Richard North, 19/01/2018  

Even on EUReferendum, readers might have noticed that we have an overnight break from blogging, an acknowlegment of the inherent weakness of mankind and the need for sleep. 

Most usually, during that period, the presses - in the old-fashioned sense - are rolling and the output of the day's activity is being processed for the next day. Thus, when one emerges to confront the new day, the expectation is that there will be a fresh ration of information, loosely described "news", ready to entertain and inform us.

It is a measure of the staleness of the Brexit debate, however, that yesterday morning the news displayed very little change from the day previously. When the Twitter feed was also sparse, one had to do a double-take to check that a new day had indeed dawned and that one was not locked into some grotesque version of Groundhog Day.

Thus, while on this blog, in anticipation of Macron and his ministers visiting the UK today, I had already written of concerns expressed about whether the transition was a "done deal", we found that the early morning version of the Telegraph (no paywall) was addressing the same issue.

In this context, we have a typically jingoistic headline presentation by this newspaper with: "Hopes of early Brexit transition deal in doubt as France 'refuses to ease pressure on the Brits'". Some might even think of this that this was at attempt to stoke up anti-French xenophobia.

That is certainly one reasonable interpretation of the opening passage which tells us that "British hopes of securing an early Brexit transition agreement this March have been thrown into fresh doubt after EU sources warned that an early deal was 'not a foregone conclusion'".

Despite as much already having been stated on this blog, we are nonetheless enjoined to admire the perspicacity of this noble journal as this intelligence is supposed to have been "revealed" to us by the Telegraph, the timing being such that we are acquainted with the information "as France tries to drive home its Brexit advantage".

The thing is, of course, that the negotiating mandate on the transitional period has yet to be finalised and will not be so until 29 January. And, as we have already observed, we have yet to be acquainted with the formal UK response – which is hardly surprising as there is nothing formal to which the Government can respond.

To say that there is "fresh doubt" over the progress of the transition agreement, therefore, could therefore be regarded as an exaggeration, or even a complete distortion of the current situation. This is a process shrouded in doubt – the very quintessence of doubt, where the outcome is not known and cannot be known until the conclusion of the negotiations.

That notwithstanding, we have been aware for some considerable time that Mrs May's room for manoeuvre has been heavily circumscribed and has been so ever since she took the precipitate step of committing us to withdrawing from the Single Market.

Basically, if we are to avoid the "cliff edge", Mrs May must agree to a transitional period and any such agreement must afford considerable degree of market access. We also know that such access will come with a price, and that the EU is not disposed (or able) to be generous in making concessions.

As yet, though, the full consequences of Mrs May's actions have yet to impact on the body politic. When the country comes to terms which what will be on offer (when the proposals are finalised), there may well be a sharp, even hostile reaction which may further limit Mrs May's room for manoeuvre. It may even close down her options to such an extent that the UK is unable to reach an agreement with the EU.

To that extent, such doubt as exists about the nature of the transitional agreement that can be reached rests in its greatest measure on the potential political reaction in the UK, and the tolerance of the "vassal" status that the agreement is expected to confer on us.

It might be fair to say that, while the EU is going through its process of establishing a formal mandate for its chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, Mrs May has neither sought nor obtained any sort of political or popular mandate which would direct her actions in response to the formal proposal from the EU.

However, it is an odd reflection of the situation that, while the EU is going through the prolonged and relatively transparent process of determining its negotiator's mandate, no equivalent process exists within the UK political system.

On the basis that the government subscribes to the doctrine of collective responsibility, one assumes that Mrs May will seek Cabinet approval for her response, although such approvals do not seem to have been sought in the past.

Mrs May has been known for her somewhat autocratic approach to such matters. Ironically, some might think, the "democratic" UK is being somewhat less transparent – and accountable – than the anti-democratic European Union when it comes to deciding on negotiation strategy and responses. And, given the absence of any transparency in the UK process, it is impossible at this stage to ascertain how the UK negotiators might respond. And therein lies much of the doubt in the process.

For the Telegraph, however, its focus seems not to be on the nature of any transitional agreement – it makes no comment at all on what sort of agreement that might transpire.

Instead, the newspaper seems entirely concerned with the timing of a "handshake agreement" and the need to conclude affairs by the European Council on 22-23 March. The pressure is on for an agreement by then, in order to clear the way for negotiations on the EU-UK future relationship. What exactly we agree appears to be of little importance.

Earlier, it had been asserted – specifically from the Bank of England's "top banking and insurance supervisor" – that the banks' Brexit preparations would have to "go up a gear" if the government failed to secure a transition agreement by the end of March this year.

This is seen by the Telegraph as an "implicit admission" that the UK is vulnerable to "EU foot-dragging" although, once again, there is no discussion on the nature of what might be agreed. One might be forced to conclude that only the fact of an agreement was of interest. What is actually agreed seems to be an irrelevance.

In practice, though, this cannot be the case. A good (or better) deal, if there is one to be had, would be worth a delay. Accepting a humiliating "vassal state” deal just for the sake of keeping to a notional timetable is hardly a rational approach to complex negotiations where there is everything to play for.

Where, as is the case, any transitional deal would not take effect until the end of March next year, there can be no absolute requirement for an agreement to be reached by this March.

An assurance that there will be a transitional agreement by the time we leave - and that the minimum baseline with be the "vassal state" scenario – should be enough reassurance for the banks and other businesses who need to prepare for our withdrawal. Delay under such circumstances is less of an issue, and of considerably less importance is the eventual outcome is an improved deal.

Assessing the current situation, therefore, the least of our concerns at the moment would appear to be the possibility of delay – whether or not arising from French intervention. The far greater concern is the quality of the deal, in pursuit of which some delay is tolerable, especially if – after this March – negotiations can continue in parallel with discussions on the EU-UK relationship.

Above all else, when it comes to doubt or delay, the biggest problem we have is Mrs May's insistence that we can conclude a trade deal by the end of March 2019, so that we are looking to conclude not a transitional deal but an "implementation" agreement.

That confusion, to me, would appear to be a far greater problem than the prospect of delay from the French or other EU sources. It the parties cannot even agree about what it is they are negotiating, that might prove a more potent cause of delay than any procedural hold-ups.

For all that, there has been little in the media, or in terms of political discussion, to address Mrs May's potentially fatal confusion about what transition actually means. For the avoidance of doubt, our most pressing need might be for the Prime Minister more clearly to state her intentions. And that is not for the French to do, even our new-found friend, Mr Macron.

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