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Brexit: slow progress

2020-09-30 07:39:30

For some unexplained reason, the only newspaper of substance which has covered at any length the first day of the EU-UK talks is the Guardian. There is, however, some coverage in the Telegraph, which seems to back up the Guardian piece.

What we learn from these sources is not particularly good news, with the Guardian headlining "Brexit: Brussels rebuffs new UK proposals on state subsidies". In typical style for the British press, though, we see this personalised, with "Boris Johnson" having "been rebuffed by Brussels after making an eleventh hour attempt to break the Brexit logjam with new proposals on limiting state subsidies to ailing British companies".

Apparently, British officials have sent five confidential draft legal texts to the Commission, including on state aid and fisheries, in a bid to unblock the negotiations. EU sources have welcomed this "effort to make a compromise", but warn that a large gap remains between the two sides.

Via the Guardian, Brussels sources tell us that the UK's paper on state aid, the most contentious of the outstanding issues, offered to lay out a series of "principles" on controlling domestic subsidies. These, it seems, seek to build on provisions in the recently signed UK-Japan deal.

It has been rumoured that the trade deal with Tokyo contains some pretty hefty state aid provisions which prevent either side from indefinitely guaranteeing the debts of struggling companies, or providing open-ended bailouts without approved restructuring plans.

Despite that, though, the paper apparently lacks any "governance" proposals that would allow Brussels to keep the UK to its pledges, The EU is keen to ensure that any commitments are enforceable and, in the event of a breach, sanctions can be implemented such as suspending parts of the deal.

EU diplomats are also saying that any agreement on such a method of regulating state aid would need to be taken "at the highest level", as it would represent a significant divergence from Brussels' proposal, although what exactly this means hasn't been spelled out.

Nevertheless, the UK-Japan deal is obviously now the basis on which the two sides are prepared to work, but EU diplomats still regard it as "more of the same". There is some hope, though, that this week's negotiations will flesh out the proposals.

For the rest, the other papers cover fisheries, the "level playing field", law enforcement and judicial cooperation, civil nuclear cooperation and social security coordination. We get nothing more from EU officials, other than: "We can confirm that we received additional documents from the UK. We are studying them".

Of more immediate concern, we are told that EU officials have poured cold water on suggestions that the talks are on the brink of a breakthrough that could lead to intensified "tunnel" negotiations in the coming weeks. It is said that Barnier thinks it is too soon to judge whether the level of agreement reached would merit that treatment.

"We only go into the tunnel if there is going to be light at the end of it", an EU official tells the Guardian. "People are getting carried away with the positive mood music before we even sit down to negotiate".

Yesterday, The Times was running the story big that the EU was prepared to start working on a joint legal text, which could have been taken to signify that considerable progress had been made. 

This is acknowledged in the Guardian story, but the news is more downbeat. An EU diplomat has said that Barnier is "ready" to start working on a legal text, "but only if he was convinced Johnson was willing to move" on the points of contention . "Everything depends on the UK approach and their willingness to signal an opening", a source tells the Guardian.

Since the production of a joint text is a necessary part of the process, then Barnier must have it down on his "to do" list, but it doesn't seem that the two sides are particularly advanced in this area.

Meanwhile, in a move that has already been cordoned off so that it has minimal impact on the talks, MPs have voted through the final stage of the Internal Market Bill, by 340 votes to 256. It now goes to the Lords where, doubtless, its progress will be watched by EU officials.

For the moment though, with little else to report, we can only wait and wonder. This must end eventually. Please let it be soon.

Also published on Turbulent Times.