Richard North, 31/10/2020  

Going back a little way, to 2 March 2018, Theresa May was at the Mansion House delivering a speech on "our future economic partnership with the European Union".

In a combative mood, she sought to deliver some "hard facts" to inject some reality into a debate that was slipping away, as her party crumbled around her. "If we want good access to each other's markets", she said, "it has to be on fair terms".

"As with any trade agreement", she continued, "we must accept the need for binding commitments – for example, we may choose to commit some areas of our regulations like state aid and competition to remaining in step with the EU's".

After all, she said, "The UK drove much of the policy in this area and we have much to gain from maintaining proper disciplines on the use of subsidies and on anti-competitive practices".

Furthermore, she continued, "we share the same set of fundamental beliefs; a belief in free trade, rigorous and fair competition, strong consumer rights, and that trying to beat other countries' industries by unfairly subsidising one's own is a serious mistake".

One might wonder, therefore, from where the EU got the idea that it should press for "state aid" as part of its level playing field pitch, but then there's a sort of clue in Mrs May's speech. It might just have taken the prime minister at her word.

Fast forward to yesterday and the media are on the case, with the Financial Times reporting that the EU-UK trade negotiators are hunkered down in Brussels in search of a Brexit breakthrough – as if we didn't know that already.

And, although talks are to continue until at least Monday, we are also told that the two sides "remain far apart on fishing rights and other key sticking points", with only two weeks remaining until the mid-November deadline that is being accepted as the end point for the talks.

"People involved in the negotiations", it appears, are leaking to the media – despite the supposed omerta. And they are telling the FT that intensive talks in London earlier this week had delivered substantial progress in drafting the text of a deal, but that real breakthroughs on the outstanding issues "remain elusive".

These "outstanding issues", according to the leaky people involved in the talks say that the two sides still need to overcome deep-rooted disagreements over EU fishing rights in British waters and – guess what – "level playing field", as well as business and governance arrangements of the future deal.

However, it seems to get worse, as one of those anonymous but otherwise well-informed EU officials tells us, via the FT, that the "main problems remain blocked".

A lot of drafting work has been done on the level playing field issue, in the effort to find common ground, and the two sides are still seeking to craft a set of common principles. But while one EU official says there are "glimmers of hope", another (unidentified) person involved in the negotiation says that even this is "an optimistic take".

The leaky ship also tells us that no headway has been made on fishing rights, with the EU still pushing to secure long-term guaranteed access to UK waters for its Member State fleets.

Says the FT, even in the areas where there is considerable agreement - such as social security co-operation - the narrow window for negotiations is presenting a challenge, as officials work intensively to hammer out a joint legal text. But, it would appear, that is the least of the problems.

Adding to this, the Telegraph reminds us that Ursula von der Leyen said on Thursday that the weekend's talks would focus on devising an enforceable "level playing field" system with dispute resolution mechanisms. This has been previously rejected by the UK, which is insisting on commitments similar to those in the EU-Canada CETA.

The Telegraph then calls in aid a "senior German government official" – anonymous, as always – to say he was "deeply concerned" about the lack of progress, given the heavy reliance of German companies on funding in the City of London.

However, we are told, there are still hopes that a deal could be done, with this paper telling us that negotiators expected to break off talks on or around 3 November, giving time for Johnson and von der Leyen publicly to seal the deal before the mid-November deadline.

Meanwhile, the Guardian is running one of those "tales of woe" stories that would have made great sense back in January 2017 when Mrs May declared that "no deal is better than a bad deal", and more particularly when she decided to take us out of the Single Market. Now it just looks like crisis voyeurism.

The issue at hand is highlighted by the headline, "Plant inspectors and rising prices: UK garden industry set for Brexit shock", with the sub-heading: "Nurseries say doubling up of regulations will mean a rise in costs and EU suppliers going elsewhere".

The paper has finally seen fit to tell us that which has been evident for several years, that from 1 January, so-called "plant passports" will no longer be valid in Britain and importers will need to complete their own checks to comply with new UK regulations to certify that each plant is disease- and pest-free.

This, we are told, will add costs and delays to suppliers who will now have two layers of red tape to contend with – one for EU customers and one for British nurseries.

This, of course, will also be the fate of the chemicals industry, potentially the medicines industry and many more which will have to cope to dual regulatory systems if they want to serve both the domestic and European (EEA) markets. Never mind that this could have been avoided if we had gone for the Efta/EEA option, or negotiated something similar.

It is a bit late for that now, so all the Guardian can do is wallow in the misfortune of others – too late to influence a debate that never really got started. Crocodile tears come to mind.

We see much the same phenomenon in the Grocer as it wails about the "£200 million threat" to organic exports, and the trade magazine MotorTransport which retails a complaint that "No-deal Brexit would leave HGV operators short of EU access permits".

This Johnny-come-lately stuff opens up a whole new genre of reporting where the media can raise endless tales of woe about the damaging effects of Brexit, a cheap source of space-filling copy on issues over which it no longer has any power to influence.

And yet, there are those who still openly advocate a no-deal Brexit - probably from the same wellspring as those who deny that Covid-19 is a problem – leaving us with a perfect storm of misfortune, from which the peddlers of crisis voyeurism are the smug beneficiaries.

At least, in the short- to medium-term, they will have no shortage of opportunities.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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