Richard North, 17/02/2020  
 


It could, of course, be media bias, but there does seem to be a lot of grief coming from the land of the Gauls – more accurately, the western end of that ancient land. This time, it's Jean-Yves Le Drian, France's current foreign minister, speaking at the Munich security conference, the annual get-together of big-wigs to debate "the most pressing challenges to international security".

But security wasn't on Le Drian's mind, so much, as the coming EU-UK negotiations. And not by any means could it be said that he's a happy bunny. In fact, he's warning of a bloodbath in the making with countries ready to "rip each other apart" over the future relationship.

This has been picked up by the Financial Times, which has padded out its basic report with a recap of the issues, and the Guardian is also giving it an airing, going for the headline, "Britain and EU 'will rip each other apart' in trade talks".

Predictably, the Express gives it the front page headline treatment, with the banner: "EU threat of Brexit trade bloodbath", thereby converting a warning by a French minister into an EU "threat". There's objectivity and accuracy for you.

Oddly enough, The Times also runs it on its front page, but with the relatively restrained headline: "Europe talks tough on trade". Still though, it elides the words of French minister with "Europe".

The obedient fanboy gazette, however – clearly taking its instructions from No.10, seems to have ignored the story for now, trying like its master to pretend that Brexit is "done". Perhaps it'll run a report some time today when everyone else has finished with it.

As to Le Drian's precise words, what he said was that: "I think that on trade issues and the mechanism for future relations, which we are going to start on, we are going to rip each other apart". But he then rather puts the damper on his own blood-curdling, adding, "that is part of negotiations: everyone will defend their own interests".

For all that, Le Drian is an old hand who's been in some sticky situations. And while hyperbole is a normal part of any politician's toolkit, he speaks a lot of sense on some issues.

Mind you, Le Drian does have a dog in the fight. He is former president of the Brittany region, where nearly a third of the turnover of French fishermen is reliant on access to British waters. He thus declares an interest, saying: "Let us hope that it is done as quickly as possible even if there are many subjects and that we have substantial points to manage", adding that his particular concern was "the question of fish".

And while the man has added his qualification to his blood-curdling warning, I've not heard any politician – French or otherwise – speak in such lurid terms of an impending EU negotiation. This takes us into wholly new territory.

Given the timing, it also rather takes the steam out of David Frost's speech today. As Johnson's chief Brexit negotiator, he has been somewhat upstaged by the French foreign minister. Given his own input, he is hardly in a position to deny the prediction.

With that, there is not much more to add to the basic story, although the Guardian does observe that, despite Le Drian's words on the negotiations, France seems eager to avoid a rupture. In a more emollient tone, the foreign minister went on to say that France and the UK would be meeting soon in the Lancaster House framework, the Anglo-French defence format first sealed in 2010 by David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy.

Then we have Sir Mark Sedwill, the UK national security adviser and the sole British speaker at the Munich conference, appearing to respond in a positive manner – too positive for some, He predicted the UK would continue to co-operate on defence.

Pressed on whether the UK would back the Franco-German proposal for a European security council in which the UK participates, the Guardian tells us that Sedwill said the institutional structure was less important than the substance of the defence co-operation.

Generally, that is not how the continentals tend to see it, as they tend to be obsessed with institutional structures, but at least this is an issue on which the parties are not ripping each other apart.

If we are to take reports at face value, though, any blood-letting between the UK and the "colleagues" will be nothing compared to the carnage about to be let rip as the EU-27 sit down to discuss the multi-annual financial framework (MFF), Eurospeak for the budget framework to cover the EU's budget for the seven-year period, 2021-2027.

Always a fraught process, this takes on an additional edge with the absence of the UK's contributions. As always, the Commission is looking for more money, but it is also pushing for more fundamental reforms, observing that the addition of rebates and corrections over time has resulted in a system that is "opaque and unfair".

This was said at a time when it was known that the UK was leaving the EU, and one wonders whether the Commission would have been quite so candid had the UK still been on board.

Later this week, though, the Guardian tells us, presidents, prime ministers and chancellors across Europe will pack their bags in preparation for a long weekend in Brussels to finalise the framework.

They will, it is said, be preparing for that most infamous of events, a "four shirter", indicating the number of days and nights the talks are expected to last. Had we still been in the EU, our prime minister (which could well have been Cameron) would have been right in there, with UK media correspondents hanging on his every word as he prepared to fight the UK's corner.

As it is, the "colleagues", on top of calls for even more money, have to deal with a huge €75 billion hole in the seven-year budget. Another of those anonymous EU diplomats is thus cited, saying: "And now we are fighting like ferrets in a sack". And what do ferrets do when they fight in a sack? They rip each other apart.

Nonetheless, Charles Michel, a former prime minister of Belgium, has been engaged in furious shuttle diplomacy around the capitals, offering a compromise solution which brings the budget cap to 1.074% of the Member States' combined GNI, despite the Commission warning that just to make up for the loss of the UK requires the budget to jump to 1.116 percent, with the European Parliament calling for 1.3 percent.

"In this negotiation, we are not expecting member states to be happy, but the degree of dissatisfaction will be key", says a senior EU official, presumably relying on the doctrine of equal misery. This is regarded as the dominant requirement for any international agreement, where none of the parties must walk out of the room smiling.

On the other hand, another one of those diplomats responds with a curt, "No chance". He adds, "There is not a lot to say, except we won't pay. And as the Rolling Stones song goes, 'Time is on my side'". That perhaps augurs badly for the EU-UK talks where time is definitely not on our side. Maybe Le Drian has a point.






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