Brexit: paws

Saturday 5 December 2020  

About the only things of which we can be absolutely certain, in respect of the "future partnership" talks, are the points raised by Barnier in lieu of a joint statement with the David Frost.

From these we can take it that the two lead negotiators are agreed that "the conditions for an agreement are not met, due to significant divergences on level playing field, governance and fisheries".

Secondly, they have agreed to "pause the talks" in order to brief their Principals on the state of play of the negotiations. And thirdly, von der Leyen and Johnson will discuss "the state of play" later this afternoon.

In some senses, this follows exactly the expected choreography of the deal, where the negotiations would stall over one or more specific points, requiring a last-minute dramatic intervention from the lead actors, from which a deal would later emerge.

And although this could indeed by the outcome, with a triumphal conclusion reached on Monday, in time for the preparations for Thursday's European Council, there are certain elements here which strike a discordant note.

The first is the emphasis with which state funding seems to have emerged as the key issue, despite the earlier high profile given to fishing, culminating in what appear to be very specific demands for a penalty system to be applied if the UK diverges from the agreement.

But the fishing issue has also acquired a new edge, with what is claimed to be a "ridiculous" demand for ten years of "unfettered access" to Britain's fishing waters as the price of a deal.

Macron himself seems to have invested a significant amount of political capital in these demands (whatever their actual details might turn out to be), which means that he is personally out on a limb. A last-minute compromise which might satisfy the British would, therefore, represent something of a "humiliation" for the French president, which is not where he wants to be.

On that basis, this current situation seems to be slightly more than a "lovers' tiff", set up for the benefit of a jaded media and politicians who need a bit of drama to brighten up their boring lives. There is a distinct possibility that we could be on the verge of a permanent breakdown of the talks.

What is interesting about this is the French talk of exercising a veto, if it is not satisfied with the deal. But this is, as we are constantly being led to believe, a straightforward deal which only requires the consent of the European Parliament and the agreement of the Council to conclude negotiations, then there is no veto afforded to any single Member State.

Agreements of this type, made under Article 218 TFEU, provide mainly for qualified majority voting, in which case French objections could (in theory) be over-ruled.

However, as I have mentioned previously, the inclusion of a fishing deal (and the possible security elements which may have been included – plus other issues) potentially turn this deal into a mixed agreement which will require the ratification of all 27 Member States.

France's European Affairs minister, Clement Beaune, is saying that his government "won't accept a bad deal", and then goes on to say that, "If there were a deal that isn't good - which in our evaluation doesn't correspond to those interests - we will oppose it. Yes each country has a veto, so it's possible".

If Beaune is correct, and every country does have a veto, then it can only be because the deal is a mixed treaty. Only in that case could the French government signal its intent to veto. But, if it did, that would make further progress on the treaty fruitless. There is little sense pushing a deal to the wire if one of the parties has already decided to block it.

However, up to press, we have not had any formal acknowledgement that this is a mixed treaty – even though its content signifies that it must be. But if it is, there is absolutely no chance of ratification be the end of the year. The only thing that can be achieved is an agreement on provisional application, requiring a majority vote from the European Parliament and a Council (of Ministers) vote.

The oddity of this is that the Council vote is also by QMV, which means (again in theory) that the French could not stop a deal being applied, even if it later blocked it and the provisional application had to be lifted. If the Member States want to go out on a limb, they could marginalise Macron.

Nothing of what we're hearing, therefore, seems to make complete sense. If the French do have a veto, then it is at the Member State ratification stage, and the whole process is far more fragile than a deal which only requires Council and Parliament assent.

If what we are hearing is correct though, and Barnier is returning to Brussels, with negotiations not to resume until after the Principals' meeting, then we are at a very delicate stage.

Undoubtedly, it will not only be Johnson who is talking to von der Leyen and it is a fair bet that, by the time the British prime minister picks up the phone this afternoon, she will have talked to Macron and also Merkel.

Generally, in matters such as these, the "Franco-German motor of integration" prefers to speak with one voice. Thus, we can also assume that Merkel and Macron will be talking, perhaps several times – with and without senior advisors – before their consensus view is put to von der Leyen, then to become the Union position, over-riding anything that Barnier might have to say.

That itself would be a difficult position for Barnier, who so far has held the confidence of the Member States and has been able to make the running. To be over-ruled at the last minute would represent a personal set-back for him, and something of a rebuke to his team.

With that, the die could well have been cast before Johnson gets to make his intervention this afternoon. His may not be the decision to pull the plug, although he may be manoeuvred into that position when confronted with an unyielding von der Leyen, acting on instructions from above.

Johnson, of course, has his own domestic problems, with a fractious cadre amongst his backbenchers telling him "this far and no further", and the intentions of the Labour opposition as yet unclear.

What is not going to make his life easier is a deal which makes obvious concessions to the French, to the extent that it has Macron crowing that he has put one over the British. The best that can possibly be hoped for at this stage is the doctrine of "equal misery", where everyone walks out of the room equally pissed off.

That, though, will require the French and Germans reaching a degree of accord that Macron can live with. And, at this point, with the negotiations currently having been paused, we could see the French President seeking to extend that pause.

Bizarrely enough, the mechanism of "stopping the clock" is feasible – even if the legal base might be dubious. All the Council has to do is issue a decision to the effect that, in any references to the end of the transition period, the date of 1 January 2021 should be taken to mean 1 February, or whatever other date is chosen. It would, however, also require an emergency Act of Parliament from Westminster.

Failing that, or some other equally creative solution, we may actually be confronting the breakdown of the talks and a no-deal scenario taking effect on 1 January, with all that that entails. Then we will see the blame game take over with a vengeance, leaving little scope, amid the recriminations, for further talks any time soon.

It will be interesting to see, however, whether the Principals pull the plug today or whether they leave it until Monday. I suppose we might get some clue if the negotiation teams go back to work On Sunday. But if Monday is being set as the as the final, final deadline, time is perilously short.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 05/12/2020 link

Brexit: the rainbow talks

Friday 4 December 2020  

When I was learning to fly, I recall one day tooling around the sky with my instructor when we saw a rainbow in the distance. We both knew the physics, but just for the hell of it, we decided to chase down the end of the rainbow in search of the fabled crock of gold.

Needless to say, as we got closer and the angles changed, the rainbow disappeared. We never did get to find that fortune in treasure that awaits the first person to arrive when the rainbow is still there.

What brought this to mind, of course, is the current state of the "future relationship" talks, where – it seems – whenever there is a deal in sight and you get close to the end, just like the rainbow, it disappears. One might even call them the "rainbow talks", except that that could raise different connotations.

Nevertheless, with much talk yesterday of a deal being reached as early as Friday, here we are on the appointed day and, depending on which source you read, the deal is either hanging in the balance or chances are actually receding.

