Richard North, 02/09/2020  

I didn't expect to be returning to that endless EU negotiation soap opera so soon – normally, when there's a meeting of principals, they faff about for a few days before we get anything out of them. But it looks as if the media is desperately short of news, and they have to fill their space somehow.

But when all's said and done, the Guardian is doing its best, picking up on a Downing Street spokesman who is telling us something we already knew: that hopes of meeting the deadline in December, with some sort of a deal, are "dwindling".

This is almost – if not exactly – in "statement of the bleedin' obvious" territory, as Downing Street plays down the prospect of reaching a trade deal with the EU in time for December, saying it will be "very difficult". Needless to say, the blame goes to Brussels, for having the temerity to insist on tackling the tough issues upfront.

Says the spokesman: "The EU continues to insist that we must agree on difficult areas in the negotiations, such as EU state aid, before any further work can be done in any other area of the negotiations, including on legal texts, and that makes it very difficult to make progress".

We've known for some little time that the UK wants to settle the simplest issues first, "in order to build momentum in the talks", as time is short for both sides. But the EU has consistently said it wants to see the contentious issues of fisheries policy and state aid settled up front.

This shouldn't come as a surprise though, as the EU invariably works on a "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed" basis. Thus, there is not a lot point in wasting time on the easy bits, if the talks are then going to fall apart over the contentious bits.

One suspects that "Team Boris" still harbours the somewhat unrealistic expectation that the EU will accept standalone deals – allowing it to peel off some gains to take home so that the boss can parade them before his adoring followers. But they should know by now that this ain't going to happen.

Barnier and his merry band of officials, on the other hand, are said to be "exasperated" by these Downing Street briefings, pointing out that – amongst other things - the UK has yet to table proposals on state aid. "How can we negotiate this when we don't even know what state aid in the UK will look like next year", says one of those helpful anonymous sources.

Yet, the received wisdom would have it that the Johnson administration is reluctant to cede any control over state aid policy, having boasted during last year's election campaign that one benefit of Brexit would be that the government could intervene more readily to help struggling UK businesses.

That, though – as far as I understand it – is not the primary issue. Up front is the question of transparency, where the EU wants the certainty of a defined, openly declared policy so that it can conduct routine market surveillance – the core of any trade deal – in an orderly, cost-effective manner, without having to call up information on every UK action.

Delivering a statement of policy should not be difficult for the British government. We already have an EU-compliant vade mecum and there are the The State Aid (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 which would not appear to give the EU any problems.

Moreover, in the government's own approach to negotiations document, it states that the Agreement with the EU "should include provisions that have transparent, non-discriminatory rules and enforcement procedures for competition law". The government says that it "should also recognise the mutual importance of effective cooperation between the parties on competition law".

From a simplistic viewpoint, all that would seem necessary is for the UK to read the 2019 regulations into the record, giving them treaty status and thereby preventing backdoor amendment which could give the UK an unfair advantage.

The fact that the government isn't being open and up-front about this does fuel suspicions that it is up to no good. And there is not a lot of mileage in expecting the EU to take Johnson on trust when the man isn't trusted by many British – and for very good reasons.

Brussels insiders are thus saying the UK is trying to "cherry pick", on the one hand claiming it would be happy with a "bare bones" deal, while making sizeable asks across the eleven "chapters" in the negotiations which collectively amount to a deal of substance.

Suspicions have been reinforced by the prime minister's spokesman, who airily states that: "We'll set out further detail of our domestic regime in due course", then adding: "After the transition period, the UK will have its own regime of subsidy control, and will not be subject to the EU's state aid regime. We have been very clear about that throughout".

It does not take a genius to work out that, when your negotiating partner is expecting openness and transparency, against a pressing timetable, brushing it off with a statement that your policy will be available "in due course" isn't exactly the brightest thing in the world to do.

Nor is it particularly diplomatic to declare – as has the Downing Street spokesman – that: "The UK's future subsidy arrangements are a matter for the British people and parliament, not the European Union". Furthermore, this simply isn't true. When entertaining trade deals, state aid policies are a perfectly legitimate concern of negotiating partners.

It is possible, of course, that Johnson could be misleading himself after his experience on the Withdrawal Agreement, where his last-minute intervention got changes to the text that had been agreed with Mrs May. But if he thinks he can replicate this process with a very much more complex deal, covering a much wider range of subjects, then he could be in for a shock.

There is clearly no "oven ready" deal in the making, as the parties are not only far apart on detail but also on the fundamentals. At issue is the very structure of the agreement where the UK is still holding out for separate deals on different issues – financial services, fisheries and so on.

Here, the Guardian reminds us that a senior UK official close to talks has already revealed that the EU is not keen on a "Switzerland-style suite of agreements". And once again we're seeing reference to the EU's enthusiasm for an overarching deal, with common governance and dispute resolution provisions.

Although the headlines have been focused on state aid and fishing, I have my suspicions that the real issue of substance is the agreement architecture. Once this is agreed, it is relatively easy to slot the different components into it, but if each chapter is seen as a separate negotiation, then one could expect the talks to last forever.

But even that could be too generous. On fishing, for instance, where "Team Boris" has been voluble in its complaints about the EU's inflexibility, EU officials are dismissive, denying reports that Barnier was refusing to discuss British proposals. "The UK has not presented new legal texts in the area of fisheries", a spokesman says, adding: "We have been engaging constructively and in good faith".

Although the EU has taken note of Johnson’s three red lines, and is working on them, the spokesman complains of an absence of reciprocity. "We are now waiting for the UK to present concrete and constructive proposals", he says.

Thus, from a different source, we get an EU diplomat saying: "It is important that the UK starts to engage with Michel Barnier in a more realistic and pragmatic way".

He adds that, "If Brexit ideology were to trump Brexit pragmatism in the UK government, we would clearly be heading into no-deal territory", then warning: "The next negotiation round in September will be crucial. If it ends without any progress as well, the window to clinch a deal will close quickly".

Even then, we are still in for a shitstorm. "Whether or not there's an agreement, at the end of the year, the UK decision to leave the single market in the customs union will inevitably create barriers to trade, and cross border exchanges that simply do not exist today. These changes are unavoidable", the spokesman says.

The genius of this government, though, is to take a crisis situation and make it immeasurably worse. And with the practice it has had on coronavirus, making a complete mess of TransEnd should come easy.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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