Richard North, 07/11/2019  

I do wish Johnson would stop his nonsense about getting Brexit "done". At the very best, all we're getting is the first phase of a very long process that is going to take much longer than the prime minister in office would have us believe.

And it's not only Michel Barnier who is telling us that. The outgoing European Commissioner, Jean-Claude Juncker, added his ha'porth to the mix, telling the BBC's Katya Adler that he very much took issue with the Johnson's assertion that a brand-new comprehensive post-Brexit EU-UK trade deal could then be negotiated in a year or less.

"These things take time," Juncker said. "Just look at the free trade deal the EU negotiated with Canada. That took seven years".

Juncker then said he had a feeling that many UK MPs and government ministers believed negotiating trade deals was easy. But, he said, it would take quite some time to disentangle the UK from decades of forging common rules and regulations with the EU and to form a distinct and new relationship.

As for Corbyn's ideas, Juncker said he didn't think Labour's pledge was a realistic prospect, although conceded that it was for the next European Commission chief to decide if there was any flexibility to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement once again.

Strictly speaking though, we are told that the decision on whether or not to re-start exit negotiations with the UK would fall primarily to EU national leaders in Berlin, Paris and beyond. The European Commission negotiates Brexit on their behalf.

And, as we know, the "national leaders", constituted as the European Council , can't possibly re-open the Withdrawal Agreement – they have expressly ruled that out in the current extension decision, as indeed they had ruled it out before Johnson came on the scene.

However, it seems that we've got it all wrong, according to the Independent. It is relaying a claim from a commission spokesperson in Brussels, who has denied that Theresa May's agreement had been "amended" in any meaningful way. The EU had merely made "clarifications".

Nevertheless, even the Independent displays some scepticism here. The "sensational claim", it says, is at odds with Downing Street's presentation of negotiations. It also notes that Johnson hopes to get his agreement through parliament on the basis that it is not the same as his predecessor's.

The new narrative – or so it appears – is that Johnson has not achieved anything of significance. He did not get the EU to blink and "bin the backstop". Rather, in Juncker's words, they had found a new way in renegotiations to come up with exactly the same result as the original backstop. In practical terms, if not legally speaking, under Johnson's deal, Northern Ireland will remain part of the EU's customs union after Brexit.

This is the border down the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK Johnson had initially said he would never, ever allow.

Thus, when it was put to the spokesperson that there were obvious differences between the two agreements, and that six paragraphs of the protocol on Northern Ireland had been changed, she said there were "differing views" about what constituted an amendment. In effect, the words might be different but the overall effect is essentially the same.

The real reason for the Commission's assertions, therefore, might be that Brussels for months insisted it would never reopen the withdrawal agreement it struck with Theresa May. Thus, the Commission may be trying to restore some of its lost credibility, especially as it will be trying to enforce that latest extension decision which repeats the limitation on re-opening the new withdrawal agreement.

This is certainly suggested by the spokesperson's insistence that: "… what matters now is the latest European Council decision on 29 October which excludes any further reopening of the withdrawal agreement that we have spent negotiating for two years, and on the basis of which we granted an extension".

This commentary is almost surreal and there must have been an amount of jaw-dropping in the Commission press room. We await further "clarification" of this statement, but it does look rather as if the EU is seeking to draw a line under Brexit and make it happen on 31 January – regardless of who gets to be prime minister.

But if Brussels has been dining on magic mushrooms, there have been plenty to spare for London where it would seem that neither the Tories nor Labour have anything close to credible Brexit policies, leaving voters forced to make a choice between two unrealistic – if not fictional – options.

If this is supposed to be the "Brexit election" – even if the parties are trying to steer the electorate's attention to other matters - the false choices on offer from the two main parties make a nonsense of the entire election process. Voters are being asked to opt for one or other scenario even though neither can actually happen.

But then, since all the political parties seem to be in the land of the fayries, voters can do little other than to invest in industrial quantities of popcorn and make the most of the charade – or opt out altogether.

Whether they like it or not, though, this election campaign has the makings of a media extravaganza, with very little real contact between voters and politicians. Such was the case when Johnson travelled to the NEC in Birmingham yesterday to stage a public launch for his party's campaign.

Described as a "big rally" by the Mail, the picture (above) shows a very modest crowd. Take away the hundred or so journalists, candidates and staff and the number of genuine supporters was very small.

But it was there that Johnson unveiled the party's general election slogan: "Get Brexit Done - Unleash Britain's Potential", with the message that Brexit can happen quickly after the election if he wins a majority. In Johnson's words, "It is there. You just whack it in the microwave, gas mark - I don't know what, I'm not very good at cooking - it is there, it is ready to go. Prick the lid, put it in and then we can get on".

What the man is trying to project, though, is totally unrealistic "We get this deal through parliament and then we can get on with all of the fantastic projects in which this government is engaged, uniting and levelling up our country, giving people opportunity across our country with better education, better infrastructure and new technology". That, he says, "is what this government is all about".

Once past the actual withdrawal stage, if it ever happens, we are either in for the long haul of negotiating a trade deal with the EU, which can only give us a fraction of the market access that we have now, or we are precipitated into a no-deal situation at the end of next year. The very last thing we will be able to do is "move on" from Brexit.

The failure of Mrs May, right at the beginning of the negotiations, to go for the only option that would have given us a smooth transition - the Efta/EEA option - means that we are locked in a Brexit quagmire, where the UK's negotiators will be struggling to bring back from Brussels anything of substance – with the inevitable drag on our economic performance.

But, despite that, the politicians seem to be getting their way. A quick review of this morning's papers seems to indicate that the media has abandoned Brexit, with the emphasis turning to other matters. Allister Heath of the Telegraph wants to turn this election into a binary contest between "Boris" and Corbyn. He may get his way.

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