In my very last sentence in yesterday's piece, I did suggest that Macron might have the last laugh, but I wasn't thinking of hearing his mirth quite so soon. But there seems to be general agreement amongst the hacks that the French are the current obstacle to settling the deal.

The Financial Times, for instance, tells us that Macron has intervened directly, on fish and state aid, with British officials complaining that eleventh-hour demands have left an agreement "hanging in the balance".

Fishing, as always, is up-front, with Macron wanting to preserve "a substantial chunk" of existing fishing rights for his country's fleet, while he is also insisting on a strict UK state-aid regime "to avoid what Paris sees as unfair competition".

This is said to be alarming Boris Johnson, with officials from both sides admitting that any prospect of a deal by the end of the weekend has now disappeared. A senior British government official – anonymous as always - says: "At the eleventh hour, the EU is bringing new elements into the negotiation. A breakthrough is still possible in the next few days but that prospect is receding".

At the moment, though, the Telegraph doesn't seem to be working from the same memo. It is building up to a "High Noon" showdown between Macron and Johnson over the weekend, although "senior sources" are unsure as to whether Macron is setting out to sabotage the talks.

There is a school of thought which suggests that the "choreography" of the deal requires a last-minute drama, whence a third party – presumably von der Leyen – steps in as the last-minute conciliator with a creative compromise. The weary negotiators then go back to their talk and shortly thereafter, a deal is announced, with all parties wreathed in smiles.

Either way, that pretty much rules out the announcement of a deal today, and Monday is now being talked about as the latest unofficial deadline. That, itself, is getting perilously close to the European Council later in the week, lending sustenance to the idea that hopes of a settlement are receding.

Interestingly, the Guardian seems more inclined to pessimism, reporting that the negotiations have taken a "sudden step backwards", with an apparent eleventh hour hardening of the EU position said to have destabilised the protracted talks, "peeling back progress made over the previous 24 hours".

Rather than a showdown between Johnson and Macron, however, this paper sees the "wobble" as a prelude to the "long-expected arbitration meeting" between Johnson, and von der Leyen. That would actually make more sense, and if we see movement in that direction over the weekend, then we could be seeing a settlement announced early next week.

Drama apart, it is being acknowledged that the talks have gone backwards, with issues previously agreed now back in the melting pot. Some are saying that 24 hours have been lost in having to renegotiate parts of the deal.

But there are some signs which suggest that the dispute between the sides is real, and that there are serious, unresolved issues to be addressed. Barnier himself is saying that any deal should provide "definitions, principles and binding, workable and operational enforcement", which makes this far more than just a spat about French fishing rights.

The FT points to UK opposition to French-backed proposals for the level playing field, which requires Britain to create a regulator with powers to police state aid to companies "even before the money is handed out". And there is still the matter of the "ratchet clauses" that would force both sides to have environmental and labour regulations that evolve in a similar way over time.

The interesting thing here, though, is that with ECJ involvement ruled out, France is demanding the right for European companies to haul the UK government before the British courts if it violated its commitments on level playing fields.

Thus, we could see the British government taken to court in the UK, by governments of the EU Member States, with the prospect of penalties being imposed by British courts which the government would have to pay.

And yet, with the erosion of trust arising from the IMB, and the potential for further perturbation from the Finance Bill, enforcement issues have become all the more sensitive. Without a cast-iron agreement, with enforcement provisions that have real teeth, the UK government simply is not going to be trusted.

From the welter of noise surrounding the talks, however, we are still hearing seductive calls from the French to dump the talks this side of the new year, allowing them to resume in 2021, giving time for a period of reflection which would avoid the danger of rushing into a deal.

Nor is France entirely alone in this though, as there are concerns that Barnier, with so much invested in securing a deal, is in danger of over-stepping his negotiating mandate. One [anonymous] diplomat suggests that Barnier is treading "on the red line" in the most contentious areas.

For the moment, it seems that Barnier's most loyal supporter is Irish premier, Micheál Martin. He urges Member States to trust Barnier to deliver. "We are now at a very critical and sensitive point of the negotiations", he says – one of those statement of the bleedin' obvious in which politicians delight.

Tripping out the clichés, he then says, "I want to see a deal done and I believe a deal is possible", adding that: "It's clear to me that the landing zone is there for an agreement. We can't all be negotiators at the table, we've got to have faith and trust in the negotiating team to get a balanced deal over the line".

Foreign minister Coveney also got in on the act, prior to a meeting with France’s European affairs minister, Clément Beaune, in Paris. Coveney argues that it would be "a very dangerous assumption" that new talks could easily resume after a no-deal outcome.

This man thinks that the "political tension that would follow" the "significant disruption, costs, stress, and blame games between Brussels and London", would tend to rule out an easy resumption of talks.

And yet, the EU surely cannot have exhausted its creativity when it comes to cliff-edge talks. We have yet to see that famous device which brought the successful conclusion of the original CAP talks – the stopped clock.

Vested with magical powers, the Commission could doubtless freeze time for two or three weeks, with a raft of contingency orders giving this practical effect, to allow final details to be agreed. Perhaps all they have to do is send the fat lady away on holiday, or reinvent physics and start digging at the end of the rainbow.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 04/12/2020 link

Brexit: red lights at dawn

Thursday 3 December 2020  

That Matt Hancock should claim Brexit as the reason why the Pfizer vaccine gained its rapid approval in the UK is unsurprising. This is classic behaviour for Tory ministers, for whom ignorance is no handicap to office. 

It is unfortunate that such a man is our health secretary, but that's what you get when you vote for Tories. Sadly, there's lot a lot of difference when you vote for any other party.

Meanwhile, there seems to be a determination on the part of the those self-same Tories completely to screw up any chances of a deal with the European Union. That much is said to be the consequence of the Taxation Bill, which the Johnson administration plans to introduce to the Commons next week – to which I alluded in yesterday's piece.

The Bill is to set out procedures for customs and VAT after the end of the transition period which, if implemented, will override parts of the Irish Protocol to the Withdrawal Agreement, in much the same manner that we saw with the UK Internal Market Bill.

To make matters worse, this comes as Downing Street has pledged to overrule the House of Lords amendments on the IMB and reinsert the removed clauses, despite ministers having acknowledged that, in overriding the Irish Protocol, they breach international law.

With the UK having already ignored the Commission's deadline to respond to its initiation of infringement proceedings – this latest move is seen as the "ultimate provocation" which could trigger a total collapse of the "future relationship" talks.

According to Irish broadcaster RTE, Michel Barnier told EU ambassadors yesterday that the UK government was triggering a new "crisis" with just four weeks to go to the end of the transition period. If the proposed Finance Bill contained clauses which "breached international law" there would be a complete breakdown in trust between both sides, he said.

This was echoed by Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney in an address to his parliament's upper house, when he declared that, "A second piece of legislation deliberately breaching withdrawal agreement and international law, will be taken as a signal that UK doesn't want a deal".

