Richard North, 26/09/2017  

If news is about repeating what someone has already said twice in the last week, then the news of the moment is Barnier saying that Britain's request for a transition agreement will only be discussed once the UK has settled the withdrawal issues.

The man's exact words were: "transition can only begin once we have reached an agreement on an orderly withdrawal", which came after a meeting with the EU's General Affairs Council, and prior to Barnier standing alongside David Davis to tell him exactly the same thing, for the umpteenth time.

You can pack an awful lot into a five minute address and this is precisely what Barnier did when he came out of that Council meeting.

Theresa May in Florence, he said, had been "constructive in her speech". The "colleagues" had read it "with great attention". But clearly, she had no monopoly on being constructive. "This constructive spirit", said Barnier, is the same thing we have. It's a state of mind which is expressed unanimously by the Ministers of the 27 Member States this afternoon".

Getting to the point, he then said: "given that we have a short amount of time, a limited amount of time, and everyday we're getting closer to the 29 March 2019, the day when the UK will become a third country as it wished and as it's asked to do … what's important now is for the Government of the UK to translate Theresa May's speech into clear negotiating positions".

It is interesting that, M. Barnier reminds us at every possible opportunity that we will become a third country. And just as frequently, the UK media ignores his reference. That's despite that addition here of the observation that it was the UK that wished to become a third country and had asked to become one.

That, said Barnier, is the basis which we are discussing in detail. We will do this around the negotiating table. We need, he added, "clarity" and "in particular when it comes to citizens' rights and on the financial settlement". Separately, he went out of his way to emphasise that "we also need to find a unique solution when it comes to the island of Ireland".

Here it was again, a "unique solution", a coded reference but crystal clear to the negotiators that the EU would not accept the issue being bundled with the general trade talks.

In other coded message – this one directed at No.10, he said that the 27 Members of the Union had reaffirmed their unity. That unity, he said, "is also shared with the political groups in the European Parliament, groups which I met this morning once again". Any idea that Mrs May can appeal over the head of M. Barnier to the Member States should be firmly parked.

Turning to Theresa May's speech again, he noted that this was the first time that the UK had asked for a transitional period for "a limited period". It would start on the day the UK leaves the institutions and the Union, on the 29 March 2019.

This, however, was not something covered by Barnier's mandate. Nonetheless he pinpointed "a number of conditions which the European Council had already expressed". Any transition had to respect the regulatory and the financial framework for the Single Market. It was about, "prolonging, extending EU legislation for a certain period of time and that would mean we have to continue with such things as the budget, supervision, judicial control, controls of EU rules and regulations".

Essentially, Barnier was pricking the bubble of illusion in which the idiot Johnson and others reside. They want the UK to be released from ECJ jurisdiction when we move into this phase, but the EU's chief negotiator has sternly reminded the UK government that this has already been ruled out.

Finally, said Barnier, because the UK is asking for this transitional period does not mean that we will no longer need to achieve sufficient progress on the withdrawal issues. The progress under the three key points remains more necessary than ever, creating the trust which we need in order to set up and build upon our future relationship.

"We are not", he declared, "going to mix up discussions on debts, on the past commitments. We're not going to mix up those subjects which are part of the orderly withdrawal with a discussion on our future relationship". In conclusion, he hoped that, in the fourth negotiating round, it would be "possible for us to make progress on each of these key areas". This, he hoped, would "ensure that we have the clarity which we need".

Barnier actually started his address with the observation that he was "keen and eager" to understand what Mrs May's speech meant "in practice". This, of course, was from a French technocrat who would doubtless be just as happy with the comment: "it may work in practice but will it work in theory?". So far, it would appear, Barnier hasn't even got to the stage where he's happy with the practical aspects of Mrs May's speech.

For all that, though, it looks as if M. Barnier is likely to be disappointed – noted by the Guardian and others. They are quick to point out that our negotiators are already at odds.

When Davis took the stage alongside his counterpart, he declared that progress on the financial settlement would be "in accordance with our new deep and special partnership". The Secretary of State insisted that there "could be no excuses for standing in the way" of progress. It was "obvious", he said, that discussions on the financial settlement had to be held in the context of talks on the future relationship.

Davis is thus expecting the current round of talks to build on Mrs May's Florence speech, creating a clear conflict with Barnier's instructions. "The UK is absolutely committed to working through the detail", Davis said. "We are laying out concrete proposals and there are no excuses for standing in the way of progress... It will take pragmatism from both sides to make headway and I hope we can achieve that this week".

Barnier, on the other hand, is simply restating the position set out by the European Council in its mandate to him. We are, therefore, entertaining the dialogue of the deaf. Mr Davis is permanently on "send" mode and isn't listening to anything that would serve to frustrate his ambitions.

With wearying predictability, we're back where we started. For all the effort expended on Florence, Barnier's position hasn't changed – but then it never was going to. Oblivious to this, Davis is running away with the idea that Florence has changed everything. The mismatch will not make for a productive meeting of minds.

So, while Labour groans on, consigning the party to irrelevance, the real deal is in Brussels where we count down to Thursday and the final press conference. Then we expect Barnier to warn us all that he will not be able to advise the European Council in October that "sufficient progress" has been made. They will then tell Barnier he cannot move on to phase two.

In that event, I've already sketched out what I think May will do at the Conservative Party conference the following week. This takes little imagination as the media is already talking about "senior Brexiteers" being "infuriated" by the response from Brussels.

Johnson is amongst those who thinks the deal should be in the bag, saying "the ball is in the [EU's] court". He thinks it is sufficient that: "We are offering a great deal on citizens, a great deal on money and an unconditional commitment to the defence of Europe". On that basis, he believes "we can move this thing forward and get these negotiations going".

To my mind, when Barnier refuses to play, the only question is whether May will decide to walk away immediately or defers action until after the European Council on 20 October. But if she gives the Council an ultimatum, demanding that we move to phase two or she walks, my guess is she'll be booking another Swiss walking holiday.

Yet, for the moment, this remains speculation. The only certainty is that, by Thursday, we will know more than we do now. By the following Wednesday when Mrs May speaks to conference, we will know even more. Meanwhile, at chez, we're stocking up on essential foods. That, for us, is our own moment for clarity.

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