Richard North, 10/11/2020  

Now that the US presidency soap opera is scaling down, and we have about a week to run to the conclusion of the an EU-UK trade deal, suddenly the talks are an issue.

Chutzpah of the week probably goes to the Telegraph which offers an extraordinary comment piece headed, "Brexit now needs true statesmanship and diplomacy", with the sub-heading, "We are about to discover whether Boris Johnson and his team are up to the challenge".

This is a business which calls itself a newspaper, meaning that it trades information and opinion. That might supposes it is well-informed and yet, anyone with more than a couple of brain cells would know that neither Johnson nor his team – separately or together – are up to it.

In respect of the talks, the paper argues that brinkmanship and last-minute deals are par for the course. Thus, it expects these to be part of this mix, noting that the two sides are still talking despite threats to pull the plug. All it needs is "a willingness to compromise on both sides".

The thing is that the threats to pull the plug have all come from Johnson's stable and there is a school of thought which suggests that the EU is still in the talks only because it doesn't want to take the blame for their collapse. Like a game of "chicken", the first side to swerve takes the fall.

All Barnier has to do is keep turning up for the sessions, presenting the image of the EU waiting patiently for the UK to accept its propositions. When Frost – or, more likely, Johnson – throws a strop and waltzes out, it's game over for Team GB.

Interestingly, Denis Staunton thinks that Johnson is on a loser, having got himself into a trap with the Internal Market Bill, leaving him weaker as the talks enter their final stage.

Essentially, he has engineered a lose-lose situation where, if the IMB is kept intact – after being shredded by the Lords - the European Parliament is likely to refuse to ratify any free trade deal. Furthermore, Joe Biden has joined leading congressional Democrats in making clear that there will be no US-UK trade deal unless the clauses are removed. Thus, in order to get anything worth having, Johnson will have to back down and remove the offending clauses from the Bill.

But if he then fails to agree a trade deal with the EU in the next couple of weeks, Staunton avers, he will struggle to justify to his own party and his Brexiteer supporters the removal of clauses he has portrayed as a safeguard against the EU's bad faith.

Knowing that he is in this bind, the EU can turn the screws right down on what it is prepared to concede, making it more likely that Johnson will reject what is on offer. Either way he loses. At best he gets a weak deal (which was always on the cards), having publicly humiliated himself with a climbdown. At worst, he holds firm and gets nothing at all.

Such is the game being played out in London and Brussels, though, that any amount of speculation – no matter how well-informed – is still speculation. We could all be wide of the mark. For all we know, a deal could already have been reached and the two sides are running to the wire simply for appearance sake.

However, it would not be safe to underestimate the importance of the IMB, its impact on the EU and – perhaps – the determination of the European Parliament to pull the plug if Johnson insists on keeping it in its original form.

At the moment, with the Lords having voted overwhelmingly to remove measures that seek to "disapply" parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol, by 433 votes to 165, Johnson has the opportunity to give in gracefully and accept the defeat.

But that is not Johnson's style. No 10 has already reacted to the vote by saying: "We will re-table these clauses when the Bill returns to the Commons", thus ensuring that the Bill remains on the table as an ongoing irritant.

Yet, just before the vote result came in, the Guardian tells us, Ireland's foreign minister, Simon Coveney, warned that there would be no Brexit trade deal if the UK passed a Bill "designed to break international law".

Lord Judge – who used to be Judge Judge, the former chief justice of England and Wales – made it very plain when he opened the Lords debate on the amendment, describing the offending clauses as "pernicious, lamentable provisions", measures with no other purpose than to give unilateral powers to Downing Street to "nullify" international law.

You don't get much tougher than that, and Coveney has all he needs now to make a stand. It might not even get as far as the European Council, being rejected by the General Affairs Council and thus thrown out by the European Council.

Possibly, as an intimation of our weakness, Simon Jenkins writes that "Boris Johnson has to stop playing games and agree a deal with Europe", declaring that: "Britain must accept whatever it is offered, it can't afford not to. The EU is stronger, it has Biden on its side – and it's right".

There again, that might be simply a refection on Simon Jenkins, but I can't fault his sentiment when he says that, if David Frost cannot shake on a deal this week, preparations for a hard border round Britain's coast must proceed. The cost will be enormous and, he adds, "No sane person can think this a good idea".

Already, we have worrisome indications of what that entails, with DUP and Sinn Féin leaders sending a joint letter to the European Commission describing as "unacceptable" the alleged threat to the continuity of existing food supplies to Northern supermarkets once the Northern Ireland Protocol takes effect.

Although not made clear, this seems to be about the EU not granting a third-country listing to the UK for products of animal origin – about which I wrote quite recently.

But Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill also highlight the problem of the need for checks and controls on food products entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain from 1 January and how that might impact on the supply of food to supermarket chains.

They write in their letter that: "It is hard to imagine a more fundamental aspect of everyday life than the purchase of daily food supplies. Hence, we would ask you to recognise how important it is that the current consideration of the detail of how the Protocol will be applied takes our unique context into account".

However, this is surely down to Johnson and the revised Withdrawal Agreement that he negotiated just over a year ago. Now that chickens are coming home to roost, Foster and O'Neill should be banging on the door of No 10, demanding answers.

But then, it was two years ago that Priti Patel was suggesting using the possibility of food shortages in Ireland in the event of a no-deal-Brexit, to encourage the EU to drop the backstop – based on the premise that the economic impact on Ireland would be worse than in the UK.

With the tables rather neatly turned, it is for the UK to get its act together, to ensure the free flow of goods to Northern Ireland, including making a deal with the EU, having regard to the terms of the NI Protocol already agreed.

Unless this is sorted, we might find that, for Northern Ireland citizens, the Tory ambition of having their cake and eating it will be a distant dream. They will be lucky to have any cake at all. Much more of this, and statesmen might be observing that cakes are going out all over England – as well.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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