England’s fishing quota is already owned by EU vessels. The row is pure electioneering by Emmanuel Macron. But Britain has no friends in Europe and zero leverage, following the sloppy withdrawal deal reached by Johnson’s belligerent chief negotiator and crony, David Frost. He has now handed Macron an election weapon, a threat to impede all trade through Channel ports. This should be an outrage.

The same sloppiness was evident in last year’s Northern Irish protocol, which was certain to infuriate Unionists when they realised Johnson had lied to them over its implications. Now, when the EU offers Britain a genuine compromise package, as it did last month, he must pretend to hang tough over the near-trivial issue of the European court of justice, reneging on an agreement he personally signed. This too is outrageous. But it is what happens when politics strays into trade, which was precisely Johnson’s doing.

To rub home the point, Joe Biden has now signed a deal on steel export tariffs with the EU that naturally excludes Britain. This is allegedly to make up for the exclusion of France from the bizarre Anglo-American arms deal with Australia against China. Johnson may now plead for his own steel agreement, but he is weakened outside the EU, and American lobbyists may oppose this.

The UK’s decision to leave the EU was political. So be it. Quite different was the decision also to leave the European single market and free trade area, which was the personal choice of Johnson to aid his campaign against Theresa May. It was ill-considered and foolish. The price is now being paid by pig farmers and fruit growers, healthcare managers, transport sector recruiters, builders, hoteliers, musicians and Ulster unionists. Hardly a single gain has accrued to leaving the European market. Meanwhile, a widening 10-point gap exists between those who think Brexit a bad deal for the country against those who still think it good.

Every woe currently descending on Johnson’s head is attributable not to Brexit but to the loss of the single market and customs union. It is blatantly in Britain’s interest to rejoin them. Continental agreements and supply chains forged more than 20 years of close relations with neighbours are not matters of great principle. They are a common interest and common sense. Abandoning them was a massive error in the name of a spurious freedom. The only question is, who has the guts to reverse it.

Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist

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