Although there has been recent chatter about the prospect of an extension to the transition period, Coveney has ruled this out, saying: "There will be no extra time. From 1 January, UK will be outside the Single Market and the Customs Union. This means new controls and procedures must be applied to any goods moving to, from or through Great Britain".

He adds what is only just beginning to dawn on our state broadcaster and other news organisation, calling for business and politicians to prepare for the inevitability of Brexit. "Irrespective of the outcome of the ongoing negotiations, the end of the transition period will bring substantial and lasting change and action must be taken now", he says.

As to the progress of the talks, as of yesterday morning it was being reported that there was little sign of major progress from Barnier. All he was able to do was reiterate that talks were still snagged on the "famous three", as they have been since February.

"He said the coming days will be decisive", said one of these ever-helpful senior but anonymous EU diplomats. A much vaunted mid-November deadline is now long gone, with full ratification of any deal before Britain leaves the single market and customs union now looking highly questionable.

We have, however, seen reports that the UK is prepared to makes concessions on fishing quotas, accepting 60 percent of the value of stocks from UK waters. If the previously cited level of 80 percent relates to volume, however, that isn't much of a movement. EU-flagged vessels tend to fish for the higher-value species, which could mean that there is very little difference in volume terms.

With that, the talks have moved into what is described as a "make of break" phase, signalled by the BBC drafting in the egregious Kuenssberg to prattle about pizza deliveries to the central London talks venue as the negotiations went into extra time.

In typical style, Kuenssberg manages to make it all about herself, "revealing" that several sources have told her that the talks are likely to be concluded "in the next few days", something an amoeba with learning difficulties might have deduced without resort to the "secret squirrel" stuff so favoured by our legacy media.

Nevertheless, there appears to be something of a disconnect in that, if the Finance Bill is not due out until next week and the fate of the talks are said to hang on them, it seems unlikely that they can conclude on Friday – unless there is a provisional agreement at negotiators' level which is subsequently pulled by the principals.

It is Barnier, though, who is saying that the coming hours were going to be decisive. The Member States, on the other hand, are showing him the red light, responding with: "What's the rush?". Ambassadors for every country bordering the UK – 11 all in all – have raised concerns on the level playing field and suggested that he was at the edge of his negotiating mandate.

EU ambassadors have also urged Barnier not to allow fishing to become the last issue on the table for fear of pressure at the last moment, enabling the UK to run away with a deal damaging to the European fishing industry.

Then, there is still the direct intervention of Johnson, in yet more discussions with von der Leyen. This has been held in reserve, potentially to add high drama to the last stages of the negotiations. Should he talk with the Commission president, he needs to lay off the rhetoric about the tootling of bugles and Blucher riding to the rescue – which might not play too well with Macron.

But if Johnson is determined to go ahead with his plans to circumvent the Irish Protocol, with his new Finance Bill, then anything he might have to say might be considered provocation. Any discussions with von der Leyen could, therefore, backfire, with the Commission president issuing an ultimatum.

Then, of course, there is the European Parliament. The threat to refuse ratification if the IMB goes through still stand, and last night's statement by Downing Street cannot have helped. We have yet to hear the parliament's response to the Finance Bill, but they are hardly likely to be impressed by this move.

As I understand it, the European Parliament must approve any decision to allow temporary application of any deal – pending ratification – which will require a vote before the end of the year. This could be the parliament's opportunity to make its views known, not least by refusing to hold an emergency voting session by the end of the year.

This might open the way for a ploy which is said to be under consideration in Brussels, where a deal is withheld into the new year, leaving the UK fully exposed to the rigours of a no-deal scenario, driving it back to the negotiating table in a chastened mood, more willing to talk turkey – to coin a phrase.

Then there is the potential reaction of Biden to consider. He has already told the New York Times that new trade deals are way down his list of priorities, and once he has been acquainted with the effects of the Finance Bill, it is reasonable to assume that we can kiss goodbye to the idea of a trade deal with the US.

From a position supposedly, of "holding all the cards", Johnson might in the very near future find himself holding a pack of jokers, and he still has to contemplate to prospect of the deal having to be ratified by all 27 Member States. Macron may well have the last laugh.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 03/12/2020 link

Brexit: … the end of the end?

Wednesday 2 December 2020  

Before representatives of the original Six came to sign the Paris Treaty on 18 April 1951, establishing the European Coal and Steel Community, the negotiations had run so close to the wire that there was not time to produce a cleaned-up final draft. Thus, they improvised and signed a pile of blank sheets. "Europe" was born with a blank cheque.

Clearly, the "colleagues" are not prepared to repeat that trick with the final treaty which sets up the "future relationship" between the EU and the United Kingdom. Rather than take the text on trust, "nervy" Member States, we are told, are to demand to see the final draft of any deal before it is agreed.

This deed is set for early today in a video conference with Barnier, who is currently in London, amid concerns that he has "gone native" and, as legend had it, is preparing to concede too much ground in the final days of negotiation.

Of course, there is always a chance that this is another of those shaggy dog tales, as we're reliant on the notorious anonymous source, this time a "senior EU diplomat". This person says the Member States have confidence in Barnier as a negotiator but there is "some nervousness" following his briefing last Friday when he spoke of allowing some "flexibility" over aspects of customs and border controls.

At that stage, there had been no reciprocal movement from "Team UK" in the shape of a "robust system of dispute settlement", which Barnier admitted could "give rise to concerns about cherry picking". This, it seems, was enough to have the Member States asking to see any finished draft. "Being in the dark makes people nervous", this EU diplomat says.

Putting names and faces to the concern, we have Macron, and Belgium's prime minister, Alexander De Croo. They have spoken at a joint press conference, telling reporters that they were determined to ensure that EU interests were not damaged in the last moments of the negotiation.

Macron is reported as saying: "We are particularly vigilant on the level playing field, today and in the future, and the question of fishing. The preservation of the activities of our fishermen in British waters is an essential condition, the fair rules of the market in the future equally so".

It's actually fairly unusual, to my memory, for individual heads of state to go public at the final stages of a negotiation – not that we have much precedent to go by, as this is the first time a Member State has left the fold. But here, Macron may be sending a message to Barnier, as he says that "France won't accept a deal that doesn’t respect our interests in the future".

De Croo was obviously there to provide a supporting cast. He used a football analogy to emphasise his concern about the UK scoring a "decisive goal … in the last minute". That he and Macron are speaking together sends its own signal, as the deal is deemed "concluded" by the Council by QMV. France alone cannot veto it.

Then we get to the nub, as "some diplomats" are said to be concerned that von der Leyen might be on the verge of authorising Barnier to offer too many concessions in order to enhance her own legacy by sealing a last-minute deal.

Belgium firing a shot across the Commission president's bows, in this context, is quite significance. The home state for the Commission's headquarters is usually the most loyal of friends, so De Croo plus Macron is a powerful combination.

