Richard North, 23/08/2019  

Starting in Berlin and moving on to Paris, much of what we've been seeing over the last few days has been theatre. With that, the signal to noise ratio is such that it is hard to discern any useful information from what is filtering though.

An indication of just how cluttered things have got comes from the Guardian, which reckons that, "despite the tough love, Johnson's EU sortie has been a relative success".

The measure of that "success", the paper feels, is that Macron has been left holding the baby, reaffirming that the backstop is an "indispensable guarantee" to preserving the political stability of Ireland and the means of protecting the integrity of the single market.

With that, he is seen as the "spoilsport", closing down any possibility of new negotiations, leaving Johnson ready to set the scene for blaming a no-deal Brexit squarely at the "intransigence" of Brussels (and Paris, and Berlin) – and the "remainer wreckers" in parliament.

Having stressed repeatedly that the UK is determined not to impose border checks in the event of no-deal Brexit, the prime minister in office is sending out a message to Brussels – copying in the rest of the world - with the subtext that "any snarl-ups will be your fault, not ours".

This is made all the more clear by his optimistic burbling, with him telling Macron that with "energy and creativity we can find a way forward" – as if that is all it took.

What is more, Johnson has specifically name-checked Singham's Alternative Arrangements Commission (AAC) report, attributing it to MP Greg Hands, using it to demonstrate that he is putting the "oomph" into pursuing a new agreement. By this means he hopes to rebut in advance the accusation that he is charging headlong towards no-deal.

To date, unfortunately, the media and the political classes have done such a shitty job of critiquing the AAC report that, to the superficially inclined, Johnson's stance might appear to have some merit. And when, as indeed they must, the "colleagues" reject this fatuous scheme, the "intransigence" legend will take on new legs.

Where we go from there really is anyone's guess but, it seems, we are shaping up for a galactic, albeit entirely artificial, battle with only one destination. But, if that really is the only destination, then there is only one battle left to fight – to decide who gets the blame.

Nevertheless, there is every indication that Macron (along with the rest of the "colleagues") is wise to Johnson's game, commenting: "I've always been portrayed as the toughest in the group".

Political commentators are said to be wary of Johnson, suspecting him of wanting to frame France as the bad cop to blame for any no-deal. Yet Macron is determined to avoid taking any blame for what he was yesterday calling the UK's internal democratic crisis over Brexit.

In analytical mode, Macron said he believed the British people's sovereign decision must be carried out, but warned against "democracies suffering lack of efficiency and lack of clarity". One wonders if he has put the same points to the gilets jaunes.

Merkel, in the meantime, has insisted that she had not given the UK a strict 30-day deadline – even if it has been taken as such by Johnson. She says she was illustrating how little time there was to reach a deal prior to 31 October. But since Macron has picked up on the "deadline", the fiction is acquiring its own reality.

That may mean a sudden surge of activity out of Number 10 in mid-September, timed – amongst other things – to distract from the Labour Party conference, which is set for Brighton on 21 September. Should Johnson then decide, formally to submit his "alternative arrangements" to Brussels, that could end up dominating the narrative.

One could hope that, between then and now, the media and opposition politicians (including those in the Conservative Party) might spend some time on a forensic analysis of these arrangements, with a view to debunking them. But since none of them have proved up to the job so far, it would be unwise to raise one's expectations.

A more realistic sign of how some of the media will play it comes from The Sun which is currently telling its readers that "Macron and Merkel's warm words won't mean anything if they can’t get Leo Varadkar off the cliff he’s created for himself".

The paper has decided that the recent statements from the German and French leaders show that there is some "flexibility" on the Continent, so much so that all Johnson has to do is "move quickly to show that alternative arrangements are possible".

The problem, we are told, is not that these are, in fact, not possible. Rather, it is Irish premier Leo Varadkar's "performance over the past three years" that doesn't fill the newspaper with much confidence. "The Irish PM", it says, "hasn't missed an opportunity to tear into his country's biggest trading partner".

Having "failed at every turn to be a constructive partner", it's "his inflexible attitude towards the UK that has made no deal more likely". Adds the paper: "It's blindingly obvious that the Withdrawal Agreement as it stands is well into dead parrot territory. If Varadkar continues to insist that it's the only deal possible, what does he think will happen?"

But, of that, The Sun has no doubt. Leaving the EU "with a clean break", it says, might be "bumpy" but "it's what we voted for".

While The Sun's sister paper, The Times takes a similar view, claiming that Johnson "returned to London buoyed yesterday after President Macron said that a Brexit deal was possible", for a completely different perspective, all you have to do is read the Irish Times. This is telling us that the UK is "on track to price itself out of EU" with a "Canada-minus" deal. It believes that "tariffs [are] the most likely consequence of regulatory divergence from EU".

Actually, they won't be. Regulatory divergence means that UK produce will not be permitted entry to the Single Market. Tariffs won't be an issue, because the goods will never qualify for free circulation within the Union.

Nevertheless, the paper claims that Johnson's advisers have told EU officials that the UK will be seeking a Canada-style free-trade deal, out of the customs union and the single market, and without being bound by "level playing field" rules.

The EU's response, we are told, will probably demand closer UK alignment to its rules than with any other major trade partner. And if the UK can't accept this, then we should expect to see the EU offer only limited market access – probably including tariffs on some goods, as a way of increasing the EU’s leverage against UK regulatory undercutting. The reckoning, it says, "could be brutal".

This, though, is written by Paul McGrade, who worked at the UK Foreign Office, the European Commission and the UK Cabinet Office as an adviser on EU treaty negotiations. One can quite see how HMG so often got into trouble, if this is representative of the quality of advice it has been getting.

It is a pity that the paper, instead of hosting such issue-illiterate material, couldn't expend some of its energies on debunking Johnson's alternative arrangements.

Few people seem properly to understand quite what the implications of dropping out of "regulatory alignment" and dumping the regulatory ecosystem might be. But if the Irish Times is hosting comment that puts as the penalty increased tariffs, then we have much further to go than I thought.

Nevertheless, whether being priced out by the imposition of tariffs or excluded because of regulatory non-conformity, the net effect is the same, whence Irish businesses are asked whether they are ready to take advantage.

If only that thought was pursued in the corridors of Whitehall. Away from the febrile imaginings of the "Yellowhammer" dossier, this alludes to the real effect of a no-deal Brexit - the progressive (and even slow-motion) collapse of the UK's trade to EU Member States.

Thus, while Johnson may be set to win the battle of blame, he is set to lose the war and the country's economy goes steadily down the pan.

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