Richard North, 14/09/2019  

Throughout the years of our troubled relationship with the European Union, there has been no shortage of narratives describing the many negotiations in which we've been engaged, from the first accession talks to the high-octane intergovernmental conferences that led to the Maastricht, Nice and Lisbon treaties.

If you know where to look for them, there are also details to be had of the conduct of the various WTO rounds, and of the accession talks which brought new members into the EU.

With our accumulated knowledge, it is possible to get sense of how the Union conducts itself in negotiations. And, while it is fair to say that Article 50 negotiations have unique elements, they are still bound by Treaty law – specifically Article 218 (TFEU) which dictates how they must work.

Putting all that together, one can be pretty certain Brexit is not going to be settled over a "working lunch" on Monday in Luxembourg between the johnson and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, with Michel Barnier in attendance. This is simply not the way the EU does business.

Essentially, if the principals meet – as with the johnson and Juncker – it is always to cement the final details of a deal that have already been settled by the "sherpas". It is never the case that the principals sit down to thrash out a deal de nuevo. They are there to seal the deal.

Certainly, Juncker does not seem to be expecting much, having indicated that he is "pessimistic" about the chances of finding an alternative to the Irish backstop. He also warns the johnson that a no-deal would cause "chaos", describing Brexit as the "climax of a continental tragedy".

Neither is Leo Varadkar in any way convinced that the EU and the UK are on the verge of a breakthrough, the Irish premier observing that the gap between the two sides was "very wide".

In the context where numerous EU sources have been saying that there have been no credible proposals from the UK, it is unsurprising to find Varadkar affirming the EU's willingness to explore alternative arrangements, but suggesting that what the EU is seeing "falls very far short of what we need".

Thus, as Deutsche Welle rightly remarks, these doubts put a dampener on the johnson's latest comments that it is "cautiously optimistic" about reaching a deal.

The prime minister in office elaborates, to say, "We are working incredibly hard to get a deal", adding that, "there is the rough shape of a deal to be done". He maintains that he will not be deterred by "shenanigans" at Westminster, and is still intent on taking the UK out of the EU by the 31 October deadline.

Once again, though, this just looks to be the usual bluster from a man who is losing credibility by the day – not that he had much to start with. Perhaps wisely, therefore, even the johnson's own office failed to support him, with Number 10 sources playing down hopes of an imminent breakthrough, saying there was still a "long way to go".

Doubtless, that must have reflected the DUP's response to yesterday's report in The Times where the paper claimed that the DUP might be willing to allow Northern Ireland to sign up to all EU food and agricultural rules and agree to update them in line with new regulations.

This scheme looks more than a little fraught, as its current iteration seems to provide for the devolved legislature having a veto on future EU rules applying in the region. According to Simon Coveney, the Irish deputy prime minister, this would give Northern Ireland a veto over how the single market operates, which is unlikely to be accepted by Brussels.

In the final analysis, though, the argument looks largely academic. Putting it to bed was DUP leader Arlene Foster, who rejected any idea of an arrangement which involved creating a "wet" border in the Irish Sea. She insisted that the UK must leave the EU "as one nation", dismissing the report in a tweet saying: "anonymous sources lead to nonsense stories".

DUP Brexit spokesperson Sammy Wilson told the BBC's Good Morning Ulster programme that the story "goes against all of what has been said in recent days" and dismissed it as "bad journalism".

Speaking of anonymous sources, the Guardian was keen to quote the tweet of a Telegraph journalist, quoting one of those fabulous, anonymous "EU diplomats", this one saying that "Unless Boris Johnson has a magic rabbit in his hat, I have no idea what they will talk about. His problem is he can't show his fellow leaders a majority for whatever he is going to ask".

In like vein, the anonymous source continued: "We don't know what he is going to offer us. If we are serious about getting this done, this is our last play. Is the EU willing to waste its last play on a half assed plan?"

Less anonymous are comments by David Cameron about former colleagues Johnson and Michael Gove, whom he accused of "leaving the truth at home" during Brexit and of behaving "appallingly" during the EU referendum campaign.

In a publicity interview to promote his memoirs due out next week, he is particularly sour about Gove, whom he calls "mendacious" and even refers to him as a "wanker". As for the johnson, he breaks from the convention that former prime ministers do not criticise their successors, saying that he lied during the referendum campaign, refusing to say he trusts him as premier.

This is all par for the course, and adds to the general sourness over Brexit which ostensibly seems to be going nowhere.

The one sign of movement is perhaps not one the johnson might want to see, coming from newly appointed trade commissioner Phil Hogan. He predicts that the EU will give Britain a Brexit extension next month if London requests it, claiming Britain may soon have a prime minister who will scrap Britain's plans to leave.

Here, there is a hint of where the "colleagues" eventually see their salvation – given substance by Matthew Parris in his Saturday column, where he calls for "moderate" leavers and remainers to coalesce around another referendum.

That would certainly bring all the recent strains together, where we have seen a straightforward withdrawal blocked, now leading to an enforced extension with the promise of a general election following which the victor commits to a new referendum, presumably giving remain the victory it so much desires.

If this represents the writing on the wall, then one can see in the johnson strategy – such that it is – a determination to frustrate these blocking moves, signalling an ideological fight to the death. This has gone beyond normal politics, with the two sides deeply entrenched over an issue of immediate practical importance, where neither side can afford to give way.

The reality, though, is that there are not so much two sides but three. In the UK, we have the warring "remain" and "leave" tribes, but the "Brussels tribe" must be regarded separately, with its own distinct agenda. Hogan aside, it might be Brussels – under the influence of the EU Members States – which eventually pulls the plug.

Given the sentiment in Germany, the eventual motivation could simply be a desire to move on. There must be a limit to the amount of time and attention the Europeans can give to Brexit and if, as we might see, the French are comfortable with the management of the practical aspects of a no-deal Brexit (pictured), there is nothing to stop the EU casting the UK adrift.

When the johnson goes to Luxembourg on Monday, therefore, it may find it is dealing with an agenda it doesn't control and, while it may eventually deliver an outcome which it seeks, the overall consequences may not be to its liking. It may also ensure that its tenure in the office as prime minister ends abruptly at the next election.

But then, one might observe that, greater love has no man…

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