There is certainly something in the von der Leyen saying that she is determined to secure a system that goes beyond a conventional free trade "non-regression" clause on environmental or social standards.

She says that discussions are focused on how to "replicate control of the level playing field", allowing UK access to the market without quotas or tariffs, while ensuring that "all companies play by the same rules in the single market".

Until very late, it was only the Guardian running this story, but that paper was joined by the Financial Times, headlining "Barnier faces pressure from national capitals over Brexit compromises".

The thrust of the story is essentially the same, with a little more detail in some areas. For instance, this paper says that the EU has recently given ground on some points relating to trade in goods, including on customs facilitations and steps to facilitate roll-on roll-off freight crossing the Dover-Calais short straits.

It seems that Brussels has also softened some of its demands on rules of origin, relaxing requirements on how much of a good must be locally produced for it to qualify for tariff-free trade.

It is these concessions, as much as anything, which seem to have stoked concerns in Paris and other capitals that the EU might be paying too high a price for a deal, leaving the UK able to "cherry pick" the benefits of the Single Market.

On this side of the Channel, business leaders have been told to be ready for a conference call with Michael Gove, on Thursday, which has sparked speculation that the talks could reach a climax this week. But, even as negotiators are seeking to push a deal over the line, the FT says that Britain is preparing further measures that would violate the Withdrawal Agreement.

This, apparently, is a new taxation bill containing clauses threatening to overwrite sections of the Northern Ireland protocol. We don't have any details as yet, but the timing – to say the least – seems a little unfortunate.

With the Telegraph also joining the throng on the "Barnier under pressure" story, though, one wonders if this isn't a deliberate plant to establish a meme that the Commission is going overboard to be "nice" to the Brits.

One can just never tell with these talks, but there always lurks a suspicion that the flow of information is being manipulated, specifically to manage expectations and to guide sentiment in the "blame game". It cannot hurt the EU cause for the world to know that Barnier is prepared to give away so much that some of the Member States are worried.

That way, when the likes of Macron roll over and the UK still doesn't concede the final points, the blame can be dumped fairly and squarely on the "intransigent" Brits – or maybe that's just too cynical.

The Telegraph, however, does pick up that this is "a rare rebuke for Mr Barnier" and represents "a seldom-seen hint at disunity among the remaining 27 member states in the face of Brexit". Given how much store has been set on the "unity" of the EU-27, that in itself gives one pause for thought.

So far, the UK – under both May and Johnson – have sought as a matter of policy – to drive wedges between the Commission and the Member States, and between the Member States themselves. If cracks in the façade were really beginning to show, this would represent something of a success for the Brits.

The key determinant, if this is the case, will be the stance taken by Merkel – with Germany holding the rotating presidency. And if she and Macron, expressing the view of the "Franco-German motor", come together, the rest of the States tend to follow and the Commission will stand to attention and salute.

The worst of it though is that Leo Varadkar is talking about a deal being done "in the next couple of weeks", and the expectation now seems to be that the talks will definitely stretch into next week. One might, therefore, expect Tuesday's European Affairs conference to be the cut-off.

In the meantime, we are told that the EU will launch contingency measures either today or Thursday if it has been unable to conclude a deal with the UK. This is from another of those "EU diplomats", who says the move is necessary because "it will be roughly three weeks left until the end of the transition period".

"Companies and institutions like customs offices around the EU", he says, "need to have clarity about what tariffs to impose and other measures if there is no deal and by the middle of the week we will have finally reached that point when such measures have to be spelled out".

With tomorrow being set as "the limit", dare one even hope that this is the real deadline, and that the torture might soon be over?

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 02/12/2020 link

Brexit: … et frites

Tuesday 1 December 2020  

With fish in the frame. The chips are down. And to entertain us all, in the red corner is Polly Toynbe, who confidently asserts that Johnson "will get a deal". In the blue corner, though, we have William Hague who tells us that: "A no-deal Brexit is far more likely than anyone is prepared to admit".

Basically, you pays yer money and you takes yer choice. Assuming we're not being treated to a stage-managed finale, the talks could go either way, as they run down to the wire with no resolution in sight.

Hague, though, might just have the edge in observing that, "France’s hard line position on fishing misjudges the Prime Minister's room for manoeuvre on sovereignty". To be more accurate, he's talking about the perception of sovereignty, but since Johnson wouldn't know the difference, we might as well treat it as the same thing.

The point made by the Telegraph editorial is that "Britain must not back down" – on fishing. "We want control of our fishing waters", of our fishing waters.

Rightly, for once (it doesn't happen often), the paper picks up on the history of the CFP, precisely the issues I rehearsed in July (here and here), pointing out the historical resonance and why fishing is so special to Eurosceptics.

One might suggest that, to date, Barnier has played a fairly sound hand in managing the "future relationship" negotiations. But, in his most recent handling of the fisheries issue, it is equally possible to suggest that he has made a misstep, in failing to recognise the emotional significance of the issue.

Representing the 27 Member States, of course, Barnier has his hands tied, and it is undoubtedly the French who are insisting that he takes a hard line – although I wouldn't be surprised if the Spanish weren't in there somewhere, pushing their own agendas.

But, since it was an egregious display of bad faith on the part of the French in 1970, who deliberately brought forward a regulation on the CFP before the UK had joined the EEC, in order to settle the details before we could influence the proceedings, the fact that the French are again front and centre is probably not helping matters.

Certainly, the comments of France's Europe Minister, Clement Beaune, cannot be helping. He has been warning that Paris would not allow French fishermen to be sacrificed to get the deal done, declaring that it was unacceptable that Britain "should lay down the law" in the negotiations.

"Our fishermen are no less important than theirs and they didn't have the right to vote in the referendum", he told reporters on a visit to Madrid, adding: "There can be no agreement unless there is one that gives sustainable and wide-ranging access to British waters".

Taken at face value – as seen through English eyes – this would seen to suggest that the French had not fully got to grips with Brexit. The whole point of leaving the EU, after all, is to "take back control", which means that the perfidious English have set their hearts on laying down the law.

The two sides, therefore, do seem to be taking irreconcilable stances, which does not augur well for the success of the talks. The Guardian makes this plain, having senior Irish and French and ministers warning that the EU is not going to fall into a Brexit "negotiating trap" being laid by the UK.

Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney is suggesting the UK is using fishing as leverage in other parts of the trade talks. There was the potential for Britain to agree compromises in other areas, including state aid and governance, then to use that to squeeze a last-minute compromise on fishing.

Coveney, though, stressed that the EU will not buy this ploy. "What we are not going to do is to get an agreement in all of these other areas and then allow a situation where the UK side say: 'Look, we’re not going to allow this whole thing to collapse over fish', and for us to essentially give Britain what they want over fish", he says.

That's what he calls the "British negotiating trap", making it clear that: "We're not playing that game". He affirms that: "If there isn't an agreement on this, the whole thing could fall on the back of it".

