Richard North, 16/01/2020  

There seems to be something all too familiar in this current, pre-negotiation period, with the EU making all the running. And, once again, from the UK side, we get nothing but the sound of silence.

The big difference this time, though, is that the EU is not dealing with Theresa May who, for all her many faults, did actually want a deal, even if she had little idea of its nature. Here, it is having to contend with the maverick Johnson who appears to believe that his counterparts will be forced to offer him something, which he can take or leave, or even cherry-pick, as the mood takes him.

Another big difference is that, unlike the withdrawal agreement – which was strictly a matter between the UK and the EU – there is a sense of competition in this round, with the UK seemingly able to play off the European Union against the United States (and other players).

That notwithstanding, the EU is still having to go through the process of working up its own negotiating mandate, which is precisely what it is doing with its internal discussions, covering issues such as fishing, transport, energy and the level playing field.

In the absence of a similar initiative from HM Government, it is easy to fall in with the assumption that the current EU documents, and others like them, are going to set the tone of the coming negotiations – as happened with the previous set of negotiations.

But this assumes that Johnson wants a deal at any cost. It would also neglect the possibility (if not likelihood) that the prime minister believes he can float above the cut-and-thrust of the next eleven months or so, and then swoop down to launch his own distinctive deal, the nature of which will depend greatly on the level of agreement with the United States.

And if that feels more than a little nebulous, that might be because it is. Like former Soviet Union citizens who had to read between the lines of their daily newspaper, Pravda, to get some clue of what was going on in their own government, we have to read the fanboy gazette in an attempt to glean some idea of Johnson's intentions.

But that would presuppose that the prime minister has anything like a coherent plan, or even anything more than just a vague understanding of the issues, putting him in the position of being able to put a sensible deal on the table.

It is more credible to assert that he is flying by the seat of his pants, guided by an inchoate set of half-formed principles which will somehow come together at the last minute to resemble something approaching a trade policy – a "deal" sufficient to convince a credulous media that the "future relationship" talks have been a success.

Given that we might be confronting a failure – for which there are multiple gradations - his alternative, of course, is to seek solace in the blame game. And it is here that the EU seems to be going out of its way to give Johnson the ammunition he might need.

For, while from the EU's point of view, insisting on continued regulatory alignment and the adoption of "level playing field" measures is eminently sensible, it plays to the gallery of "ultras" who would like nothing better than to see Johnson walk away with a de minimis deal, transferring much of our trade interests to the other side of the Atlantic.

It is nevertheless still relatively certain that, even at the lower level of expectations, there will be a deal with the EU, even if the "bare bones" are bleached white and devoid of the slightest hint of flesh.

That alone may be enough to ward off the mantle of failure, and give the prime minister the laurels of the victor, which he can wear with confidence in the certain knowledge that it will be some time before the extent of his dereliction becomes known to the wider public.

And Johnson may well believe that he can buy enough time for a comprehensive trade deal with the US to kick in, gambling that it will give the UK the boost necessary to make up for the loss of trade with the EU. When it comes to British politicians, there is no natural limit to the unrealistic expectations which they can entertain.

Politically, though, it will be easier for him to run with this expectation, and the promise of sunlit uplands garnished with the Stars and Stripes, than it will be for him to be accused of shackling the UK to the EU "corpse", symbolised by stultifying layers of regulation and initiative-killing red-tape.

Even should the US-UK negotiations fail to deliver, though, Johnson could still get away with a relative failure on the EU front, simply because – to his target audience – it would not be couched as failure but as an act of resistance that would be worth any amount of pain and sacrifice.

Such is the uncompromising language in the EU briefings, with talk of "Union autonomous remedies", which are being described as "punishment clauses", that this will not be difficult to do. Unwittingly, the EU seems to be carving out a trap for itself, from which there might be no escape.

From the EU's perspective, though, it is difficult to see what else it can do. Affording pride of place to its Single Market, as the one achievement of consequence that it has secured in its long history, it has no choice but to defend the integrity of its creation, and thereby extract a significant penalty from the departing UK, just to demonstrate that there is continued value in EU membership.

The reality here is that, once the Efta/EEA option was closed down, there was no way the UK could participate directly in the Single Market. And, since we are, by default, emerging with something that might approximate the Swiss option – in structure if not scope – then we will suffer the same inflexibilities that the Swiss have had to tolerate, or go for the very barest of bare-bones deal.

In retrospect, we should have seen this coming. The UK government's objection to the Efta/EEA option has been the lack of formal decision-making afforded to the Efta partners – just about acceptable to the Efta "dwarfs" but completely unacceptable to a country of the status of the United Kingdom.

Oddly enough, in the early stages of what were to become the EEA negotiations, Jacques Delors held out the promise of co-decision, with the "Houses of Europe" all having an equal say in the formulation of standards. That, however, proved a step too far for the nascent EU, leaving Delors to resile on his promise, whence the EEA took on its current form.

If there is no resolution to this problem, and the demands being made of the UK are that it should tie itself in perpetuity to standards and rules over which it has no direct say in their formulation – a position even worse that EEA membership – then we have the makings of an impasse.

When the EU's "punishment clauses" could be seen as replicating the notorious "guillotine clauses" in the Swiss Agreements – where non-compliance with one provision brings down the entire agreement matrix – this is a scenario that Johnson's propaganda skills would come to the fore. He would have no problem demonising the EU's endeavours, as a precursor to outright rejection.

And, while it is early days yet, we begin to see in the new Commission President no great charismatic leader but a rather leaden bureaucrat who shows no sign of rising to the challenge of keeping the UK in the European political sphere.

With that, having failed to come up with its own plan for a new relationship with the European Union, the only thing the UK has is the dirigiste offering from the Commission which, even under the best of circumstances, it would have difficulty accepting.

Had they any self-awareness, those who rejected or ignored the Efta/EEA option (especially as modified by Flexcit), might now understand that they threw away the only chance of an acceptable resolution, with both sides now trapped by events over which they have no real control.

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