Richard North, 04/12/2017  

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On the day that Mrs May meets Jean-Claude Juncker to present him with the "final offer" which it is hoped will take us through to phase two, the Financial Times is claiming that the UK is on the brink of a deal.

With the scent of fudge in the air, the paper could be right – but then it could be hopelessly wrong. If it is, it'll quietly forget this story but otherwise we'll never hear the last of it.

As one might expect, the evidence is pretty thin, apparently based on an exchange with another of that increasingly common breed, the anonymous official. Just for a change though, this one is Irish. What's more, he (or even she) is a senior Irish official. This must mean that what he (or she) has to say must be truer than if it came from a mere official – or, heaven forefend, a junior official.

Supporting the FT narrative (not), he (or she) says that they (the Irish government) were "still awaiting signs of a definitive breakthrough". That, of course, leaves the agreement "hanging in the balance", which prompts the official to say: "As we speak at the moment, this is a very fluid situation. There are intensive contacts back and forth".

In terms of substance, that is all you get – which means that the story is not inconsistent with the Telegraph headline, which has: "Brexit timetable in jeopardy as Theresa May fails to reach deal on Irish border ahead of EU deadline".

To an extent, this is a matter of half-empty, half full, with the Tory comic reporting: "Theresa May will go into a crunch meeting with EU leaders on Monday admitting she is yet to find a solution to the Irish border problem". But to put it on the half-empty side, this paper adds that a Cabinet minister has suggested for the first time "that Brexit might not happen".

However, the paper also thinks that no agreement is in sight – thereby completely contradicting the FT - thus suggesting that "the Prime Minister is now likely to ask for a last-minute extension to the Monday deadline".

Not content with a mere "senior official", the Telegraph relies on "Whitehall sources". These, of course, are just as anonymous, but also well enough known for the paper to state that they have "bitterly complained" that Leo Varadkar had "moved the goalposts" by insisting on guarantees over the future border arrangements now, having earlier said the issue could be thrashed out once trade talks were underway.

One presumes here that the UK negotiators are relying on Varadkar's speech to the Dáil earlier last month when he said that it was "not going to be possible" definitively to settle the question of the border with Northern Ireland until the shape of the future EU-UK relationship emerges.

At that point, the Irish Prime Minister was of the view that it was "likely that we will be able to say that sufficient progress has been made at the December meeting". This, he thought, would allow the EU to move on to discussions on transition and the future arrangements.

However, that depended on what happened over the next number of weeks, and the "specific assurance and guarantees we can get in writing from the United Kingdom". He sensed that things were "moving in the right direction" and he was more optimistic than he had been in October. With that, though, came the caveat, that his mood "may change".

Nevertheless, Varadkar did address the lack of clarity in the Brexit debate, saying the way it was intended to deal with this "is not that everything in phase one has to be agreed before we move on to phase two".

It was, he added, "that sufficient progress has to be made on phase one: on the financial settlement, on citizens’ rights on issues specific to Ireland and that allows us to move on to phase two where we can talk about the transition arrangement and the new relationship".

Varadkar then concluded: "It is not going to be possible to fully resolve the border question until we start to talk about the future relationship that the UK will have with the European Union". There will come a point, he said, "when it is in our interests to actually start talking about that".

Clearly – or not so clearly – that point has not been reached and the Irish are still after written guarantees that they feel they haven't yet got. Varadkar will hold a special meeting of his cabinet today discuss Brexit, and we may get further statements before Mrs May struts her stuff.

Here, in a less than helpful manner, May has the support of her Brexit secretary, who is still insisting that it is "imperative" that the Irish border is "discussed in tandem with Britain's future trading relationship with the EU.

But, according to the Sunday Times, Varadkar agrees that a parallel process could help to ease the resolution of outstanding issues in relation to the Irish border.

He says: "I think the suggestion that David Davis has made, to a certain extent, is common sense. If we were able to have a trade agreement between the EU and UK then, of course, it will be much easier to sort out issues around the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland". But he then adds that he has not seen any evidence from the Brexit papers released to date that Britain had a solution to the trade and customs arrangements that would be necessary after March 2019.

That, if the Guardian is to be believed, puts Mrs May taking "personal charge" of the Brexit negotiations.

For all the to-ing and fro-ing, hopes remain that her meeting with Juncker will clinch the deal. And, although I have been writing of "dinner", it seems that Mrs May is actually having lunch with Jean-Claude Juncker before later meeting Donald Tusk.

Work on the final text of an agreement is being worked on by officials in Dublin and the Guardian sits on the fence, saying that the chances of it being ready in time for the May-Juncker lunch has been put at 50:50.

An added complication for Mrs May is a tedious letter signed by former cabinet ministers Iain Duncan Smith, Owen Paterson, Nigel Lawson and John Redwood, plus 30 others.

They are asking Mrs May to make any payments to the EU conditional on reciprocal free trade "without tariffs" between the UK and the EU, which must be agreed in principle by 30 March next year. They also want the UK to have freedom to conclude trade deals "across the globe" from 30 March 2019, and insist that the ECJ shall cease to have any jurisdiction over the UK from the date we leave the EU.

They also want freedom of movement to end, that any "necessary implementation period" should not exceed two years, and that no new EU regulations should apply to the UK from 30 March 2019. And as regards the Irish question, all they want is for the parties to "work diligently and act in good faith" to secure an agreement before we leave.

On the regulation point alone, these "Ultras" are seeking to build in divergence to the Article 50 agreement. While the comprehensive trade deals the EU has done require that the parties work towards regulatory convergence (while the Swiss and EEA deals require continued adoption of relevant EU measures), we are supposed to be asking for a deal that does the opposite. This, undoubtedly, will close down access to EU markets and make a comprehensive trade deal very hard to agree.

Front runner in opposing continued ECJ involvement is Owen Paterson, alongside Iain Duncan Smith. They regard a "foreign" court having jurisdiction over the UK as being intolerable to an independent United Kingdom. Paterson, it appears, is content for us to be subordinate to the European Court of Human Rights, the WTO dispute bodies and the International Court at The Hague.

All this, apparently, is perfectly acceptable. But to accept the ECJ "would be to condemn ourselves to the status of a vassal state, relinquishing power over our laws – and by extension over our people – to a court on which we are not represented". The citizens of a newly sovereign nation, says Paterson, "deserve better than that".

However, all is well with the world. This morning's edition of The Times has sided with the FT. Its senior officials are saying: "Brexit deal 90% there". It would be churlish to dwell on the ten percent. How could anything possibly go wrong?

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