This, apparently, has brought Merkel into the fray. She has conceded that there is some anxiety about the prolonged negotiations, with the Netherlands, Belgium and France all asking the European Commission to trigger no-deal preparations in recent weeks.

Offering the usual platitudes, she expresses hope "that these talks will come to a happy ending". She also adds the standard caveat, saying: "We don't need an agreement at any price", then offering something of an olive branch. "We want one [a deal]", she says, "but otherwise we'll take measures that are necessary. In any case a deal is in the interest of all".

Interestingly, she then hints at a willingness to bundle access to the EU's single market in electricity with rights to catches in UK fishing waters. On this, she says: "Perhaps for some the most tangible are concrete questions, from the British point of view access to energy markets, from our view access to British fishing grounds".

It is in this space that Toynbee struts her stuff. She arguing that, although this government is disgraceful and dishonest, "it is not certifiably insane". Thus, however hard Johnson "bluffs and fibs to disguise the inconvenient truth", he will sign a deal.

Furthermore, in this deal, he will agree to align with EU standards on working rights, animal welfare, the environment and much else. For any future divergences there will be an adjudications body, which may or may not be the European court of justice.

Fish, she says, will be reapportioned, with complexity and transitions that try to shield the hard fact: we took back control of our waters in theory, but gave it up in the same breath because there is no fishing industry without that vital EU market to buy more than 70 percent of our catch.

This, she asserts, will be a betrayal of the Brexiteers, and she raises the possibility of rebel Tory backbenchers voting against the deal, with Starmer's Labour troops rescuing Johnson by voting for it. That would be a huge irony, mirroring the situation in 1972 when Heath relied on Labour backbenchers to get accession to the EEC approved.

But if history thus repeats itself, that would pave the way for more internal warfare within the Conservative Party. Far from settling the issues, Brexit will simply prove to be another chapter in the decades-long war within the party over "Europe".

It would be a delicious irony if this brought down Johnson, the possibility of which he cannot be unaware. And this may be why Toynbee is wrong. Hague would have it that Johnson simply has no room for manoeuvre, and cannot give way.

However, Macron has his own problems – not least with the first round of the French presidential election being held in April 2022. These elections tend to have a long reach, where Macron has as much to lose as Johnson. And, when les frites are down, hopes for a settlement begin to look extremely slender.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 01/12/2020 link

Brexit: poisson

Monday 30 November 2020  

If all we've got to go on regarding the TransEnd talks is comment by Dominic Raab on the Marr Show from early Sunday morning, then basically there is no news. 

That fishing is still a bone of contention certainly isn't news, and you would have to be extremely naïve if you were to believe that he would say anything other than he was "confident of an agreement" – except that he didn't. That was The Sun's version of the interview.

That same paper is also talking about a deal having to be reached by Saturday, to allow it to be voted on by both the Westminster and the European parliaments, although we don't even get an anonymous source to substantiate that.

Raab, on the other hand, is talking about the possibility of leaving on "Australia-style rules", which just goes to show that the infection with the "ignorance" meme has spread throughout the political elites, to the point where they are just jabbering nonsensical terms.

On the government's news grid for today, though, is agricultural reforms, which is what we are now supposed to be talking about – to keep our minds off more pressing matters.

The one person we haven't heard very much from, though, is Barnier, and all those wonderfully anonymous EU sources seem to have gone silent for the moment, despite talks having finished as late at 10pm last night.

At the end of the talks, when asked if the negotiators had got any closer to reaching an agreement, Michel Barnier simply replied: "poisson". That must qualify as one of the shortest – even if meaningful – comments on the conduct of the negotiations.

But nothing can be inferred from the silence. We still have room for the "dramatic" last-minute intervention from Johnson, carefully stage-managed to give him the maximum of exposure, and opening the way for more of his facile comments.

Whether Johnson will want to be too closely associated with any deal, however, is anyone's guess. Given that it is likely to be thin gruel, with considerable disruption expected in the new year, whatever is agreed, the man might want to put some distance between himself and the talks.

It is probably too late for another "tiger in your tank" pep-talk, so all we can expect is a last-minute session to agree concessions which will pave the way for a deal. But if that associates Johnson too closely with a poor deal, he might want to let Frost "own" the agreement, and throw him to the wolves.

A highly publicised agreement on "poisson", though, might conceal other defects in the deal, in the short-term, and give Johnson enough material to declare a "fantastic deal" and move on, in the hope that the coming "Covid Christmas" will keep the hacks from digging too deep into the detail.

But what Johnson needs to realise is that you only have to take one "s" out of poisson and it becomes a word with a very different meaning. That might be his true legacy of Brexit.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 30/11/2020 link

Brexit: marching to the top of the hill

Sunday 29 November 2020  

In yesterday's piece I recorded the fond hopes of the Telegraph that a breakthrough on fishing could be close in the EU-UK talks.

It is a measure of the volatility of the issue, and perhaps the lack of realism on the part of the newspaper, that in just 24 hours its mood seems to changed completely. It is now reporting a warning from Downing Street that Britain could be "just seven days away from leaving the European Union without a trade deal".

Needless to say, one could be troubled by that assertion – that we are "seven days away from leaving the European Union". Maybe the Telegraph hasn't noticed that we actually left on 31 January but then an organisation that used to employ Johnson as a writer cannot claim to have the best possible grip on reality.

Even if one takes it that the paper really meant to refer to the end of the transition period, that isn't until the end of December, in just under five weeks. So even the "seven days" is a bit iffy. On balance, it is probably trying to tell us that it thinks that the negotiations currently at hand might break down within a week.

All the same, there is a sense of fin de siècle about all this, as we confront the repetitive cycle of talks over the same issues, despite the Telegraph's optimism. And, after ten months of talks, the same "significant gap" exists on fisheries.

Such is the change of mood, though, that Number 10 is asserting that, "No deal is arguably underpriced", a variation on a theme of "no deal is better than a bad deal", one presumes. But the comment is taken to mark a toughening of the UK's position.

The paper – doubtless with the same degree of diligence that it crafted its earlier report, has "multiple sources" in the UK government saying that the talks are likely to be concluded by next weekend, with one source saying that they should be resolved "one way or another" this week.

Oddly enough, it is the turn of the Sunday Times to be optimistic, telling us Brussels is putting "pressure" on Barnier to conclude a deal, with von der Leyen being "quite helpful" and "keen to unblock things".

She has, we are told, sent one of her most senior officials, Stephanie Riso, to assist Barnier. Riso was part of Barnier's team during the Brussels negotiations with Theresa May's government and is seen as someone who can help to find a solution.

If that is the case, she certainly has her work cut out, as the Telegraph is picking up on the "risible" EU offer of an additional 15-18 percent fish quota to be allocated to the British in their own sovereign waters.

