Richard North, 17/09/2020  

Given that yesterday, Ursula von der Leyen delivered her 'state of the Union' speech, the very speech about which the Telegraph so reliably informed us was going to be a turning point.

What we were told was that the European Union's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier was "set to be sidelined by EU leaders in a bid to get a breakthrough in the negotiations about a trade treaty with the UK".

"Representatives of the bloc's 27 member states", the Telegraph predicted, "expect Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, to pave the way for heads of state and government to intervene in the deadlocked talks in a 16 September flagship speech".

So the narrative went: "EU leaders are hoping that by stepping in to get the talks moving, it will help bridge the deep divides between the two sides, allowing Mr Barnier and his UK opposite number Lord Frost to agree the details".

And here's what actually happened. "We need new beginnings with old friends – on both of sides of the Atlantic and on both sides of the Channel", von der Leyen said, nearly three-quarters of the way into her speech.

Speaking in the European Parliament in Brussels, she reminisced about the last days British MEPs were present. ''The scenes in this very room", she recalled, "when we held hands and said goodbye with Auld Lang Syne spoke a thousand words. They showed an affection for the British people that will never fade".

"But with every day that passes", she added, "the chances of a timely agreement do start to fade. Negotiations are always difficult. We are used to that. And the Commission has the best and most experienced negotiator, Michel Barnier, to navigate us through". But those talks, she said, "have not progressed as we would have wished. And that leaves us very little time".

Addressing the MEPs directly, she added: "As ever, this House will be the first to know and will have the last say. And I can assure you we will continue to update you throughout, just as we did with the Withdrawal Agreement". And then she continued:
That agreement took three years to negotiate and we worked relentlessly on it. Line by line, word by word. And together we succeeded. The result guarantees our citizens' rights, financial interests, the integrity of the Single Market – and crucially the Good Friday Agreement.

The EU and the UK jointly agreed it was the best and only way for ensuring peace on the island of Ireland. And we will never backtrack on that. This agreement has been ratified by this House and the House of Commons. It cannot be unilaterally changed, disregarded or dis-applied. This a matter of law, trust and good faith.
Pulling in a name from the past, she added: "And that is not just me saying it – I remind you of the words of Margaret Thatcher: 'Britain does not break Treaties. It would be bad for Britain, bad for relations with the rest of the world, and bad for any future Treaty on trade'".

"This was true then, and it is true today", she then said: "Trust is the foundation of any strong partnership. And Europe will always be ready to build strong partnerships with our closest neighbours". That was it: no sidelining of M. Barnier; no leaders intervening; no paving of ways; no "deep divides" bridged. Like the rest of us, the Telegraph had no real idea what is going on. And we still don't really know what's going on, any more than does the paper right now.

But "two diplomatic sources" have told Reuters that Frost has been trotting off to Brussels to offer "tentative concessions on fisheries". Some have suggested that the Jersey fisheries might be on offer – something which the Telegraph has also punted. The Express, on the other hand, has it that the prime minister's negotiators are under strict orders "not to depart" from his promise to deliver a significant increase in fishing opportunities for UK boats.

This paper would have it that Barnier himself had "leaked" the suggestion Frost had made a "tentative" move towards meeting the EU's fisheries demands. But a government spokesman now says: "We have consistently said that we will not accept any proposals which compromise UK sovereignty over our own fishing waters". He adds: "There has not and will not be a departure from Britain’s position so far that will take back control of its territorial waters in the Channel next year".

So, once again, we're going round in circles, claim and counter-claim, leaving us no further forward, and with not the slightest idea of what is really going on.

There are others, some of whom think they know mores, saying that the 27 member states are said to have registered "cold fury" at Johnson's plan to breach the Withdrawal Agreement, claiming that the EU intended to block food imports into Northern Ireland from Britain.

One of those ubiquitous anonymous sources who wasn't actually at a meeting of EU diplomats, but who was "briefed" about it, then tells a newsman who tells us that "There was a lot of dismay on that. People are furious, but it is a cold fury. They know that the only option is to keep calm and carry on".

And we're still none the wiser about the third country listing. A "working paper" states that Barnier has "clearly stated" that the EU is not refusing to list the UK. "If the future UK rules on food imports fulfil all applicable conditions", it says, "then the European Union would proceed with the listing of the United Kingdom as a third country for these purposes as of 1 January 2021".

Up to now, though, says the paper, "we do not have full clarity from the UK government regarding its future regime, in particular for imports into the UK". But London has informed Brussels that it will apply the EU's Official Controls Regulation(s). And, incidentally, the UK hasn't listed the EU Member States as approved to export to the UK yet.

Perhaps the only clarity we're getting is from Ivan Rogers who is taking the very risky move of making a prediction.

Britain, he says, will leave the post-Brexit transition at the end of this year with no deal, describing Boris Johnson as a "Trumpite politician who wants the EU to fail".

"Johnson and his team persuaded themselves that the EU would be so panicked that they would give in eventually", Rogers says, "and it didn’t happen. Boris didn't, I believe, start off as a true no dealer, but he seems now formally in the camp with Dominic Cummings: 'to hell with it, we should walk away'". He adds that Johnson "is quite Trumpite in method; he was always fascinated by Trump and his strategy to take the other side by surprise and destabilise it".

Of the talks in general, he says: "The UK conduct of the of this set of negotiations has, if anything, been even more dismal than the UK conduct of the previous set of negotiations, including in August by demanding negotiating sessions and then having nothing whatever new to say in them".

Back in prediction mode, he says: "The EU will say that they tried to do a deal but the UK never accepted the obvious automatic consequences of leaving the customs union and single market, they had better now see and experience those consequences and they need a period of sobering up whilst they realise just how difficult it’s going to be as a third country without any preferential deal".

"On the British side", he predicts, "if we have done this deliberately, Johnson will be firing up to get people behind him, it will be full on, a story every day in the press about resisting the humiliation imposed, 'we are not going to be treated like this by the evil empire'. It will be nasty".

So there you go: "It will be nasty". Don't say you haven't been warned.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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