EU Referendum

Brexit: a totally mad day


What is fascinating is the speed at which Johnson's mad plan seems to be unravelling. Yesterday morning, he delivered a statement to a thinly-attended House of Commons, telling MPs that he welcomed "the constructive calls" he had received over the past 24 hours, "including with President Juncker, Chancellor Merkel and Taoiseach Varadkar, and the statement from President Juncker that the Commission will now examine the legal text objectively".

But it wasn't long before The Times put the boot in with a story headlined: "Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal unworkable, says EU". Interestingly, in just under 850 words of text, the word "unworkable" wasn't mentioned once. It was actually coined by Corbyn rather than the EU, in his response to Johnson's statement, but his comment doesn't feature in this report.

Nevertheless, even if Corbyn is the author, that's about as good a description as you'll get, although very many different ones have been applied. And, apart from a few sycophantic Tory MPs and the fanboys in the Telegraph, none of them have been good.

Simon Coveney, for instance, decided that the proposal had "a number of fundamental problems". If, as had been trailed by No 10, this was the final offer, there would be no deal. His boss, Leo Varadkar, said he did not fully understand how the British proposals might work, adding that Dublin could not sign up to a treaty "that did not safeguard an open Irish-British border".

Racking up the pressure, Jean-Claude Juncker has called on the British government to publish the proposal in full, while the EU has set David Frost, Johnson's chief negotiator, a deadline of one week to offer fresh solutions on the key sticking points.

The ever-emollient Donald Tusk tweeted to say that he had had two phone calls on Brexit, first with Dublin and then with London. We (the EU), he had said to Varadkar, "stand fully behind Ireland". For Johnson, he had a less encouraging message: "We remain open but still unconvinced".

Barnier took a different tack. He didn't directly criticise Johnson's proposal. Instead, he tweeted that the EU wanted a Withdrawal Agreement with "workable and effective solutions that create legal and practical certainty now". By implication, he was saying that that was precisely what Johnson was not offering.

Guy Verhofstadt went one better. After declaring that Johnson's proposal was merely a "repackaging of bad ideas that have already been floated" and "nearly impossible" to implement, he had "an exchange of views" with Barnier and then got his Brexit Steering Group (BSG) to issue a statement. The BSG, it said:
… does not find these last minute proposals of the UK government of 2 October, in their current form, represent a basis for an agreement to which the European Parliament could give consent. The proposals do not address the real issues that need to be resolved, namely the all - island economy, the full respect of the Good Friday Agreement and the integrity of the Single Market.
It went on to say that: "While we remain open to workable, legally operable and serious solutions, the UK's proposals fall short and represent a significant movement away from joint commitments and objectives".

Verhofstadt doesn't always speak for the European Parliament, often voicing his own personal opinions. But the BSG, with support from all the major parliamentary groups, can be considered representative of a majority opinion. Bearing in mind that the EP must ratify any deal, its rejection of Johnson's proposal, as it stands, is terminal.

Ambassadors attached to the Council of Ministers are not taking quite such a robust view. We are told that they "want to take time to seriously evaluate the proposal" and also question Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay to assess "whether this is a serious starting point negotiation or a tactical document in function of an election".

The reaction of ambassadors is said to highlight "the deep level of mistrust that now characterises the talks between London and Brussels", with the diplomats "keeping up their guard" against the possibility that Johnson is simply "manoeuvring to blame Brussels for a no-deal scenario, which some fear is his true goal".

And no reaction could be complete without input from those fabled, anonymous EU officials. In what must be a synthesis of several views, Reuters has them saying that they were "extremely cool" about the proposal. "It can only be a starting point to more talks", we were told.

A "senior EU official" broke cover to say that, "It does not contain any decent solution for customs. And it erects a hard border on the island of Ireland", opining that the plan "can't fly" as it stands. An EU diplomat confirmed this, saying the plan "would need to be fundamentally reworked to become acceptable".

What this person also said was that "time is short" before EU leaders meet in Brussels, something that I was keen to emphasise in my previous piece, when I suggested that there simply wasn't time to agree a deal for the European Council to consider.

In another twist, from Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the German parliament's foreign affairs committee (and a close ally of Merkel), we see an interesting variation on this theme. In a tweet, he writes: "One thing is clear: Johnson's Brexit plan can't be negotiated until Oct 31".

He doesn't expand on this, and this may be a peculiarity of German phrasing, but he could be referring to the European Council Decision of 11 April which specifically excluded using the extension to 31 October for "any re-opening of the Withdrawal Agreement".

There is no ambiguity in Johnson's proposal. He wants to scrap the 74-page Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol and replace it with 44 pages of his own. Since that protocol is an integral part of the Withdrawal Agreement, it would seem that there cannot be any negotiations until 31 October – which is what Röttgen seems to be saying, adding that: "If UK is serious about this, it must seek extension".

So far this issue has been fudged, with "talks" and "conversations" rather than formal negotiations being conducted in Brussels. But, if the proposal is to be taken seriously, the EU must entertain formal negotiations. This it cannot do without breaching the European Council Decision, an instrument which has the status of EU law and is binding on those to whom it is addressed.

To fail to reach a conclusion on Johnson's proposal by the 15 October (the effective deadline for completion of talks, when a finished draft must be submitted to the General Affairs Council), and then to invite Johnson to apply for an Art 50 extension – allowing formal negotiations to take place after 31 October – could get the EU off the hook.

Röttgen, however, rather doubts the proposal can even be negotiated. Northern Ireland, he says, "can't simultaneously be inside and outside EU". But received wisdom also tells us that the EU cannot be seen to close down the prospect of continued negotiations, thereby precipitating a no-deal exit by the UK.

Yet it would be perfectly natural for Barnier to claim "insufficient time" to agree a deal, thus having Tusk inviting Johnson to apply for extra time. That would put the ball firmly in the UK's court and relieve the EU of the responsibility for bringing talks to a halt.

Politically, this might present Johnson with a dilemma. Rather than being forced to apply for an extension by the Westminster parliament, this would be between him and the EU, where refusal to apply would mean that he personally had closed down the talks.

Where this then puts the Benn Act is not entirely clear, adding more uncertainty to an already critically uncertain position. But then, it seems, uncertainty is the new normal. Not anybody on this planet can truthfully say that they know what is going on.

In the meantime, though, having failed to learn from experience, Johnson is said to be planning a whistle-stop tour of EU capitals to explain his proposal. Strangely, both Merkel and Macron are unable to meet him due to "scheduling problems". One of these days, possibly, this stupid man might get the message. But, for the moment, one totally mad day is enough.