Richard North, 21/08/2020  

So far, only The Times seems to have the story (at the time of writing), tucked in behind the paywall. Soon enough though, I guess all the papers will have it but, for the moment, we'll have to make do with the single source.

That, under the headline: "UK offers 'desperate' draft deal to break Brexit logjam", tells us that Britain has tabled a draft free-trade agreement with the European Union to try to unblock stalled Brexit negotiations, "according to diplomats".

Government sources, we are told, have refused to confirm its existence but The Times is crowing about having "learnt" that David Frost has handed over a "consolidated legal text" at a private dinner in Brussels this week.

Typically of this secretive government (and in common with British governments generally), the document is classified as a "secret negotiating text". What a stark contrast this is with the EU which quite unfairly insists on transparency and has published its negotiating position. We are so lucky we live in a democracy.

Nevertheless, EU officials seems to be distinctly underwhelmed. They regard it as "a desperate move", with one of those mystical senior Brussels sources "close to the negotiations", observing that, "It is the British under time pressure". He also notes that HMG had previously ruled out submitting such a draft.

The backstory to that little snippet is that Michel Barnier had "frustrated" Frost by refusing to discuss details of a free-trade agreement unless subjects such as fishing were settled in "parallel".

Frost now complains that the EU's insistence on dealing with the most difficult issues first is stopping progress. He has told Barnier that the biggest risk of a no-deal comes from running out of time. Legal texts could run to more than 400 pages and there might not be time to complete an agreed draft if the negotiations run to the last minute.

Even then, it seems there is nothing to get excited about with this so-called "free-trade agreement". The text is expected to focus on avoiding tariffs and quotas, which means it is going to be pretty thin stuff.

However, we are told that Member State governments are expected to ask Barnier to release the text to their national diplomats at meetings today. In the normal run of things, that means it will soon thereafter be leaked to the media and the full details should become available by lunchtime.

Sight of the full document will likely confirm that the key sticking points have not been addressed. Apart from fishing access after December, there is still a matter of the "level playing field" provisions, and I doubt there has been any progress on governance.

We are led to believe that "hardball tactics", known in the trade as "parallelism" have prevented agreement on non-trade questions such as road haulage and access for British lorries in Europe next year.

The trucks issue has been covered by a number of media sources and Pete has had a look at the issue in Turbulent Times.

What hasn't been mentioned though is the elephant in the room - the precedent set by granting the UK concessions. The EU is under intense pressure from Turkey, Belarus, Ukraine and possibly even Switzerland to relax restrictions on truck permits. If the UK is granted concessions, these countries will be quick to demand similar concessions under WTO non-discrimination rules.

The UK team does not seem to understand that these negotiations are not happening in a vacuum - everything the EU does is being scrutinised by its other trade partners. Barnier cannot afford to concede anything which will hold the EU hostage to fortune with other third countries.

There is also the issue of the British plan for post-Brexit return of asylum seekers, which has been reported by the Guardian. As we've reported before, come TransEnd, we will lose the limited benefit of the Dublin regulations, and will be unable to send illegal immigrants back to EU countries.

Now it has been confirmed – very much as expected – that the EU will not negotiate a cover-all substitute arrangement. This is hardly surprising as the EU rules themselves are under review, with little sign of progress. The EU can hardly give the UK something when it only has a hazy idea of what its own rules are going to be.

Needless to say, "Team Boris" is whingeing mightily, a spokesman expressing frustration at what he calls the EU's "slow pace". He repeats the mantra, saying: "We are engaging across all areas and want to have a deal ready by September".

But the reality is that the seventh round of "future relationship" talks ended yesterday without any breakthroughs. A "senior Brussels source" says: "We're still where we were in June and nothing has moved this week".

I suppose there's always a chance of a last-minute deal but, as we've said before, it won't amount to much. Small wonder we are seeing work ramping up on "Operation Brock".

Motorists are being warned that they will face overnight closures, lane restrictions and a 50mph limit on the M20 when work starts next month. Last time round, the "dreaded contraflow" caused months of frustration, after a 15-mile stretch of the motorway was cut to just two lanes.

All of this, of course, is to enable one side of the motorway to be used as a gigantic lorry park and, when the control system is fully operational, movable blocks using a special "zipper" machine can be put in place within hours. But the preparatory works will take until November.

It seems unlikely that the government would go to the considerable expense of the additional systems if it was confident of a deal which would keep the traffic flowing, and this is more or less a confirmation that long delays will be expected.

If the "cabotage" restrictions also take effect – which now seems likely – then Dover will probably see an increase in unaccompanied trailer traffic. This requires unhitching tractors in the port, and using port tractors to load the ferries – with the procedure reversed at the destinations. Carried out on any scale, this slows loading and is bound to add to the delays.

One way or another, some of the worst predictions look to be taking shape as the Johnson administration makes as big a mess of Brexit as it does with everything else. With the government already taking a knock over the exam results, I suspect its popularity will be rock bottom by the time this is over.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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