Richard North, 01/06/2020  

On a site, until the advent of Covid-19, that was dedicated to Brexit, we've been remarkably remiss in not following the ins and outs of the "future relationship" negotiations as we lurch towards the end of June and the near-certainty of a refusal to extend the transition period.

Personally, it is not so much that I lack interest in the subject – how could I be other than interested in a topic that has been an obsession for the better part of my working life? But what kills it in terms of following the ongoing narrative is the very certainty, or near-certainty.

Ending the transition period at the end of the year seems, to all intents and purposes, a done deal. And if that is the case, then the talks are a charade – boxers circling in a ring, where neither one has the intention of hitting the other. They will go round and round until the bell rings and then retreat to their corners.

One could argue, however, that not even Johnson is so stupid as to take us out into the world, lacking a trade deal with the EU. But there is another certainty – he really is that stupid. And he has a lot of equally stupid supporters around him, including one Dominic Cummings, who are ready to reassure him that ending the transition period without a deal is the right thing to do.

What price Barnier warning Johnson that "he must keep his promises if he wants to avoid the double economic hit of a no-deal Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic"? Is this part of the ritual danse macabre or does the EU's chief negotiator really believe that Johnson will suddenly see the error of his ways and come rushing to the table at this month's summit, chastened and ready to talk sense?

Or is it just that Barnier is talking to his own domestic audience when he accuses the UK prime minister of backsliding on commitments made in the political declaration? In which case, what is the point in issuing an ultimatum, telling us that there will not be an "agreement at any cost", especially when it is directed to an English newspaper?

One suspects, though, that the timing might have something to do with it. This week sees the start of the fourth round of 'Brexit' talks, and it may be the last chance for serious negotiation before the end of the month and the shutters come down on the extension window, leaving us with the countdown to disaster.

With that in mind, Barnier is complaining that the UK has been taking "a step back - two steps back, three steps back - from the original commitments" in the political declaration. UK negotiators, he says, need to be fully in line with what the prime minister signed up to with us, because 27 heads of state and government and the European parliament do not have a short memory.

It does sound rather ominous though when he tells us: "We remember very clearly the text which we negotiated with Boris Johnson. And we just want to see that complied with. To the letter... And if that doesn’t happen, there will be no agreement".

This almost has the ring of a Mafia enforcer hinting darkly, "we know where you live", although it'll likely have about as much impact as a bailiff telling a homeless man that he's about to be evicted. Johnson, on the home front, thinks he has nothing to lose.

Already, there are clear indications that this is water off a duck's back, with Downing Street responding with accusations that the EU is trying to drag out the negotiations until it's too late to do a deal.

It is wholly unsurprising, therefore, that negotiations have stalled, and they are not set to go anywhere if senior British government figures are claiming that Brussels is either "not ready or not willing to inject momentum" into the talks, and make the compromises necessary for an agreement.

Needless to say, nothing much has moved since we last looked at the issue. At centre stage is still the same old argument about level playing fields, with no new arguments to inject into a debate so stale that if it was bread, you'd be taking a club hammer to it.

Then, of course, there are the negotiations on the access of the EU fishing fleet to UK waters, which is going absolutely nowhere. There's actually too much bad blood on this for the UK to make any concessions, with too much history to forget. Perversely, it is unreasonable for the EU to expect rationality, but then the Commission has its own problems trying to keep marauding Spaniards at bay.

That said, Barnier does have a point about needing to avoid "the double economic hit of a no-deal Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic". He needs, though, to stop calling it Brexit – we've already left. Perhaps we need something new – like "transend", or "extran". Anything but Brexit.

The trouble is that the Tories seem already to have priced in Covid, arguing that we can now afford to take the no-deal "hit", because the damage to trade and the economy in general has already been done. If there are no aircraft flying, and the ferries are coming over empty (the few that are running), nobody is going to notice when we lose our Single Market rights.

There is also a strain of opinion that has it that we need a clean break from the EU so as to expedite our trade deals with other third countries, and thus speed up our economic recovery from Covid. The ability of some pundits to turn facts on their head is legion. Going "full Boris" with a no-deal "transex" (nah) is going to catapult our economy into the stone age, and delay any recovery.

But what characterises the argument is the lack of it – argument, that is. When you have the morons' mouthpiece, aka the Daily Express headlining, "Boris to defy EU Brexit bullies", it's pretty obvious that the intellectual capacity of the nation has lost some ground.

If – as we do – we have a situation where there is a binary breakdown into "goodies" and "baddies", and the EU is characterised as a "bully", to be resisted at every opportunity, then we only have one direction to go. That is down.

When Barnier thus talks of the need for "damage limitation" and suggests that we have a "joint responsibility" in this very serious crisis, this isn't seen as wise counsel or emollience. Rather, it is another example of EU bullying.

By the same token, when he tells us that the crisis is affecting families, with so many deaths, so many people sick, so many people unemployed that we must "do everything we can to reach an agreement", this is seen through rage-tinted spectacles and taken as another Brussels "threat".

With logic having taken a nose-dive through a tenth-storey window, there is no way back. Pete talks of weaponising groupthink and the concept of "ignorance farming", where the combined forces of the Telegraph, Express, Guido and Breitbart cultivate the ignorance of their readers in order to provide a lumpen mass of support for an increasingly unresponsive government.

With that, Barnier is probably wasting his time. If he thought about it, and expended a great deal of political and intellectual capital, he could probably engineer a better deal to offer the UK.

For instance, where there is quite reasonably concern about the cost of any transition extension – in terms of ongoing contributions – the EU could perhaps be cajoled into offering the UK a substantial discount. Between getting nothing and something, it has nothing to lose.

For the moment though, even if this was on the agenda (it isn't), EU negotiators would not think it worth the bother. The UK will say "no" anyway, and will treat it as a sign of weakness – a platform for demanding more concessions.

As long as the UK is wearing its rage-tinted spectacles, there is no mileage (kilometrage?) in Barnier playing nice. For him and the EU he represents, the negotiations are a lose-lose. He might just as well set out his stall and tell the UK to take it or leave it. And since Johnson seems determined to walk away, Barnier's best bet is to make the loss look as big as possible.

Maybe that's what he's doing. Or maybe not. We'll know by the end of the month, unless there is another last-minute fudge, and we may as well not expend any energy on speculation. We'll need it later.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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