Ministers are said to have expressed "scorn" on the offer, with another UK government source saying that it shows how far apart the two sides are. Adding that "the EU side know full well that we would never accept this", he says that "There seems to be a failure from the Commission to internalise the scale of change needed as we become an independent nation".

And now, it seems, Scottish fishermen (fisherpersons?) are the one community in Scotland who are actually in favour of the London government. Elspeth MacDonald, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen Association, has said that the EU is behaving "like the bully who steals your lunch every day and expects the UK to be grateful for a few crumbs he hands back".

Dismissing Barnier's offer as "paltry", she said the EU had to "wake up and smell the fish", rejecting the idea that negotiators could offer to give the UK fish "of which we now the legal owner".

With that, those pesky "sources" are making it clear that "the UK team will not settle for anything less than a great deal for UK fishing communities that guarantees for the first time in nearly 50 years that we have control over our waters". They add: "If the EU don't move we are prepared to leave the transition period on Australia terms".

They hope that the EU will come up with some fresh thinking, with a source "close to the negotiations" dismissing attempts to date, "because what we've seen so far doesn't cut it".

To add to the litany of woe, the Observer has decided to match the Telegraph in the pessimism stakes.

This paper, however, has "scepticism" residing in the EU camp, with Barnier not even prepared to give seven days to the effort. He has told his colleagues that he is prepared for [only] four more days of make-or-break negotiations.

This time, we get "EU sources", who say there is a growing feeling that the lack of progress and the need to prepare businesses for the repercussions of a no-deal "British departure from the EU" made it unwise for negotiations to continue beyond then.

And there we have it again – a "British departure from the EU". Hey folks! We left on 31 January. This is about ending the transition period without a deal. What is it with British journalists on this?

But we're nevertheless getting the consistent message that Barnier has been advised by officials in the European Parliament that arranging for sufficient scrutiny and a consent vote by MEPs, before the end of the year, would be difficult without a deal by Wednesday.

Unlikely though it might seem, we're told that an "extraordinary sitting" of the EP has been "pencilled in" for 28 December. I really don't see that happening. But there is a "worst-case" option of the deal being provisionally applied and a vote being held by the EP after the end of the year, if further time appears useful. However, we are told that this option is not currently being considered.

Drilling down deeper into what is going on, Barnier is said to have expressed his dismay to EU ambassadors that the UK was still claiming that the EU-Canada trade deal offered precedent for its negotiating demands. He describes progress on "level playing field" provisions as "ephemeral", with one week's progress constantly at risk of being undone by the next.

This is a sort of "Grand Old Duke of York" strategy, where the negotiators are marched up the hill one week, and down again the next, getting nowhere at all. But as long as the UK is pretending that it wants a Canada-style deal, while demanding more and offering less, and the EU is making clumsy proposals on fish, there really isn't much room for manoeuvre.

And, on top of everything else, even if the two sides do manage to agree, there is the ERG waiting in the wings, which has made clear that it will vote against the legislation if "UK sovereignty" is compromised – not that any of them have expressed any clear indications that they know what the term means.

So here we are again, a few days closer to an infinitely moveable deadline, that has had us in the last chance saloon for over a month, with no better idea of where we are going than the last time the subject was addressed. If it does end on Wednesday, it will not be a moment too soon.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 29/11/2020 link

Brexit: the cesspit of England

Saturday 28 November 2020  

The Telegraph seems to think that a breakthrough on fishing could be close with the EU set to formally recognise British sovereignty over UK waters.

Brussels, we are told, has also accepted a British proposal for a transition period on fishing rights after 1 January, but there is no agreement on how long it should last or how it should work. The transition is to give the UK time to build up its fleet to catch its increased quota, and EU fishermen more time to adapt to a smaller share of the fish in UK waters.

This, apparently, is a "tentative compromise" and "senior government figures" are telling the Telegraph that they believe that this is a prelude for the EU to cave to other British demands on fishing in the coming week of intensified negotiations in London.

The transition period is not new, though. Frost is said to have offered a transition period of up to three years in September, but the EU is understood to want a much longer timeframe. Some "sources" say that the EU wants at least ten years, although the situation in ongoing negotiations is still "extremely fluid".

Specifically, there is no agreement over whether officials should agree now what happens after the end of the transition period, or whether they negotiate that during the period itself. Furthermore, there is no agreement on what the transitional measures should be and if they should build towards an end state or be standalone.

The UK, is taking the line that future arrangements should be negotiated during the transition period. On the other hand, the EU is pursuing a stance that it has taken consistently throughout the talks, wanting any fresh negotiations to apply to the trade deal as a whole.

This strikes at one of the main points of contention, with the EU seeking to bundle the agreements into one package, while the UK insists on separation to prevent cross-sector retaliation in the case of disputes.

Bluntly, this does not look as if a deal is about to be reached, or that there is going to be a meeting of minds any time soon. And then there is the outcome of Barnier's meeting with fisheries ministers, which must also be factored in.

The Telegraph dispenses with this issue fairly swiftly, saying that the EU had offered the UK the return of 18 percent of its own fish. Unsurprisingly, a British source has "dismissed the offer" - which had already been rejected once before - as "derisory". It is not hard to see why.

On the other hand, EU sources are said to be claiming that the UK is demanding an 80 percent increase in quota. UK sources says that this "misrepresents" the British position.

The Financial Times goes big on this bit of the story, after it had been covered by RTE, retailing roughly the same information as the Telegraph but at somewhat greater length.

There is none of the optimism in the FT though, which suggests that the UK's dismissal deals "a blow to hopes that the two sides can secure a post-Brexit trade deal in coming days".

This, of course, could be a "darkest hour before dawn" stunt, the two sides painting a black picture as a prelude to an eleventh hour agreement. Just to keep his backbenchers on-side, Johnson has to have a deal which looks hard-fought and gives away as little as possible.

If the current spread is 18-80 percent (with the split between species not specified), that would seem to leave the way open for a 50-50 split as a compromise, with further room for manoeuvre on the transition period. In the way of things, an agreement could come together very quickly – especially if it has been stage-managed.

There again, this could represent a genuine sticking point, from which neither side is prepared to retreat. In the theatre of last-minute negotiations, there is simply no way of telling. We are being told what the parties want us to know, the intended effects of which are known only to them.

However, the other outstanding issues – on level playing field and governance - have also to be resolved. According to Barnier, the same "significant divergences" persist. He has told EU ambassadors that the virtual talks this week have been "largely fruitless", with the two sides mired in disagreements over sticking points that have dogged the negotiations for months.

In sharp contrast to Frost, who is saying that "a deal is still possible, and I will continue to talk until it’s clear that it isn't", Barnier has observed that, "The conditions for an agreement are not there". Both sides agree, however, that there are only "several days" left to find a deal. Wednesday is being cited as the "final, final" deadline, but that probably means just about as much as one of Johnson's promises.

