Richard North, 29/09/2020  

Faced with the posturing and tantrums of the British, manoeuvring to position them at fault if trade talks fail, it seems that the EU has developed a strategy to deal with them.

Despite the provocation of the UK's Internal Market Bill, and Gove's insistence that it goes through unchanged, the "colleagues" are not going to walk away from the talks, leaving the high ground to the UK.

Instead, Maroš Šefcovic, Gove's counterpart on the Joint Committee administering the Withdrawal Agreement, has announced that Brussels will not walk away from the talks due to start today.

"I think it's very important to say, to underline that it could never be the EU which would cause the end of the negotiation of the future partnership between the EU and UK", he said yesterday. "We are going to proceed with the negotiations. We are going to use every single minute".

Currently, this is being presented as something of a "climbdown" by the EU, with reports that Šefcovic "distanced himself" from an earlier demand for the Bill to be withdrawn (or amended) "before the end of the month" in order for negotiations on a free trade agreement to continue.

To my certain recollection though, von der Leyen has consistently said that trade talks should continue, adding that: "It is better not to have this distraction questioning an existing international agreement that we have, but to focus on getting this deal done, this agreement done - and time is short".

As regards a response to the Bill, we had "EU diplomats" saying that the EU would be considering legal action, but would not take decisions on whether to initiate it until after the round of talks that are due to start today.

In many ways, this shoots Johnson's fox, as he has quite evidently failed to provoke a walk-out - if indeed that was his intention. This leaves his man Frost to keep battering away in the hope of extracting concessions until the clock runs down and he is out of time.

In the meantime, one presumes, the EU can maintain a façade of sweet reasonableness, happily proclaiming its willingness to cooperate with the Brits, assuring them that they are ready to give them anything they ask for, as long as they don't ask for anything that the EU is not prepared to give them.

Meanwhile, Gove – after insisting that the Bill elements which override the requirements written into the Irish protocol would not be amended – says that they are intended to enter into force in the event that there is no deal during trade talks.

"We want to make sure that the withdrawal agreement is implemented in full but those clauses are there, they're in legislation, supported by the House of Commons, as a safety net, if need be", he says.

This leaves Šefcovic – somewhat wearily, it seems – to repeat von der Leyen's warning that the EU is considering invoking the dispute settlement procedure. "I underscored that the EU will not be shy in using it", he told journalists. "When we will do it, how we will do it. Proceed, you will have to give us a little bit of time and we will inform you in due course", he added.

With that, the Internal Market Bill is well and truly neutralised from the perspective of the talks, which will continue with the current agenda, unaffected by this "distraction". Nothing can be read into it being sidelined, other than the determination of the EU not to allow the UK the opportunity to grandstand over the other side walking out.

Furthermore, despite predictions to the effect that Barnier himself was going to be sidelined, with EU Member State leaders wheeled in to break the logjam, it is pretty clear that this isn't going to happen. Nor was there any realistic prospect of this happening.

This was more or less confirmed by a diplomatic text circulated to EU Member State governments yesterday, informing them that the European Council – due to meet on 15-16 October – "will take stock of the implementation of the withdrawal agreement, and review the state of the negotiations on the future partnership".

That signals the lack of any intent to intervene, the likelihood being that it will listen to a report from Michel Barnier, with probably only a perfunctory debate. The main agenda item, according to the diplomatic text, is a discussion "on preparedness for all scenarios after 1 January 2021".

From this, it would appear that expectations are not particularly high. But then, if an agreement has been brokered, it is up to the General Affairs Council to conclude the negotiations, but then only after the European Parliament has voted on it.

As it stands, there have been references to a 650-page agreement draft, but for the Council to be considering that at its meeting, negotiations will most certainly have to be finalised by the end of this week, ready for the General Affairs Council to look at it when it meets on 13 October. So far, all it is listing on its agenda is a "state of play" report.

Not too much should be read into the length either. The EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) – often cited as a model for this agreement – is 1,598 pages, with several hundred pages devoted to the treatment of tariffs and quotas. A mere 650 pages is likely to be pretty thin stuff, especially if there is to be any detail on fishing.

Apart from that, there is little else to add to my piece yesterday. Earlier yesterday, The Times was headlining, "Brexit officials raise hopes of breakthrough deal on state aid", with the legend that "Britain is increasingly optimistic that there will be a breakthrough in Brexit talks this week…".

As time has passed, however, it seems more and more certain that the optimism is "spin" originating from Downing Street, artfully leaked to gullible hacks, most likely intended to wrong-foot EU negotiators.

The latest from ITN News, though, reiterates the caveats that have been in most reports on the talks, that "significant gaps" still remain, while we also get the mantra from the prime minister's official spokesman, that the EU "still needs to adopt more realistic policy positions".

Meanwhile, Charles Michel, European Council president, is upping the ante, speaking of the UK facing the EU's "quiet strength" over the four years of talks.

Michel claims that "the British face a dilemma" over whether to move away from European standards. "What model of society do they want?", he asks. "Do they prefer to maintain high quality standards – health, food, environmental – or, on the contrary, do they want lower standards, [to] subject their farmers and their competitors to unfair and unjust competition from other regions of the world?"

Noticeably, Michel didn't mention anything about horsemeat, and neither did the bullshit celebrity campaign, demanding assurances that "lower-standard" meat will not be sold in British shops.

That apart, nothing much seems to have changed, and we're not going to get much clarity until the end of the week – if then. One might assume that if the talks do not go into the famed "tunnel" after this week, then the chances of presenting a final draft to the General Affairs Committee on 13 October will be remote.

Even an element of realism seems to be creeping in to the UK side. Government sources are now describing their own earlier reports as "on the enthusiastic side". The prime minister's spokesman says: "Although the last two weeks of informal talks have been relatively positive, there remains much to be done. The fundamentals of our position have not changed from the start of this process".

As we know from experience, though, things can change very rapidly, and EU deadlines can be infinitely flexible – to a point – although there seems to be little enthusiasm for playing brinkmanship with Johnson.

Yet, sooner or later, these games must end. For good or bad, businesses desperately need to know what they will have to confront from 1 January 2021, and continued uncertainty will be highly damaging.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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