Richard North, 10/10/2019  

It is perhaps indicative of the lack of empathy with, if not understanding of, the European Union that such a big deal is being made of 19 October.

This, one will recall, is the date that the swamp-dwellers have chosen for Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson to apply to the European Council for an Art 50 extension in the (almost certain) event that he doesn't agree a new deal. But it is now also the date that Johnson has chosen for a special sitting of parliament, to discuss any deal agreed by the European Council or to debate an "alternative strategy if no deal can be agreed".

We are told that the parliament has only sat on a Saturday four times since it met to debate the outbreak of World War II in 1939. Other occasions were the 1982 invasion of the Falkland Islands, the Suez Crisis of 1956 and in July 1949 for summer adjournment debates.

Assuming – for want of anything better – that the Johnson intervention is just another example of his cheap showmanship, the key element of the date is the swamp-dwellers' demand that the prime minister in office send his extension application to Brussels.

The point, though, is that this is precisely the wrong date. The European Council (the only body that can entertain a request) ends the day before, on 18 October, and is not scheduled to meet again until 12-13 December. If it decided to stick to its meeting schedule, the UK would have left the EU by the time it got down to considering the request for an extension.

At the very least, therefore, the swamp-dwellers are putting the Council to the entirely unnecessary inconvenience of having to convene a special meeting, presumably some time after 19 October but before the 31st – in fact, well before that latter date as legislation will have to be passed to implement any new leaving date that is agreed.

It takes little imagination to assert that the 27 heads of state and government, who constitute the European Council (Art 50) grouping, are busy people and would wish to spend their time more productively than attend to the ongoing soap opera of Brexit, especially as their efforts are unlikely to be rewarded with anything constructive – such as a last-minute deal.

If they had got their act together – and ignored Johnson's bluster about handbagging the Council on 17 October – the MPs would have realised that the key date is not the 19th but the 15 October, when the General Affairs Council meets. The GAC will be updated by Michel Barnier and will then prepare the October European Council (Art 50) meeting.

It is then, therefore, that we will know formally whether a deal is on the cards – from whether the GAC endorses any recommendation from Barnier to proceed with a deal – the legal text of which by then should be known – or whether there is no progress to report in that respect.

As it stands, it is pretty obvious that there will not be a deal. Earlier yesterday, the Guardian reported that Brexit talks in Brussels between the EU and the UK had come to a complete halt, asserting that sources from both sides had confirmed that no further negotiations were scheduled – although Barnier and Stephen Barclay are supposed to be meeting for a working lunch today.

We also, of course, have the meeting between Johnson and Leo Varadkar today, supposedly in Liverpool. For a variety of good reasons, any chance of a breakthrough can be discounted – even supposing the parties were close to agreement, which they are not.

For sure, there was a brief frisson when The Times reported that the EU was ready to make "a major concession" by providing a mechanism for the Northern Irish Assembly to leave a new Irish backstop after a set number of years.

EU officials, though, were quick to deny any knowledge of this and, within a matter of hours had confirmed that such a proposal was not being discussed. The Times has a habit of doing this sort of thing - making up speculative stories on foundations of sand. Their half-life is usually hours, before being rebutted. One suspects the paper does so because it allows it to set the morning agenda with an "exclusive" and get a mention on the Today programme.

Anyhow, while the BBC's Brussels correspondent played down the Guardian "scoop" about the cessation of talks, saying that David Frost was slated to return to Brussels yesterday night, he did concede that "sources on both sides" had suggested that "the technical talks may have run their course".

Later in the day, we had Michel Barnier – alongside Jean-Claude Juncker – addressing the European Parliament in Brussels, telling MEPs that Brexit "creates concrete, precise and serious problems, especially in Ireland". He then went on to say, "In the face of these immediate problems, we need today, and not tomorrow, precise, operational, legally binding solutions for both parties".

Adding a non-scripted aside, he declared: "To put things very frankly though and to try and be objective, at this particular point we are not really in a position where we are able to find an agreement".

That leaves next to no chance that the Friday deadline set by Varadkar and Macron is going to be met, which in turn means that the General Affairs Council is going to have nothing to work on the following Tuesday, and Barnier will not be able to recommend a deal for adoption by the European Council.

Nor can we take anything from Juncker's input to the European Parliament. Speaking before Barnier, in a rather sour intervention, he declared that "we remain in discussion with the United Kingdom on the terms of its departure". "Personally", he did not "exclude a deal" and reiterated that he and Barnier were "working on a deal". But, he said, "we are not accepting this blame game in London. We are not to be blamed!"

All of that, individually and collectively, should have Westminster MPs focusing on the outcome of the GAC on the coming Tuesday, which will give them the cue to act. The logic would have been for them to instruct Johnson to make his application to the European Council on the 16th, giving it time to consider its position and come up with a decision before the heads of state and government disperse on the Friday.

However, the die is cast and doubtless – in the manner of The Times - between now and the end of the European Council, we will get any number of excited reports from the legacy media heralding last-minute "concessions" with hints of a breakthrough.

None of these will come to pass, although that does not rule out the possibility of some surprises, with one or other of the parties pulling a plump rabbit out of the hat. There is talk, for instance of Johnson staging a dramatic walk-out during the European Council, something which Brussels is marking down as a strategy to "fabricate a crisis".

One wonders though, whether anyone even cares. An EU diplomat says: "You can hit your fists on the table but in the end only the fist will hurt". He adds: "If they [the UK team] want to walk out, they can walk out but if they want a deal they will have to come back to the table".

Certainly, Juncker at the European Parliament yesterday didn't give the impression of a man who would be devastated if a deal wasn't struck, and Johnson already seems to have his election strategy worked out, which discounts the possibility of a deal.

Earlier yesterday, he was said to have promised centrist Conservative MPs he will not go into an election arguing for a no-deal Brexit, thereby not including such a commitment in the party manifesto. But no sooner had this been aired, than we were seeing denials, with a "senior government official" saying that no manifesto had yet been agreed.

Even then, a promise that no-deal wouldn't be the "main aim" of government policy does not rule out it being a fallback. We could expect the usual mantra, with the government committed to a getting a deal, but preparing to leave without one, if a deal could not be agreed.

Either way, and especially after the alarums of Tuesday, we seem to be marching inexorably to a no-deal. So far has sentiment reversed – from the Johnson bluster of a "one in a million" chance of a no-deal – that the only real surprise would be an agreement on a deal. But the chances of turning water into wine might be greater.

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