Interestingly, although the liar-in-chief is ready to speak with von der Leyen, a British government "insider" (which makes a change from a "source") says that no contact between the pair is expected over the weekend. That could mean that they are holding back for a final bit of theatre later in the week, or it could mean exactly what it says – no more, and no less.

EU ambassadors, though, seem to be leaving nothing to chance. They are urging the Commission to come forward with no-deal contingency measures to protect sensitive sectors such as air transport and road haulage from disruption in the event that talks fail.

With that, there is nothing much more new to say. In the absence of hard information, some newspapers are padding out their stories, recycling old copy, and the Guardian has published a sniffy editorial on the "Brexit endgame", one of the many which can't seem to cope with the idea that we left the EU at the end of January.

Nevertheless, the paper wants us to dump the "clean break" myth, arguing – probably correctly – that Britain has years of negotiations with Brussels ahead. The question for Johnson, it says, is not how to break relations even further, but when to start repairing them.

Actually, that really is being optimistic. Johnson has neither the capability nor the understanding necessary to craft a halfway satisfactory deal with the EU and, even if he wanted to, his idiot backbenchers wouldn't let him.

It is not even certain that if the man does agree a "skinny" deal over the next few days, that his own party will give him an easy ride, leaving Mr "take back control" to turn to Starmer for support. But whatever deal we do end up with – if any – it will not be until Johnson has gone that we'll be able to have any meaningful talks with the EU – even if then.

And, if Kent is reconciled to becoming the "toilet of England", Westminster is already the cesspit, with emptying long overdue.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 28/11/2020 link

Brexit: law is good, but panic is better

Friday 27 November 2020  

It is possible to imagine that a sense of glee prevailed in the Independent offices when it posted this piece telling us that the EU-UK trade talks were "in [a] fresh crisis", with Downing Street officials admitting that they don't know "if EU negotiator Michel Barnier will turn up for face-to-face talks due to resume on Friday".

Asked if Barnier was expected in London, the spokesperson said: "That is a matter for the EU and a decision for them to take". But when approached by the Independent, Barnier's office said it was currently unable to confirm his travel plans.

However, the BBC is adamant that face-to-face Brexit trade talks will resume in London this weekend – based on information from apparently willing, although anonymous "EU sources". I'm beginning to wonder whether there are any EU officials left, below the top ranks, who actually have names.

Anyhow, there may not be a lot of difference between the Independent and the BBC, as the BBC has roped in a "senior EU figure" – no less – to suggest that the talks "could be brief".

One is not informed as to whether a "senior figure" is superior to a "source", or whether either is more authoritative than an "office", but we have to take what we can get. Perhaps they are all one and the same person, even doubling as our androgynous extra-terrestrial.

On the other hand, there is Tony Connelly - who is believed not to be an extra-terrestrial. He has been broadcasting to all and sundry (which is unsurprising since he is definitely a broadcaster) that Barnier has called a meeting of fisheries ministers from eight coastal states, including Ireland, for some time today.

This meeting is to be held by video conference, so it is possible that Barnier could host it from London, although one suspects that he will not be patching Frost into the discussions. Nevertheless, at least one paper is suggesting that this " may signal breakthrough" in the talks, which Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney describes as "very, very difficult".

Happily, we are assured that the force is "very, very strong" given how enormously disruptive the end the transition period without a deal would be. Perhaps they should try working it out on the walls of Dublin Castle with light sabres. It would certainly be a lot more entertaining.

Connelly also tells us that Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue has said he is concerned that a "significant number" of agri-food companies are not prepared for Brexit, which is a bit of a shame as that happened quite a few months back. That aside, Charlie wants businesses "to take steps to ensure they can continue to trade with the UK after 1 January", which would be fine if they knew what steps were necessary.

HMG is certainly doing its bit, having published revised guidance on "Trading under WTO rules" – to be activated from 1 January "if there is no UK trade agreement".

Readers will be comforted to learn that the page on trade agreements "will be kept updated". For the moment, though, they will be highly impressed with the intelligence that: "From 1 January 2021, the way you trade with some countries will change". From what we are told, this might be news to some people – especially extra-terrestrials.

According to Reuters, though, some British businesses are only too well aware of what faces them. These are the ones who are rushing to stockpile goods, with just five weeks of the transition period left.

Jon Swallow, director of Jordon Freight, tells Reuters that the consequence " is there's simply not enough capacity and the prices are going through the roof". He adds that demand had pushed prices up by around 20 percent in recent weeks and further rises were likely in December.

Fellow freight specialist Tony Shally says his company, Espace Europe, has seen the cost of journeys between Poland and England, and Northern France and England, rise by more than ten percent.

But, along with the rush to bring in goods, companies are also having to prepare to deal with customs declarations. Sam Harris, operations manager at provider Freight UK, says it had become a full-time job just to answer the phone to new customers. "Most know nothing about customs", he adds. "Everyone is panicking".

We get a similar take from Chris Goodfellow, managing director of Locker Freight. He has told his staff to stop fielding calls and only process emailed requests, after they struggled to serve existing clients. "I don't believe people were burying their heads in the sand", he says. "They had just been overwhelmed by what had gone on (with COVID-19) and when they realised that Brexit would still go ahead as planned, panic started to set in".

That is not to say that some businesses have not been burying their heads in the sand. After I did the story in 2017, Booker followed shortly after and I did it again two years later, the Express has woken up to the story, framing it in the typical manner of the legacy media around the personality of Lewis Hamilton.

In and amongst the personality trivia, however, it manages to quote Chairman of Motorsport UK David Richards, who "warned last year that a no deal Brexit could see Mercedes walk away from Formula One" He says that that Brexit will "not make life easier" for teams based in the UK" and adds: "I have been surprised that the teams haven’t been overly-concerned about it".

"For some months now, Toto Wolff (Mercedes Team Principal) is the only person that has been very clear on the problems", Richards says. "If we get a no deal Brexit, the early part of the season is going to be very challenging for all the teams, and I don't think some of them have fully considered that yet".

It was actually in February last year that Wolff went public, and has since described Brexit as the "nightmare scenario". He also said that the changes about to come in place could hand Mercedes' rivals Ferrari an advantage. "Brexit", he warns, "is a major concern for us and should be a major concern for all of us who live and operate out of the United Kingdom".

For others, it won't matter whether they adopt the ostrich position – they can't prepare anyway. That seems to be the fate of some banks and financial services, who have been told that EU assessments of whether to grant market access will not be completed in time for January.

The last word for the moment, though, must go to John Shirley, a freight forwarder who has been brokering trade through Dover for 25 years. He tells Sky News that he foresees chaos, and a potential supply crisis.

He says the UK has no chance of recruiting enough customs agents and clerks to handle the volume of paperwork that will be required, and points out customs currently only has the resources to check one percent of vehicles. He predicts interruptions to food supplies and manufacturing, not caused just by delays, but by European drivers reasoning that it is no longer worth diverting to the UK.

