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Brexit: to badly go …


2020-12-10 07:30:49


It's as much as I can do to report on the "talks" between Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen yesterday. So tedious has this soap opera become that I'm with the commentators here, especially Claire Martens, who wearily confides that "I'm past caring".

If we weren't used to it by now, it might be remarkable, if not shocking to see the shambolic mess that is Johnson, as he presented himself in Brussels alongside von der Leyen, but that is the man the Tories wanted to lead them. I hope they are satisfied with what they got.

That Johnson and von der Leyen were photographed before their meal, and not afterwards, is highly significant. There was no joint statement before Johnson left for London – only a "senior No 10 source" telling us the "very large gaps remain".

During the meal, the pair were joined by the two chief negotiators, Frost and Barnier, as well as Oliver Lewis, Frost's deputy, and Stéphanie Riso, deputy head of von der Leyen's cabinet. In "lively and interesting" talks, the parties worked to a prepared document itemising some 20-30 points of substance, where there has been no progress.

The only level of agreement reached during the dinner, though, was that talks between the negotiation teams are to continue until Sunday whence a "firm decision" should be taken about their future.

That may or may not mean, necessarily, that Sunday is the new deadline – it could be merely another waypoint, whence the talks are continued for a further period, even through Christmas. In the absence of an official, joint statement, there is some ambiguity on this, with von der Leyen merely stating that: "We will come to a decision by the end of the weekend".

Some reports are suggesting that, if a deal has not been reached by Sunday, a "firm" decision will be taken to suspend talks and prepare for a no-deal. Even then, the talk is of "suspending" rather than abandoning the talks, leaving it open to speculate that negotiations could continue in the new year, despite UK denials.

The current timing, of course, means that today's European Council "deadline" is no more – another one come and gone without a result. It is understood that there will be no discussions at the Council on the talks, although EU leaders may hear a situation report from von der Leyen. It is extremely unlikely that the leaders will contribute directly to the negotiations.

And if Sunday turns out to be the day of days, that would leave a mere eight working days to Christmas before entering the dead zone in the run-up to the new year and the end of the transition period.

However, there is nothing to indicate that the parties are any closer to an agreement, or even that further talks are likely to be productive, so the soap opera continues as the teams "work hard" to see if there is a way forward.

Should the talks collapse on Sunday, then at least it will be a result – an end to the interminable waiting – but the worse possible outcome, short of a later collapse, for businesses which need information to manage their affairs.

One wonders, though, if Johnson is thinking about letting the negotiations run to the wire, with no decision made at all, so that we end the transition period on 31 December with the talks still running, delivering a no-deal by default. That would certainly be in character, as the man has a history of leaving things to the last minute, and a predisposition to chronic indecision.

With neither side wanting to be seen to pull the plug and take the blame for collapsing the talks, this would seem a messy way of getting both parties off the hook. Should the talks simply run out of time, both parties share the blame, with the balance even tilting towards Johnson for failure to extend the transition period.

For most firms, though, this posturing is largely academic. Basically, it is already too late for many of them to get ready for TransEnd, so it is likely that we will see something of a hiatus on the day, as haulage firms and shippers stay away from the ports until they have a clearer idea what is required of them.

Notwithstanding growing chaos at Felixstowe and other container ports, many firms have been stockpiling goods in anticipation of Johnson-inspired chaos, so there may be a few days leeway before we see any obvious signs of the disruption which some are gleefully anticipating.

Whatever the outcome though, Brexit is assured its place in history as an utter shambles, an egregious failure of policy and planning, led by an incompetent prime minister, a "man of destiny" who badly goes where no man has gone before.

Also published on Turbulent Times.