Richard North, 21/12/2017  

It comes to something that we consistently learn more of the progress of Brexit from Michel Barnier and his EU colleagues than we do from our own prime minister and her colleagues.

I didn't watch the liaison committee proceedings yesterday, where Theresa May was questioned by the 16 heads of the House of Commons committees. There is only so much pain I can take. But the Independent gave us a taste, telling us that, in two grand hours of interrogation, Mrs May did not even so much as dignify a single question with a non-answer.

M. Barnier, on the other hand, was in full flow, addressing a press conference in Brussels on his new mandate for phase two of the negotiations. Technically, this was to announce the Commission adoption of a recommendation for a Council Decision supplementing the original mandate. It comes with an annex which contains much of the detail.

In fact, though, there's not a huge amount more than has already been set out in the Council Guidelines of 15 December, except that some of the details are new. For instance, the Annex "recalls" that as from the date of its withdrawal from the Union the United Kingdom will no longer benefit from the agreements concluded by the Union, or by Member States acting on its behalf, or by the Union and its Member States acting jointly.

However, it says that, where it is in the interest of the Union, "the Union may consider whether and how arrangements can be agreed that would maintain the effects of the agreements as regards the United Kingdom during the transition period". There is hope, therefore, that there may be a way of keeping some of the third country deals going, without protracted negotiations.

For all the importance of that, the detail that's grabbed the headlines is the Commission recommendation to curtail the transition period to 21 months, so that it terminates at the end of December 2020. Administratively, that makes absolute sense for the EU as it coincides with end of the current, seven-year Multi-annual Financial Framework (MFF). It gives the EU-27 a clean start for the next budgetary period, without the complication of UK involvement.

Nevertheless, in his press conference, Barnier said that the General Affairs Council was not due to discuss the new mandate until 29 January, and only then will there be talks on the transition period.

As to the nature of the transition period, there are no concessions or deviations from the Council guidelines. The mandate requires Barnier to push for full "vassal state" mode, with the UK continuing to participate in the Customs Union and the Single Market (with all four freedoms) during the transition. It must comply with the EU's trade policy, collect Common Customs Tariff duties and perform all checks required under Union law at the border vis-à-vis other third countries.

As before. existing Union regulatory, budgetary, supervisory, judiciary and enforcement instruments and structures will continue to apply, including the competence of the ECJ. But the UK will no longer participate in or nominate or elect members of the Union institutions, nor participate in the decision-making or the governance of the Union bodies, offices and agencies.

If this is accepted by the UK government, it is perhaps just as well that the transition period will be truncated. But even then, it will be four-and-a-half years from the referendum before we are finally free from the embraces of the EU. So much for those, like Peter Lilley, who argued that we could settle the withdrawal deal "in ten minutes".

The more rational Barnier spoke of his expectation that the talks on the future relationship - which are not expected to start until March, after the Council has agreed new guidelines – will be completed by October 2018, leaving less than eight months for the process.

But the EU's lead negotiator confirmed that there would not be a treaty setting out the trade deal. All we can expect is a political declaration to accompany the Article 50 agreement, which will deal with the withdrawal issues and – it is said – the transition.

As for the trade deal itself, in telling phraseology, Barnier stated that "the day the transition starts, we will know where we are going and what we want to achieve". Short of actually telling us that this is when the trade negotiations will formally start, this is as close as we get to an actual declaration to that effect.

But it is the United Kingdom itself, through its government, Barnier then says, which defines the nature of the agreement. It tells us that it no longer wants to be part of the Single Market because it does not want to respect the four freedoms. It tells us it no longer wants to be part of the Customs Union because it wants to regain its commercial sovereignty. It is tells us that it will no longer recognise the authority of the European Court of Justice.

Thus, by crossing out different models of cooperation that are available, Barnier concludes that we (the EU) logically end up working to a free trade agreement, along the lines of what we negotiated or signed with Canada, South Korea and more recently Japan.

Borrowing, perhaps subconsciously the phrasing from Theresa May, Barnier then says, "I want to be extremely clear", going on to say that there is no ambiguity. There are differences with models, since each of these models of cooperation and commerce is naturally adapted to the country with which the agreement is made. But the logic remains the same. It will be the same logic for the negotiations we will have with the United Kingdom.

All we are going to get, then, is a Canada-style agreement. There is no Canada-plus, much less a plus-plus-plus. A "bog standard Canada" is all that will be on offer, "naturally adapted" to the specific circumstances of the UK.

This is a marked contrast to expressed expectations of No. 10, which is still calling for a "bespoke" agreement which is "significantly more ambitious" than the EU's deal with Canada.

And direct from a "confident" Mrs May at the liaison committee yesterday, we had her assertion that the UK can complete negotiating a free trade deal with the EU before Brexit day. "That is what we are working to and that is what I believe we can do", she told the committee, leaving Hilary Benn to say that he has "met nobody" outside government who agrees.

This delusional woman, therefore, is not only at odds with the EU's chief negotiator but almost everybody outside the government, including a healthy segment of back-bench MPs. Furthermore, she is still talking of an "implementation period" and when it comes to Ireland, she insists that there will be no hard border, but refuses to say how this will be done, especially as she is denying that there would be any physical infrastructure at the border.

With that, though, we have probably seen that last major Brexit-related political event before Christmas (apart from Mrs May's visit to Poland today), with today's newspaper front pages already having moved on to the sacking of Damian Green. 

Yet nothing on the Brexit front has been resolved and the issues are still wide open. Having delivered his address yesterday in his native French, however, Barnier did conclude with just a few words in English. "Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all of you, he said.

Viewing this homme sérieux from a distance (pictured), it was difficult to tell whether he was being ironic. No one, though, could have any doubts about Mrs May's performance. There's not a drop of irony in her veins.

The Guardian says she will have to be "a bolder leader than she has been so far". But, as a dire year for Britain ends, it adds, "there is little sign of that".

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