"We're using words like petrified, terrified", he says. "We don't use words like that. We are a pretty hard bitten business, we lurch from crisis to crisis, but we share the view that the hauliers are taking that the sensible thing is not to come here at all. That's what we are being told in no uncertain terms".

"There's a shortage of drivers across Europe", Shirley says, "and they like to do a round trip in a week. In the east, it can take ten hours to get into the EU in the first place. If it is going to take you days to get back out of the UK and you are stuck here rather than driving it will not be worth their while".

The BBC, though, illustrates its story with a picture of a solitary sandcastle on the beach not so very far from Dover (pictured). I suppose the subliminal message is that, if you can't panic, then build a sandcastle and stick a couple of flags in it. It won't solve anything, but it might make you feel better.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 27/11/2020 link

Brexit: trust is good, but law is better

Thursday 26 November 2020  

So, von der Leyen speaks, and the world listens. "These are decisive days for our negotiations with the United Kingdom", she says. "But I cannot tell you today, if in the end there will be a deal".

We've been at this "game" since 29 March 2017, which makes more than 3½ years of negotiations. And, days away from the deadline, von der Leyen says, "I cannot tell you today, if in the end there will be a deal".

The interesting thing, though, is that we were warned – by that self-same von der Leyen. On 8 January of this year, she was in London delivering a speech to the London School of Economics, when she had some home truths to say.

"Without an extension of the transition period beyond 2020", she said, "you cannot expect to agree on every single aspect of our new partnership", adding: "We will have to prioritise".

Giving fair warning, von der Leyen went on to say: "With every decision comes a trade-off". The European Union's objectives in the negotiation are clear, she emphasised. "We will work for solutions that uphold the integrity of the EU, its Single Market and its Customs Union. There can be no compromise on this".

The same day, Johnson met the Commission President, telling her he was ready to negotiate a Canada-style Free Trade Agreement. This, he apparently defined as "a broad free trade agreement covering goods and services, and cooperation in other areas".

However, a Downing Street spokesman confirmed that, during the meeting, Johnson was "clear that the UK would not extend the Implementation Period beyond 31 December 2020".

And here we are then, days away from December, and von der Leyen's prediction is coming true. At the very least – assuming we do end up with an agreement, it won't fulfil all Johnson's ambitions for services and there will be very little coverage of "cooperation in other areas". The need to "prioritise" will give us no more than a "bare bones" agreement, if indeed we get even that.

As it currently stands, von der Leyen is telling us that "there has been genuine progress on a number of important questions: on law enforcement and judicial cooperation; on social security coordination".

Furthermore, she says, "on goods, services and transport we now have the outline of a possible final text. In these areas there are still some important issues to agree, but they should be manageable".

However, much to the surprise of no-one at all, von der Leyen informs us that there are still three issues that can make the difference between a deal and no deal: the level playing field, governance and fisheries. "With very little time ahead of us, we will do all in our power to reach an agreement. We are ready to be creative".

But here we get the repetition of the warning she gave back in January: "We are not ready to put into question the integrity of our Single Market" she says. If nothing else, the Commission has been entirely consistent on this. We've had it multiple times from Barnier, and from Juncker when he was Commission President. We cannot say we haven't been warned.

And this is why, von der Leyen says, "we need to establish robust mechanisms, ensuring that competition is – and remains – free and fair over time". In the discussions about state aid, she adds, "we still have serious issues, for instance when it comes to enforcement".

Despite the hundreds of hours devoted to the negotiations, she says that: "Significant difficulties remain on the question how we can secure – now and over time – our common high standards on labour and social rights, the environment, climate change and tax transparency".

Says von der Leyen: "We want to know what remedies are available, in case one side deviates in the future", then coming up with a nice turn of phrase: "Because trust is good, but law is better". Obviously, with the UK Internal Market Bill in mind, she says that: "in light of recent experience: a strong governance system is essential to ensure that what has been agreed is actually done".

Concerning fisheries, we are firmly told that no one questions the UK's sovereignty on its own waters. But, she says, "we ask for predictability and guarantees for our fishermen and women, who have been sailing in these waters for decades, if not centuries".

That's possibly her weakest point, given the genesis of the CFP and the way the UK has been treated over the decades, but I doubt whether she's even been told the full version of what transpired during the accession negotiation, and during the development of the CFP.

However, she's the one in a position to know what she's talking about when she says that "the next days are going to be decisive". She assures us that the EU "is well prepared for a no-deal-scenario" – in so far as anyone can be - but prefers to have an agreement.

But then she reminds us (and Johnson in particular), if he is even capable of listening, that whatever the outcome, "there has to be – and there will be – a clear difference between being a full member of the Union and being just a valued partner".

All this is straight from the horse's mouth, as delivered to MEPs at the European Parliament yesterday, and if Johnson doesn't want to read the transcript, there are also the UK papers, many of which are running reports of her speech.

Additionally, the likes of the Financial Times and the Guardian are conveying to us remarks attributed to Barnier. According to an EU official, Barnier had told Frost this week that there was little point in the EU side making the trip to the UK capital if there was no sign of movement in the talks. The EU's chief negotiator is said to be "frustrated", by the lack of progress, adding that the negotiations were like "talking to people who don't care about having a deal".

On the other hand, we are told that "allies" of Johnson (whatever that means) insist there is "no drama" or any sign that talks are about to break down. But there is an expectation that the prime minister will have to intervene, with more talks with von der Leyen. No date has been set.

However, Johnson will also be conscious that his backbenchers still have the potential to cause trouble, with the European Research Group warning that it will vote against any deal "if sovereignty is not preserved".

This may not be fatal to his short-term plans if Starmer's Labour decides to support any implementing legislation, but it could have implications for his continued tenure as prime minister if he agrees a deal that makes too many concessions.

One Eurosceptic source says: "If a large body of Tory MPs branded it BRINO and voted against the Tory party [then] Boris is toast". But, he then goes on to say: "They know that and so presumably will avoid it".

This, though, is far from Johnson's only pressure point. US president-elect Joe Biden has also been in action, stressing that the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland must remain invisible. "The idea of having a border north and south once again being closed is just not right", he says. "We've just got to keep the border open".

To add to the joy, the European Securities and Markets Authority ESMA has confirmed that EU rules will continue to apply to some UK branches of EU investment firms, putting pressure on them to move out and trade elsewhere.

On top of the frozen sausages law (completely misunderstood by the Mail), the fact that the UK still isn't listed as an approved "third country" for the live animals, foods of animal origin, and other products, and the Office of Budget Responsibility warning that a no-deal will cost a packet, Johnson has more than enough to keep him busy.

Johnson must be yearning for the simpler days of 2017, before he became prime minister, when he was able to tell the world : "There is no plan for no deal because we are going to get a great deal". But, like the man himself, that hasn't aged well.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 26/11/2020 link

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