Richard North, 24/07/2020  

We have to appreciate that we're only being told what they want us to know and, with these things, there is always a strong element of theatre in such negotiations. Both sides have their spin and nothing can be trusted.

Michel Barnier is in fine form though, making a long press statement at the end of "Round 6 of the negotiations for a new partnership between the European Union and the United Kingdom".

Prime minister Johnson, he says, told us that he wanted to reach a political agreement quickly. But he also has stated three red lines: no role for the European Court of Justice in the UK; the right to determine future UK laws without constraints and; an agreement on fisheries that shows that Brexit makes a real difference compared to the existing situation.

"We have tried", says Barnier, "to understand how these three red lines can be squared with our commitment to a comprehensive new partnership – as set out in the Political Declaration," signed by Johnson on 17 October last year.

"Because of course, any international agreement implies constraints on both Parties", he continues, "we have continued to engage sincerely and constructively, in line with the mandate given to us by the Member States, with the support of the European Parliament".

"However", he then says, "over the past few weeks, the UK has not shown the same level of engagement and readiness to find solutions respecting the EU's fundamental principles and interests".

Reuters picks this up, reporting: "EU's Barnier says UK position makes trade deal 'unlikely'". The United Kingdom, this report goes, "had shown no willingness to break deadlock on the level playing field and fisheries issues, making sealing a new trade agreement unlikely".

"By its current refusal to commit to conditions of open and fair competition and to a balanced agreement on fisheries, the UK makes a trade agreement - at this point – unlikely", Michel Barnier said.

Now we come to David Frost with a very much shorter press release.

"Considerable gaps remain in the most difficult areas", says Frost. "That is, the so-called level playing field and on fisheries. We have always been clear that our principles in these areas are not simple negotiating positions but expressions of the reality that we will be a fully independent country at the end of the transition period".

"That is why we continue to look for a deal with, at its core, a free trade agreement similar to the one the EU already has with Canada – that is, an agreement based on existing precedents", Frost goes on: "We remain unclear why this is so difficult for the EU, but we will continue to negotiate with this in mind".

When the next round of negotiations begins there will be not much more than four months left until the end of the transition period. Thus, says Frost, "Although we will continue energetically to seek an agreement with the EU, we must face the possibility that one will not be reached, and we must therefore continue preparing for all possible scenarios for the end of the transition period at the end of this year".

Nevertheless, he concludes: "Despite all the difficulties, on the basis of the work we have done in July, my assessment is that agreement can still be reached in September, and that we should continue to negotiate with this aim in mind".

Team Johnson, therefore, "look forward to welcoming the EU team back to London next week as planned for informal discussions and to the next negotiating Round beginning on 17 August".

Thus, we have the two sides of this negotiation: Barnier on the one says "deal unlikely"; Frost says "still possible". Both could be right – being "unlikely" doesn't rule out it happening. As long as negotiations continue, there is some chance of a conclusion.

Daniel Boffey and Lisa O'Carroll of the Guardian believe that a deal is still a likely outcome. This is the message we also get from The Times which has "UK and EU officials" saying that a comprehensive Brexit trade deal could be finalised in September, even though they warn of "two big hurdles", although that is not wholly incompatible with the headline from BBC News which states: "Trade deal some way off, say UK and EU".

Basically, for all the liberal flow of words, we're no further forward. Based on the statements available, it is possible to believe any outcome is possible and, depending on one's demeanour, it is possible to be optimistic or pessimistic.

Interestingly, none of the national newspapers put their reports on their front pages, not even the Financial Times, which prefers to stick with Barnier, offering the headline: "Michel Barnier warns ‘no progress’ made on key issues in Brexit talks".

However, we are are told that, while British officials believe it is for the EU to make the next move, both sides have underlined that talks had not broken down. They will continue next week in a more specialised format, as previously planned. Furthermore, it looks as if they will run to the wire – possibly up to the end of October. It could even be later … there are no certainties in this game.

Where deeds speak louder than words, we see Barnier reporting that there has been progress on some topics, and in particular "towards the objective of a comprehensive and single institutional framework, which must include robust enforcement mechanisms".

According to the FT, EU officials say that the UK was still looking to have standalone treaties on air transport, civil nuclear co-operation and aviation that would be legally separate to the trade agreement. This separation, we are told, "matters for Britain, which is seeking to limit the scope for the EU to “cross-retaliate” in trade disputes by withdrawing rights in other areas".

On the other hand, as the FT notes, the EU has long grumbled about its relations with Switzerland, which are based on a sprawling array of about 100 separate agreements covering different policy areas, without overarching dispute settlement.

Apparently, Frost has been willing to look at "simpler structures" for overseeing and enforcing any deal, conceding EU concerns about "a complex Switzerland-style set of agreements". This should never have been in question, but the fact is that there does seem to be progress.

However, there is obviously a long way to go, and we're not anywhere near the EU-China investment treaty, where the negotiations have been going for seven years, through more than 30 rounds of talks. Nevertheless, given that the most likely outcome with the EU-UK talks is a de minimis deal, the chances are we'll still be negotiating with the EU in seven years' time.

But then, we've always said that Brexit would be a process rather than an event. Now some people are catching up and discovering for themselves what we've been saying for over five years.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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