Richard North, 01/09/2019  

Only two days ago, the Telegraph was trilling that the EU wanted to extend Article 50 to avoid a no-deal Brexit, with those perceptive "Eurosceptics" such as David Davis happily telling the world that Brussels was "cracking under pressure".

This is, of course, a core part of the little-Englander "ultra" narrative – all we had to do was keep sticking it to Johnny Foreigner until we could see the whites of their eyes. When they find they "don't like it up 'em", they would cave in at the 69th minute of the eleventeenth hour, just like the "surrender monkeys" that they always were, and give us everything we demanded.

Meanwhile, having sated its readers on this kind of tosh, the Telegraph gets to play it both ways, publishing an authored piece by Michel Barnier, under the deliciously provocative headline: "We will only start work on alternative arrangements if the current deal is ratified" – effectively rebutting the panic shtick by the simple expedient of re-stating EU policy.

As to the backstop, Barnier asserts that this "fully respects the carefully negotiated balance" found in the Good Friday Agreement "between the competing political views and different identities in Northern Ireland".

In his view, its objective is simply to have an insurance policy in place that guarantees that the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland remains fully open, and that the status quo of cross-border exchanges on the island of Ireland is maintained. At the UK's request, he says, "we agreed to have a UK-wide customs dimension to that backstop".

Then comes the crunch. "On the EU side", Barnier says, "we had intense discussions with EU Member States on the need to guarantee the integrity of the EU's Single Market, while keeping that border fully open. In this sense, the backstop is the maximum amount of flexibility that the EU can offer to a non-Member State".

The reason he gives for this is that the backstop "provides Northern Ireland with the economic benefits of the Single Market for goods, which the EU is exceptionally willing to offer due to the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland. I believe that the people of Northern Ireland recognise and appreciate this offer more than Westminster does for now".

What he could have said, and perhaps should have said, is that it plugs what would otherwise have been a huge hole in the integrity of the Single Market. But now, what he does say is that the UK wants to change the deal agreed by the 28 Member State governments.

You can then see Barnier's frustration as he notes that the EU has already committed itself to working with the UK, during "the standstill transition period", on alternative arrangements that achieve the same objectives of the backstop.

We are, he says, ready to start this work immediately upon ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement, in parallel to finally creating clarity on our future relationship. Thereby, he exposes the central weakness of the Johnson argument that we need to scrap the backstop before any progress can be made.

If Johnson is so confident that his "alternative arrangements" can be put in place during the transitional period (albeit that a time extension will be needed), then he does not need to see the backstop ditched – it will never come into force. Thus, what he is doing is demanding that the EU assumes the risk of a failure to agree alternative agreements.

But, for the Telegraph, Barnier's "positive" commitment to work on the alternative arrangements, immediately the Withdrawal Agreement has been ratified, gives it the "money quote" for its headline. Turned round, this becomes a "negative" refusal to start work on alternative arrangements unless the current deal is ratified.

As any comedian will confirm, it's "how you tell 'em [jokes]" that makes the difference – and so much depends here on how the different stances are being presented.

But the elephant in the room here is that Johnson's "alternative arrangements" are essentially fraudulent – which the EU must surely know, even if it does not find it expedient to point this out. Should it abandon the backstop on the promise of their implementation – which can never be fulfilled – then it would be going empty-handed into the negotiating room.

Compared with that, quite obviously the no-deal scenario is the lesser of two evils – something which Barnier makes plain. Although he is "not optimistic" about avoiding a no-deal, this "Johnny Foreigner" seems rather more resistant to the pressure than the "ultras" anticipated.

The EU is ready to explore all avenues that the UK government may present "and that are compatible with the Withdrawal Agreement" he says and, since Johnson has said there will be no more extensions beyond the end of October, the UK "has now come to a moment of truth".

Placing the ball firmly in the UK's court, Barnier says "it must decide if it leaves the EU with or without an agreement". If it chooses the latter, it means that there will be no transition period and no so-called "mini-deals", as the EU will only act to protect its own interests.

Yet "all the UK's financial and other obligations from its past EU membership will continue to exist, as well as obviously the international obligations it has to protect the Good Friday Agreement, in all its dimensions".

Stating the obvious, Barnier then concludes that the EU cannot stop the UK going for a no-deal. He would, though, fail to understand the logic of that choice. Underlining my point, that no-deal is not a solution to Brexit, he points out we would still need to solve the same problems after 31 October.

Then, in a final barb, he suggests that many people in the UK understand that. He would be surprised, therefore, if they succumb to the idea that the EU is to blame for a difficult political situation in the UK.

Needless to say, there will be people prepared to blame the EU for everything – the same group of people who have been insisting that the EU is "on the ropes" and ready to concede to Johnson's demands.

Barnier has now made it very clear that the EU is standing firm. He would not have written the piece for the Telegraph without consulting Donald Tusk and, most probably, Macron and Merkel as well. This must be taken as the consensus position of the EU.

That puts Johnson with absolutely nowhere to go. Despite the attempts of his fanboys in the Telegraph and elsewhere to convey – on the basis of no evidence at all – that the move towards re-opening negotiations is gaining traction, his bluster has not achieved anything at all.

As far as the EU is concerned, the backstop stands, the Withdrawal Agreement will not be renegotiated and, if the prime minister in office insists on the UK leaving the EU on 31 October then, on the face of things, it will be without a deal.

The one thing that Johnson has going for him is that prorogation, creating a new session of parliament and thus allowing him to re-present the Withdrawal Agreement to the MP collective for ratification. All it needs is for the MPs to wake up to the idea that the best (and probably only) way to avoid a no-deal is to vote for the one on the table. With that, the political situation could be transformed.

Given then that the best possible "alternative arrangements" would follow down the lines of the "Norway Option", there is at least the makings of a solution to the current impasse. But if neither Johnson nor the MP collective can focus on this and remain committed to their parlour games, then there is no hope.

If they throw away this chance, though, then the public should know what has been done. A failed Brexit will be a political failure, one which was wholly avoidable, but for the incompetence and bad faith of our political classes.

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