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Brexit: we'll know it when we see it

2020-11-16 06:37:21

I did suggest, quite recently, that the departure of the dreaded Cummings would not make any difference to the EU-UK talks. And it looks as if I'm not the only one thinking in those terms.

Yesterday's Observer has it that Johnson remains the "hardest in the room" and is the "least willing to budge on Brexit" (they mean TransEnd). Furthermore, the paper says, "sources familiar with the government's deliberations" say that, at repeated meetings, it had been the prime minister himself who had been the most hard line in wanting to hold out for better terms.

These same "sources" say that the departure of Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain, his communications chief - would not change the fact that Johnson himself remained determined and hard to read.

That much certainly does seem to check out, and it makes complete sense. It has also been endorsed by Frost, via a late, online edition of The Sunday Times, under the headline, "We Stand Firm, Lord Frost Warns EU and Waverers in Westminster".

Frost himself tells us that the departure of Dominic Cummings from Downing Street will not lead to fresh concessions to get a Brexit deal over the line. The "red lines" have not changed and any settlement had to be "compatible with our sovereignty", he insists.

One should recall that Johnson has been making the running ever since the referendum, offering in his own column in 2018, his own "plan for a better Brexit", having first delivered one (after a fashion) days after the result of the vote was known.

However, in an interesting aside, the Observer tells us that pro-Brexit donors who funded Johnson's leadership campaign are also becoming nervous over the government's direction reluctant, it seems, to take direction from Frost.

Says one, "It's been astonishing, actually. I've never seen a government that has been less in touch with any of its fingers any of its extremities", adding, "It's the end of the fellowship. The fact is [Cummings and Cain] are leaving before the end, which tells you they're not going to get the deal that they want. Boris is now in a hard place, as he wants to deal at any price".

I can't recall seeing that assertion anywhere else, but it does rather change the dynamics of the whole game if that is true about Johnson. But it really doesn't fit with the rest of the script.

However, according to the Financial Times (link below), Gordon Brown sort of confirms this, saying he believes Johnson has made up his mind to do a deal. He thinks Biden's election makes it imperative for Britain to strike a deal to avoid destabilising the Northern Ireland peace process. It is inconceivable, Brown says, that Johnson would wish to enter 2021 "at war" with both the EU and the US.

Brown doesn't seem to offer any direct evidence for his assertion, and while logic might be on his side, it is a bit of a stretch to assume that Johnson will behave rationally, especially as ministers and his party seem to be reconciled to a no-deal.

In this, there are most decidedly mixed messages coming through. According to the ST, Frost is understood to have met Johnson last week to demand assurances that the shake-up of his senior team would not result in a change in strategy, and Britain would be prepared to walk away if an acceptable compromise could not be reached.

Yet, while Johnson is "understood" to have agreed and pledged to back his chief negotiator, others around the prime minister, including senior ministers, are understood to be deeply concerned about the prospect of a breakdown. And, if we've learned anything from the past few days, it is the strong sense that we have a weak prime minister who tends to go with the last person who told him what to do.

On that basis, just about anything could happen, leaving Simon Coveney to warn Johnson that the main outstanding issues in the trade talks must be "resolved in principle this week". Yet he does not disagree that the dispute over fishing could collapse the talks.

"I certainly hope that won't be the case", he says. "It will be extraordinary if it does but I think that it is possible". He warns that the UK should not get everything else agreed and then rely on the EU giving them what they want on fishing, just to avoid collapsing the talks. "That is a negotiating tactic that won't work. Like everything here, there's a middle ground position", Coveney says.

Predictably, officials in London are also confirming a crunch moment in the negotiations. After months of phoney deadlines, the talks have reached "a moment of truth", says one UK official. "We've got ten more days, max", he warns.

And that sentiment is being echoed on the EU side of the negotiations, says the Financial Times, using similar terms, like: "It is crunch time". With that turn of phrase, the diplomat anonymous, of course notes the upheaval in Downing Street and remarks: "We will see whether Number 10 can put an end to its internal chaos, make up its mind and come up with a sensible approach".

Meanwhile, Frost has arrived in Brussels and has been widely reported saying that "some progress" has been made on the trade talks, surprising no-one by declaring that "substantial differences remain". He also tells us that a "no deal" outcome is still possible, which is hardly a revelation.

What is a revelation is the FT telling us that so much drafting has been done on the "future relationship" that one official is saying that it would come to about 1,800 pages. That doesn't make sense as it would be longer than the EU-Canada CETA.

At that length, it would more or less have to be a "mixed" agreement, requiring ratification by Member States. So far though, we've heard nothing of this, with only references to any deal being ratified by the European Parliament. A full ratification process would make it a whole new ball game.

Incidentally, the Commission website sets out the procedure for negotiating and approving trade agreements. There, it confirms that, once the EP receives the agreement, it goes first to the trade committee, which writes up a report on it, and then votes on the report. The report serves as formal advice for the whole Parliament, which votes in a plenary session on whether to give its consent to the agreement.

The report is written up by a rapporteur appointed by the committee, who needs a little time for the labour, and there must be time for the report to be translated into the working languages and circulated to the political groups, before the vote can be held.

There is, however, the possibility of the Commission proposing to the Council that the treaty should be provisionally applied (in whole or part), before ratification. In this case, there is some flexibility: as long as an agreement is reached before the end of the year. If the Council agrees, it could go into force straight away, leaving the European Parliament to ratify it in the new year assuming it doesn't throw it out because of the UK's Internal Market Bill.

Putting all of this together as best we can, it is still not possible to make any sensible prediction about where we are going. For months now, it's been like this and, as we've passed one deadline after another, nothing seems to have changed. As always, therefore, all we can do is to repeat that we'll know what it is when we see it.

Maybe then, we'll wish we didn't.

Also published on Turbulent Times.