Richard North, 27/07/2018  

Another day and another round of press conferences – this last one being the debut for midair bacon (aka Dominic Raab) as he bearded the Brussels monster.

Cutting through the usual clichés and pleasantries, Raab managed to tell us what we already knew about the current talks, then averring that the customs element contained in the White Paper represented "a practical way forward".

But, on a sultry evening when the temperature refuses to go down, Raab's speech blurs into a jumble of words which sounds just like this - and just as impossible to take seriously. This is a man going through the motions.

One couldn't say though that Barnier started off any better. And when one hears talk of "constructive meetings", the alarm bells automatically start ringing. So much in tune are the two protagonists (not) that while Raab had three heads for his talks, Barnier has whittled them down to two. 

In the UK corner, therefore, we had completion of the Withdrawal Agreement, completion of the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, and the need "to work up a clear and precise vision for our future relationship, and set this out in a political declaration to be signed alongside the Withdrawal Agreement".

In less florid language from the EU corner, however, Barnier appeared to be saying the same things: finalising "the outstanding issues of the Withdrawal Agreement, including a legally operative backstop for Ireland and Northern Ireland", and agreeing on a political declaration on our future relationship.

But, whereas he had the " legally operative backstop" up-front, Raab was keen to make it clear that the backstop, "if it were to be exercised at all, could only be for a time-limited period before the permanent future arrangements would become operational". Said Raab, it "would not give rise to an extended limbo".

And here, there seems to be an unbridgeable divide. The EU wants a backstop – a permanent feature of the Withdrawal Agreement which does what it says on the tin, coming into play when the main agreement no longer fulfils the necessary conditions.

The UK, on the other hand, wants a temporary measure that can be dispensed with when a permanent solution is agreed, with nothing there if that agreement subsequently breaks down. In other words, it is talking the talk, but doesn't actually want a backstop at all.

But that is blurring the issues and preventing agreement, our "future economic relationship" is also proving problematical, hence Barnier stating the obvious. While there has been some accord on security issues, "finding common ground between the EU27 and the UK is more difficult".

And here, the clarity which has mostly characterised Barnier's approach to these talks seems to have deserted him. We (the UK and EU), he says, "have agreed already on a common denominator: we both want an ambitious Free Trade Agreement".

But these are just words. Between that label and the practice lies another of those unbridgeable gulfs. It is clear that the UK's idea of an ambitious Free Trade Agreement is entirely different from that of the EU – insofar as we have any real idea of what the UK government wants.

Untypically, Barnier also hides behind a screen of words when he talks of "another area of convergence between the EU and the UK", this one being "the need for ambitious customs arrangements".

Previously, though, he has talked about a – and sometime "the" customs union. At other times, he has talked about cooperation. We are never very clear as to precisely which are he is talking about, or how he wants to achieve it.

But in this case, Barnier was laying the foundation for a sharp barb, which will undoubtedly leave Mrs May's government grievously wounded. "We share a clear understanding on a core principle that will define our future economic relationship", says Barnier: the UK and the EU will both preserve the autonomy of their decision-making. Both will preserve their regulatory autonomy.

And then it comes: "The UK wants to take back control of its money, law, and borders", he says. "We will respect that", he adds, then drawing blood: "But the EU also wants to keep control of its money, law, and borders. The UK should respect that. So, we share an objective in that regard".

Rubbing salt in the wound, Barnier discusses the "future relationship in financial services", noting that "future market access will be governed by autonomous decisions on both sides". This "autonomy", he says, applies not only at the time of granting equivalence decisions, but also at the time of withdrawing such decisions.

There are strong coded messages here, but they all amount to one thing. The UK cannot decide what its laws are going to be, and then expect the EU to recognise them. And if the UK, having reached an agreement with the EU on standards, then moves the goalposts, the EU reserves the right to rescind any agreements.

Broadening the field, Barnier then moved on to the EU's customs policy, basically telling Mrs May to take a running jump with her White Paper proposals. "The EU cannot – and will not – delegate the application of its customs policy and rules, VAT and excise duty collection to a non-member, who would not be subject to the EU's governance structures", he said.

And here, I'm pretty sure he is introducing something that has not been specified before. Barnier starts off by saying: "Any customs arrangements or customs union – and I have always said that the EU is open to a customs union – must respect this principle". But then he adds: "In any case, a customs union, which would help to reduce friction at the border, would come with our Common Commercial Policy (CCP) for goods".

Previously, that may have been implicit in Barnier's talk of "the" customs union, but he has never spelled it out. And neither is it in the draft withdrawal agreement. Methinks the EU is moving the goalposts – and most definitely into territory where he must know the UK can't follow. It is the CCP more than the customs union which prevents Member States following independent trade policies. Mrs May cannot possibly agree to this.

Moving on, Barnier then explains why the UK pitch on the "backstop" is unacceptable. "We have a clear agreement between the EU and the UK", he says, "that the Withdrawal Agreement must contain an all-weather insurance policy. We share the goal of avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland".

As we agreed in December, he reminds us, the absence of a hard border has to be guaranteed no matter what the future relationship will be. Of course, a better solution in the future EU-UK relationship could replace the backstop, which explains the "unless and until" provision of the backstop to which the UK has agreed.

But without a backstop as a permanent fixture in the Withdrawal Agreement, there will always be uncertainty over what would happen if the UK unilaterally changed the rules. This is the sticking point. "Continued uncertainty on this issue after the UK's withdrawal". Says Barnier, "would be unacceptable for Ireland, for Northern Ireland, for the UK as a whole, and obviously for the EU27.

Referring back to last March, Barnier recalls that the parties had agreed on the scope of the issues to be solved in the backstop. As to the customs element, the UK wants this to be UK-wide and Barnier has no objection in principle to this.

But the EU has doubts that this can be done "without putting at risk the integrity of our Customs Union, our Common Commercial Policy, our regulatory policy, and our fiscal revenue".

With that, the talks are packing up until mid-August, when Barnier expects the UK "to come back to us with concrete proposals on how to address our concerns". With no mincing of words, this means – as far as the EU is concerned, "We must advance and agree on a legally operative backstop solution to conclude the Withdrawal Agreement".

This is what it has come to. All Mrs May's posturing has come to nothing and, far from being "flexible and pragmatic", the EU's position has, if anything, hardened. Mid-August will see no new offer from the UK. This truly is an unbridgeable divide – and the EU has just made it bigger.

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