Richard North, 16/10/2019  
 


As I write, the situation is about as transparent as a radiographer's apron, with the media reports to date about as coherent as the Mad Hatter's tea party.

The big news yesterday was Michel Barnier setting an ultimatum for the end of the day for agreement on a legal text to be finalised. This was in order for it to be presented to EU leaders at the European Council on Thursday. But, with the midnight deadline past, there is no news of whether an agreement has been reached.

One possible explanation might be that, as a surrogate for GAC approval, the "EU Ambassadors" (Coreper) are meeting at 1pm today to take a briefing from Barnier, and the draft will not have to be ready until then. This, apparently, gives the UK team and the EU's Brexit taskforce a few extra hours to complete their tasks.

According to the Telegraph, they are prepared to work through the night to complete the draft, ready for the Barnier briefing, prior to it being passed to the European Council.

This assumes, of course, that the parties are anywhere near reaching an agreement and, through yesterday, we were getting any number of negative signals, suggesting that it was as elusive as ever, even though there was a continuous stream of reports saying that the talks were close to a conclusion.

By mid-afternoon, though, we had The Times conveying a message from "British sources" who urged caution over reports that a deal could be ready by the end of the day. They suggested that the bout of optimism was a negotiating ploy to pressure London into making more compromises.

We also had the Guardian which had a "senior French official", speaking in Paris, who advised "extreme prudence" about the chances of a deal being struck that would satisfy the EU's capitals. "It's not the Irish who will make the deal", he said. "Yes, there are better atmospherics, but what matters is the content, and we have seen nothing yet. Whatever it is, we will want to look at it in very serious detail".

That latter comment from the French official tells its own story. By all accounts, any agreement reached is going to be a long, complex piece of text, a view supported by Angela Merkel who compared the Brexit talks to "squaring the circle", saying "It's very, very complicated".

Given that, I simply don't buy into the idea that a few Coreper officials will be able to fillet the document and give it the go-ahead, without the lawyers first having trawled through it. Even then, senior politicians and officials from all the Member States will want to give the "deal" the once over, before the European Council commits to anything.

On that basis, a rainy afternoon in Brussels will hardly give sufficient an opportunity to prepare for Thursday's European Council, even if Johnson is prepared to fly to Brussels today, in an attempt to cement the deal. There will barely be time to get the deal translated into the Union's 24 working languages, much less circulated to 27 capitals for comment.

Despite its chequered reputation for fabricating rather dubious stories, therefore, The Times this time seems to have a point with today's (online) headline which declares, "Boris Johnson hit by prospect of no Brexit until 2020", with the sub-heading telling us: "EU warns deal may need two months to finalise".

What seems to be coming through is that the parties have only come to an agreement in principle, and that is what will then be conveyed to the European Council with the promise of detail to follow. The paper then quotes a "senior German official", who says a political agreement on a deal would not be enough "to resolve technical issues", thus requiring Brexit to be postponed for a third time for "some two months".

Also called in aid is a "senior EU diplomatic source", who says in Delphic terms that, "Without a deal this week, Britain will need an extension. With a deal this week, Britain will need an extension". Thus does Johnson face being pushed into a delay even if the outline of a deal is done.

As to whether the European Council will even countenance a delay, though, is said to depend on whether Johnson can prove he has sufficient support amongst the swamp-dwellers for a deal to be ratified, once it is presented. That means that, after the European Council, attention will turn to the House of Commons, with special attention paid to the proceedings on Saturday, if that session materialises.

However, after two consecutive days of talks with Johnson, resolve in the DUP is stiffening, with strong indications that the party will oppose the deal. Arlene Foster is now saying that the DUP would support only "a deal that respects the constitutional and economic place of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom". She adds that there has to be consent which is in accordance with the Belfast agreement, in other words "there has to be consent from the nationalist community and the unionist community".

After expressions of support for the deal, some of the Eurosceptic wing of the Tory party are also having second thoughts, leading to what is being called a "major split among Tory hardliners". Owen Paterson, for instance, has branded the deal "absurd" and "unacceptable", while Iain Duncan-Smith is said to have "exploded" at No 10 officials.

It is now even being suggested that some Brexiteers might even prefer a delay, giving time to negotiate a better deal, rather than accept a fudge that will please no-one. But that assumes that any more time will necessarily open the way for a more acceptable resolution.

With no more sense to be had, one can only hope that some better news emerges through the day, allowing in a little more light, bringing with it – one hopes – some much-needed clarity. For the moment though, we are in a strange twilight world, where we may or may not have a deal, without actually knowing any of the detail and thereby lacking the wherewithal to determine whether it is even worth having.

I am not even prepared to speculate on what that detail might be, although it is interesting to note the comment of the Independent which admits that "details from the secretive talks are scarce", and then goes on to say that, "the latest sketchy reports from in the room suggest that the UK has agreed in principle to a customs border down the Irish Sea – which was originally rejected by Theresa May as something 'no British prime minister' could accept".

Mrs May's comment is a useful reminder of where we were at back in December 2017, and I looked up my own comments at the time. The big issue then was that Mrs May had more or less come to an agreement with Brussels, but had neglected to pass it by the DUP.

The story goes that the DUP intervened publicly, rejecting the Whitehall/Dublin deal. This led Mrs May to break off her meeting with Juncker to take a 'phone call from Arlene Foster, the outcome of which, it is said, was that attempts to conclude the deal with Brussels on the day were abandoned.

Now we seem to have history repeating itself except that, if anything, the deal is even more convoluted, leaving some to wonder whether, even if it is agreed, the administrative capacity exists to implement it.

Perhaps, though, it was never meant to be. The BBC is reporting that it has obtained Conservative party leaflets which suggest the party is preparing for a delay to Brexit. The text of one leaflet says: "Without a strong majority government, we can't deliver Brexit", indicating that the party is expecting the UK still to be in the EU by the time a general election is held.

One way or another, I have the sense that, over the past week or so, we have been played. All the to-ing and fro-ing of the past week or so is simply theatre to distract us from the reality that we are nowhere near a deal. In its own way, the Mad Hatter's tea party probably had more coherence.






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