Richard North, 14/10/2019  

Following the completely predictable (and predicted) news yesterday evening, that a Brexit deal had not materialised, the legacy media is having to scale back its euphoria and admit to the difficulties which have long been apparent to more sanguine observers.

Readers here, for instance, might recall our piece conveying the comments of Bruno Bonnell, a French MP for Emmanuel Macron's En Marche! party. Of Johnson's proposal, he complained that, "It's not a final version", describing it as "almost like a joke", saying that, "We don't even understand it".

In the wake of the weekend's "intensive technical discussions", therefore, it should hardly come as a surprise to the Financial Times that it was dealing with a dog's dinner. Nevertheless, with its most recent headline declaring: "Brussels baffled by UK’s 'complex' proposals to fix Brexit deadlock", it seems to be trying to tell us something of which we were already well aware.

Nevertheless, I suppose it is vaguely helpful to have a more detailed account of Michel Barnier's brief to EU "diplomats", other than a terse press release which is so lacking in detail as almost to amount to mockery.

The only things of substance it tells us are that, "A lot of work remains to be done" and "Discussions at technical level will continue tomorrow" (Monday). Barnier is also to brief EU-27 Ministers at the General Affairs Council (Article 50) on Tuesday.

Via the FT and the other news gatherers that were present in Brussels, we are told that British plans to keep Northern Ireland in the UK's customs territory while avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland are "fiendishly complex and not yet properly worked out", which entirely accords with Bonnell's earlier observation, but demonstrates that there has been precious little progress since last Tuesday.

It hardly comes as a shock, therefore, to have one EU diplomat making a statement of the bleedin' obvious, that there was "no breakthrough yet". He adds: "If the British government wants a solution, it must move quickly now. The clock is ticking", again a statement so obvious that it scarce merits repeating.

What is less clear is why another "European official" is saying that talks on Monday would be "one last chance". That is the last chance for the two sides to bridge their differences, or they risk failing to agree a deal in time for the European Council on Thursday.

By any account, it is already too late to meet that deadline. Normally, without the GAC giving its go-ahead, the European Council could not entertain a deal. However, the BBC has suggested that the EU team seems to have "softened" its position, indicating it is prepared to keep talking until Wednesday, the eve of the European Council.

Then we see The Times elaborate on this, reporting that the EU might back Johnson's plan in principle, even if a legal text cannot be finalised in time for the European Council, provided the UK made some concessions.

This narrative has the prime minister in office returning from Brussels with a political deal that could be put to a vote in the Commons on Saturday, with a legal agreement to be finalised afterwards. That does not make sense. The Commons is not going to vote for a "deal", sight unseen. MPs will want to see the small print.

When one sees the FT talking of "an extra summit", however, this does make sense. This paper suggests 29-30 October, but there is the matter of the European Parliament ratification. The last plenary of the month is on 23 October, which sets its own limit.

But, while Downing Street apparently had hoped the negotiators would be on a "glide path to an agreement", the Guardian is scaling back on the optimism having Barnier warning that the latest talks have been "difficult".

With a dose of realism that has been distinctly lacking of late, it goes slightly against the grain of some of the other reports, observing that it is appearing "increasingly unlikely that agreement can be found" in time for the Council later this week. However, this is not inconsistent with what other media sources are saying.

Ironically, the paper speaks of Barnier holding "a restricted session due to recent leaks", but somehow the leaks continue as we learn of the chief negotiator's disappointment at the lack of progress. This leads "EU sources" to suggest that an extension is "all but certain" given the amount of ground that needs to be covered.

Not least of that is the minor problem that the UK proposal would lead to the "dismantling of the EU's customs code", leaving the Union open to widespread fraud in the absence of hard data about whether goods end up in the Single Market or not. "We've told the UK our concerns about the Single Market and they don't have any answers to it yet", says a diplomat.

According to RTE, some of the ideas advanced by the UK - specifically a proposal to have Northern Ireland be part of the UK's customs territory, but continuing to apply the EU's rules and procedures on customs and tariffs - remain "conceptually difficult".

It is felt that the British plan would create more problems than solutions, in terms of the potential for fraud, the difficulty of tracing goods and the prospect that things would not be ready in time for the end of the transition period. Some EU officials believe that the arrangements are so complex that up to three months may be needed to thrash out all the details.

Interestingly, another leaking EU diplomat effectively confirms this, saying that: "The Northern Ireland-only backstop proposed in February 2018" (by Mrs May, as rejected by Arlene Foster) "could be landed by Thursday, but not a bespoke plan". On that basis, "a technical extension looks probable".

Such a move is also mentioned in The Times piece. It would definitely have the support of Jean-Claude Juncker, who says he would back a prolongation of UK membership. "It's up to the Brits to decide if they will ask for an extension", he told the Austrian newspaper Kurier on Sunday (paywall), "but if Boris Johnson were to ask for extra time – which probably he won't – I would consider it unhistoric to refuse such a request".

The Independent, though, reports that Johnson is "desperate for an agreement" which can be signed off before Saturday, to avoid him having to ask for a further extension. Yet the EU has told him that he must move "further and faster", even though other papers are saying that the gap is unbridgeable in the time, with the likelihood that there will be a later, special European Council.

Needless to say, the EU stance has been seen in negative terms by the Telegraph, the paper headlining its report: "Fury as EU demands more Brexit concessions". The text has a Cabinet minister "hitting out" at Brussels for ignoring the need to get parliamentary backing for any deal reached. This minister says: "What the EU needs to understand is all their very clever negotiating tactics don't mean anything if you can't get it through the House of Commons".

From this, it would appear that there is an expectation that the EU should abandon its own requirements – a process called "flexibility" - simply to assist the passage of any deal through the Westminster parliament, notwithstanding that the MPs could still reject the deal presented to them, regardless of what is agreed.

Like as not, MPs are not going to get an early chance to vote on a new deal, even if Johnson had set aside the Saturday session in the House of Commons on 19 October for precisely that reason. But if there is to be a special European Council later in the month, the timing would be ideal for framing an Article 50 extension, an application for which could then be heard in time for it to take effect before the end of the month.

That, of course, could be the ultimate in anti-climaxes. With all the hype about a deal, if all Johnson is able to do is walk away with another extension, his credibility is going to take an even bigger hit.

For the moment, though, as long as there is perceived to be the slightest chance of a deal being agreed, the hype will continue. By the end of today, we should have some better idea of where we stand which, on reflection, could be a little unfortunate for Johnson.

Wrapped up in his Queen's Speech agenda, and hoping for positive coverage in Tuesday's media, the very last thing he wants is for the EU to rain on his parade by announcing that talks have been abandoned and there is no hope of a deal being agreed at the coming session of the European Council - assuming that the talks don't continue until Wednesday.

On the other hand, one wonders what Johnson (and his advisers) really expected. Can they have imagined that throwing a complex, apparently incomplete and controversial proposal at the EU, waiting for the very last minute to do so – was going to yield dividends?

Perhaps this isn't the real play. Maybe, after the show of offering a new proposal, the game is to convince the likes of Merkel and Macron that there is no prospect of a deal, and they are better off refusing an extension, allowing the UK to cut loose.

But, if Johnson wants the cooperation of EU leaders in this ploy, then he will need to get his people to tone down the rhetoric about demanding more "concessions" and thus sabotaging the talks. The balance of advantage on blame avoidance will probably be a key factor in determining the timing of Brexit, and at the moment there is no particular incentive for the "colleagues" to allow the UK to quit by the 31 October.

So far, this just seems to be another game that Johnson is losing. The smart money looks to us still being in the EU after the end of the month.

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