Richard North, 09/09/2019  

One important thing to emerge from Amber Rudd's resignation are her comments on the Marr show, reinforcing points made in her resignation letter about Johnson's approach to a deal with the EU on Brexit.

With a candour that has so far been missing from the Conservative front bench team, she told Marr that there was "no evidence of a deal" and, furthermore, that there was "no formal negotiation taking place", just "a lot of conversations".

This very much ties in with my piece last week where I pointed out that, procedurally, the EU was not in a position to undertake negotiations with the UK. Informal discussions are one thing, but a round of negotiations is a formal thing, carried out to strict protocols, where the proceedings have legal relevance when it comes to the interpretation of any subsequent agreement.

To that extent, one wonders why Rudd's comments are even news. No end of senior EU figures have repeatedly declared that negotiations on the Withdrawal Agreement will not be re-opened and one should recall that the European Council Decision of 11 April which extended the Art 50 period to 31 October specifically excluded using the extension for any re-opening of the Withdrawal Agreement.

The only area of discussion permissible in this context is in relation to the amendment or expansion of the political declaration, this having the potential for modifying the implementation of the backstop.

Yet, despite the obvious, the media simply cannot help itself, chasing after the non-existent "talks" and reporting on them as if the meetings between UK and EU officials had any substance.

A typical example of this delusion-fest comes from the Financial Times which is intoning that the "EU talks over Brexit" have "stalled", asserting that it has only taken "two weeks, and several dispiriting negotiating rounds in Brussels", for the EU's cautious optimism about Johnson's Brexit intentions to "evaporate".

Trailing in the wake of the Guardian and the Telegraph, both of which have covered the story, it takes a clutch of three FT journalists to tell us that Johnson's Brussels envoy has been using his "face time" with the EU team to take existing offers away rather than putting new plans on the table.

Tucked into the report, however, is a little squib that tells us that all the changes proposed "concern the EU and UK's planned future relationship, rather than the text of its exit treaty", reaffirming that which should be obvious to anyone following this issue – that there are no substantive (or any) talks on the Withdrawal Agreement. In short, as Rudd so rightly complains, there is "no formal negotiation taking place".

Interestingly – also on yesterday's Marr show – the chancellor, Sajid Javid, sought to contradict Rudd claiming that there had been "numerous meetings in Brussels" and "numerous bilateral meetings with EU member states". He himself had had "a number of meetings and discussions", the prime minister was "going to Dublin tomorrow" and there were "more meetings in Brussels next week".

It maybe here that Javid doesn't actually know the difference between "negotiations" and "conversations". That would not be at all surprising as we have long been used to the startling ignorance of senior politicians. However, nothing he is saying is incompatible with Rudd's observations. "Meetings and discussions" are not formal negotiations.

Nevertheless, Javid, speaking for his administration, insists that "we want to have a deal, we absolutely want to have a deal", the tone so emphatic that he might actually believe what he says to be true. But if that is the case, the ignorance of the "top deck" may be even more profound than we had realised.

The clue here is in Johnson's oft' expressed aspiration of doing a deal at the "summit" in Brussels on 17 October, invoking memories of past glories when Thatcher weaponised her handbag and carved out a last-minute deal on the rebate.

So embedded in the Tory consciousness is this narrative that it serves as the preferred template for all high-level dealings with the EU, reinforcing the belief that the preferred modus of the "colleagues" is the eleventh-hour deal.

If that is the case – and the argument for it feels persuasive – then we have a serious problem. Johnson has simply failed to understand that the Article 50 process is not a peer-to-peer, intra-institutional affair along the lines of a budget framework negotiation or an intergovernmental conference.

Rather, the Article 50 process is a formal negotiation between external parties bound by the Article 218 procedure which simply does not allow for the free-booting deal-making that Johnson has in mind. If he thinks he can turn up in Brussels on the 17th, swinging the proverbial handbag, he is going to be very disappointed.

For us mere mortals, though, what is doubly disappointing is the poverty of aspiration and the paucity of intelligent proposals. The very best that Johnson is aiming for seems to be a weak version of the Canada FTA, which will not go anywhere near meeting the UK's needs in its trading relationship with the EU.

Were the Tories able to break out of their lightweight, superficial appreciation of EU politics, and the broader history of our relationship with the Community, stretching right back to the early days of our applications to join, they might understand that, when it comes to exploring alternatives to membership of the EEC/EU, we have been there before.

Beyond the mere FTA relationship, the concept of an association agreement has been thoroughly explored, the like of which would not have been dissimilar to the EEA relationship enjoyed by Efta states.

But of very special interest is an idea that emerged after de Gaulle's first veto when in 1963 Harold Wilson came up with an innovative suggestion at a meeting of socialist leaders at the Swedish prime minister's country retreat in Harpsund.

At a time when the UK was a founder member of the European Free Trade Association (Efta), with seven members as opposed to the six of the EEC, he advanced that the Six should join Efta as a single unit to form a greater, Europe-wide free trade association.

Another version of this idea was being floated in 1965, the so-called Münchmeyer plan, inspired by a German industrialist, which again would allow Common Market members to join Efta, creating an expanded tariff-free zone – a mechanism Wilson thought to be the easiest way of lowering tariffs between Efta and the EEC.

Wilson actively discussed the plan with Danish prime minister, Jens Otto Krag, at Chequers in 1965, and references were made to it in a House of Commons debate in June of the same year, where it was said to have "strong support in some European countries, particularly Germany".

If the plan ever had its moment, it soon passed but, in principle, it bears a passing relation to the idea advanced in Flexcit, where the Efta states plus the UK could join together with the EU to form an expanded free trade area, under the umbrella of UNECE – perhaps pulling in other European countries and even, in time, the Russian Federation.

As of now, though, we are bogged down in the mire of tired, derivative ideas and "patches" such as the backstop, with the French government threatening to veto a further Article 50 extension, revisiting the narrative about the lack of progress in the recent talks.

Nevertheless, there is clarity in the French approach with foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian complaining of the lack of realistic proposals being put forward by Downing Street as an alternative to the Irish backstop. "It's very worrying. The British must tell us what they want", Le Drian says, warning that the EU's patience was waning. "We are not going to do this [extend the deadline] every three months", he adds.

As we go round in ever-decreasing circles, now would perhaps be as good a time as any to come up with something innovative, as a positive contribution to the debate. Any such initiative will, of course, energise the naysayers who will come storming out of the woodwork to tell us that, whatever it is we have in mind, it is impossible. But if a paucity of proposals is getting us nowhere, a little positivity can surely do no harm.

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