Richard North, 29/09/2017  

"There is no doubting that this was a vital round of negotiations", said David Davis in his "closing remarks" at the end of the fourth round of EU exit negotiations in Brussels.

And indeed there is no doubt at all that this was a vital round. What a very great pity it was, therefore, that it wasn't important enough for Mr Davis to spend the time in Brussels actually taking part in the negotiations – all of the time.

In his pre-prepared remarks, rather predictably he emphasised the role of his boss, Theresa May, and her Florence speech. This, he said, "had at its heart a desire to drive progress this week. It was intended to change the dynamic and instil real momentum".

According to Davis, the speech "set out a clear, pragmatic approach designed to help secure an agreement that works for all sides". It built, he said, "on the hugely significant work that has gone on across Government over the last year that has seen us publish 14 papers covering technical negotiation detail and the United Kingdom's vision for the future relationship, the Article 50 letter and two crucial White Papers".

This exercise in self-justification was clearly intended to talk up his "negotiating team", which had come to Brussels "armed with the detailed thinking that underpins the proposals set out by the Prime Minister".

And from there, the self-delusion was not very far away. He believed that this "detailed thinking" inevitably "requires further discussion", thanks "to the constructive and determined manner with which both sides have conducted these negotiations we are making decisive steps forward".

Davis was thus "clear that we have made considerable progress on the issues that matter" and made "no secret of wanting to talk about the future, and the importance of this to business and citizens both in the European Union and the United Kingdom". That – of course - included "our proposal for a simple, clear, time-limited period of implementation". This, he asserted, "should be quick to agree, once Michel has a mandate to explore it with us".

"As the Prime Minister said last week", he said to Barnier, flashing one of his trademark smiles, "our shared future can only be founded on partnership, friendship and most importantly trust. This is what discussions this week have been about".

To spare you the details, we can now fast-forward Barnier's pre-prepared remarks, read out once Davis had finished. On Monday, he had said, "we need a moment of clarity". By the Thursday, he was saying: "We managed to create clarity on some points". On others, however, "more work remains to be done". So said the man, "We are not there yet".

Undaunted, he declared to the world at large: "We will keep working in a constructive spirit, until we reach a deal on the essential principles of the UK's orderly withdrawal". But, he said: "there remain a few matters outstanding".

On citizen's rights, Barnier was concerned about whether the UK would apply EU law concepts in a manner that is consistent with EU law after Brexit but, as always, "we failed to agree that the European Court of Justice must play an indispensable role". This, he said with an uncommon degree of understatement, "is a stumbling block for the EU".

Needless to say, there were others. A big gap remains between the positions on family reunification. The export of social security benefits also remains to be discussed.

As to the financial settlement, Barnier noted that Mrs May had said that no Member State should pay more and no Member State should receive less because of Brexit. Second, she said, "the UK will honour commitments taken during its membership". But now, the UK negotiating team made it clear that applying the first principle would be limited to 2019-2020. The UK had also explained also that it was not in a position yet to identify its commitments taken during membership.

For the EU, however, Barnier was uncompromising. "The only way to reach sufficient progress", he said, is if "all commitments undertaken at 28 are honoured at 28".

Then for the third area, it was Ireland once again. Both the EU and the UK recognised that Ireland was in a unique situation but that's as far as it went. Both parties confirming the commitment towards maintaining the Common Travel Area and started drafting common principles. In other words, they were no further forward. There had been not the slightest move in the right direction.

And that, believe it or not, was "a constructive week". Heaven forefend what it would have been like if it had not been so "constructive". And. despite all this constructiveness, said the EU's chief negotiator still had to say: "we are not yet there in terms of achieving sufficient progress. Further work is needed in the coming weeks and months".

So, where does that take us? In three weeks, we have the October European Council. That, says Barnier, will be an opportunity for him to take stock of the negotiations with President Juncker and President Tusk and the 27 Heads of State or Government. He is also looking forward to the European Parliament's resolution next week. This, he says, is important.

What he's done, quite cleverly, is kick the can down the road. He didn't come out and state, unequivocally, that he was going to tell the European Council that there had been insufficient progress. He left just enough wriggle room for there to be doubt about the outcome.

This takes account of what Barnier calls "the new dynamic created by Prime Minister May's speech in Florence". He hopes this will "continue to inform the negotiators' work" when they assemble for the fifth round of talks which start in the week of 9 October.

So, everything is cool. Except it isn't. Several people have been arrested under the Official Secrets Act, for "leaking" information – some to this blog. Another one has been picked up for passing material to the Commission (now deemed an "enemy power"). Civil Servants are deserting MinBrex in their droves, and others are moving to an alternative power centre in the Cabinet Office. Under the surface, things are bubbling.

Meanwhile, Mrs May is in Tallinn today, meeting those 27 heads of state or government. Then she has to address the Conservative Party conference, when she has to convince the faithful that things under control. 

Having arrived at Tallinn for the pre-summit dinner – where talk of Brexit is not allowed - she brings with her a coterie of journalists, to whom she aims to communicate (some of) her inner thoughts. What those will be, we cannot know, but we do know that nothing has changed in terms of her vulnerability to a party coup. She will have to deliver something as the "money quote" from Barnier is damning. He said the words and they mean what they mean. So far, there has not been "sufficient progress".

In reality, it is going to take "weeks and months" with no promise that the core issues are going to be resolved. Is the Party going to be satisfied with a prospect that maybe, just maybe, there might be a breakthrough in round five? Is, as some suggest, Davis going to come armed with "further concessions" which will "unlock talks on a Brexit transition"? Will that be anything like enough?

Inevitably, what will play heavily on a Party obsessed with the financial settlement is that the RAL liability has been assessed at €239 billion, adding a potential €31 billion to the UK bill. As yet, there is no commitment to meet that sum, and many of the faithful will demand that their leader rejects any demand for payment.

This, undoubtedly, will be the headlines issue at the conference. And if money talks, will May walk? That's the €31 billion question. I guess the answers cannot be long in coming.

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