Richard North, 27/11/2019  
 


In the grand scheme of things, Corbyn is an irrelevance – an unpleasant little man who was never able to rise to the demands of his position or assume his place in history. But, at the moment, he is also an unwelcome distraction – dragging attention away from more important matters that will determine the fate of this nation.

However, since there is little chance that the Labour leader will get near the reins of power, the focus on his inability (or unwillingness) to control the antisemitism in his party will simply have the effect of reinforcing his undesirability and add to the reasons why he will never become prime minister. It will not change anything.

His greatest contribution to history, therefore, will have been to preside over a wholly ineffective opposition which has thus failed to have any material impact on the career of a Tory politician who, in all senses, is unfit for any office more important than a road-sweeper yet is set to lead his party to victory in December.

Meanwhile, great events continue to take shape, not least the progress of the United Kingdom towards Brexit and, in particular, the nature of the future relationship which must be negotiated once the UK has left the EU.

And here, at least – in the wake of yesterday's lecture from Sir Ivan Rogers – there has been a development in the form of a closed-door (but widely leaked) briefing to MEPs in Strasbourg by Michel Barnier, appraising them of his priorities in the coming negotiations.

Of some considerable significance, although he warns of the difficulties incumbent in concluding negotiations in the short timeframe that prime minister Johnson is expected to set, he does not rule out reaching an agreement in the time. There is no talk of a no-deal from this quarter.

From the Financial Times, which seems to have one of the most comprehensive reports, we learn that Barnier conceded that the eleven months from the UK's planned exit on 31 January until the end of the transition period would normally be far too short to negotiate a trade agreement. But, despite that, Brussels would strive to have a deal in place for the end of 2020.

For that to happen, though, the talks would have to focus initially on core trading arrangements, such as plans for duty-free, quota-free trade in goods. These matters lie within the exclusive competence of the Commission and can be agreed without requiring ratification from Member States.

In terms of priorities, Barnier also stressed that he would be seeking to ensure continued strong co-operation with the UK on security and defence. No detail has been given on how this is to be secured, but there are mechanisms which range from the informal "understanding", to the political declaration and the full-blown treaty.

In practical terms, a political declaration would avoid the need for ratification and, while not legally binding, would stake out mutual commitments and obligations which could subsequently be elevated to treaty status.

Other issues also beyond the scope of the Commission to agree are matters such as road haulage and aircraft take-off and landing rights. Barnier says that sorting these could take longer than the eleven months so the plan seems to be for the EU to rely on the unilateral contingency measures crafted by Brussels to deal with the no-deal scenario.

What seems to be taking shape, therefore, is a fudge based on a "quick and dirty" treaty which will only accommodate the basics, while the wheels of commerce will be in the hands of the Commission until firm arrangements can be made.

This differs from the no-deal scenario where the Commission has been adamant that there would be no mini-deals to keep the wheels turning. Here, the initial treaty would effectively act as a framework agreement which would be added to by way of protocols, negotiated without time constraints – possibly over a period of years.

Overall, this would very much be to the advantage of the EU. Not only would it be the beneficiary of a "bare bones" treaty, it could then set the timetable for further talks and call the shots, as the dominant trading partner.

In the longer term, much will depend on the UK's willingness to adopt the EU's so-called flanking policies, on such matters as social and environmental standards, with market access held as a carrot to incentivise the UK's agreement.

Such things, for instance, as a comprehensive mutual recognition agreement on conformity assessment could be high on the list for post-transition talks. That agreement could be a stand-alone treaty as it is between the United States and some other countries, or it could be tacked on to the "framework" agreement as a protocol – with exactly the same status.

All being well, if the UK does leave the EU on 31 January, as Johnson intends, Barnier plans to present national governments, via the General Affairs Council, with a draft mandate for trade talks in February, in the hope that it could be approved in time for negotiations to begin on 1 March. This might need a special European Council, as the first meeting for 2020 is not scheduled until 26 March.

This phased approach, which Barnier seems to concede is the way forward, might be a neat way to overcome Johnson's insistence on ending the transition by December 2020. Although the UK will take a substantial economic hit, the most obvious effects will not be immediately visible and those that follow can be disguised in government statistics for some time.

From the point of view of the new Johnson government – if the Tories win the election – they can claim their "victory" in achieving a trade agreement without resorting to an extension, and thereby claim to have honoured the manifesto commitment. In reality, they will have concluded only a partial treaty and talks will likely continue for some years – if not decades.

In many respects, this does begin to look very similar to the way Norway-EEC relations were handled in the aftermath of the Norwegian rejection of membership in 1972. This relied on a very short, basic treaty, negotiated in little more than six months, which was then expanded over a number of years with the addition of protocols.

A different way of doing things would be to negotiate a series of stand-alone treaties, more in line with the Swiss model, although the EU has never been particularly keen on this mechanism and even now is looking to revamp the whole system,

Of course, the combined experience of Norway, Switzerland and others eventually led to the EEA Agreement in 1994 and, even now, after a period of a decade or more, we would perhaps see an EEA v.2, with the UK joining forces with Efta states to forge a joint cooperation treaty with the EU. Maybe this is what it will take.

As soon as the immediate Brexit talks are out of the way, though, the EU has other fish to fry. It must attend to a long-delayed treaty of its own, which has been on hold ever since the UK's EU referendum.

Touched upon by the Telegraph, a fuller report can be found on the CNA website. It tells us that France and Germany are looking to the EU to convene another "Conference on the Future of Europe", which they believe is necessary to make the EU "more united and sovereign" across a range of challenges.

This, of course, is entirely expected and one of the many reasons why so many in the UK campaigned to leave the EU. There is never a status quo as, no sooner is one treaty laid down, there is another in the planning stage – and then another one after that, in a never-ending process of integration.

Ironically, had the UK not had its referendum and decided to leave the EU, our government would be gearing up for another intergovernmental conference, and new treaty talks. The big difference would then be that the UK would have to hold a referendum to ratify the treaty. By this means, we could still have been looking at Brexit, albeit delayed by a few years.

As it is, even with the disgusting Corbyn unable to craft a coherent Brexit policy, we are finally looking at an exit on 31 January. But, of one thing we can be absolutely certain. That is not the day when Brexit will be "done". We will have to wait a decade or more for that to happen.






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