Richard North, 12/02/2020  

Conveniently for Johnson, his HS2 announcement seems to be drowning out news of the coming Brexit trade negotiations – just as the implications of his stance are beginning to be apparent, bringing to light potential (but very likely) consequences which should be front-page material.

Even then, the behaviour of the media is somewhat erratic. Some newspapers got Gove's comments on border checks, and the accompanying official statement, onto their websites on the Monday and were thus able to get them into their print editions for the Tuesday morning.

However, it took the fanboy gazette until yesterday morning to run the story on its website, with the main headline declaring: "Gove admits Brexit smart trade border will not be available 'until 2025'". It left the standfirst to tell us that: "Full import controls will come into effect after Brexit transition period ends, dashing any hopes of frictionless trade with the EU".

The Telegraph simply can't help itself though, as its Europe editor preened himself by claiming that this had been "revealed" by his paper the previous month, marking "a radical shift from the previous government's no-deal planning that prioritised the flow of goods over the need for checks".

Yet, reference to that report finds the newspaper suggesting that this was more a ploy "designed to give UK negotiators greater leverage against Brussels", a "ramping up of pressure on the coming EU-UK trade talks".

Now, from Gove's remarks on Monday, followed by the rapid publication of the official statement, there can be little doubt that we are seeing evidence of a definite policy shift. Since businesses have been warned to prepare for border checks, it is most unlikely that this is simply a negotiating ploy.

Nevertheless, we do seem to be seeing a degree of incoherence in the government's stance – not that that is anything new. In The Times - which carried the story in yesterday's print edition, there is some interesting detail which I have not seen elsewhere.

Specifically, Johnson is said to have ordered officials to draw up a legal draft of a Canada-style deal to prevent a repeat of Brussels dictating the terms of the negotiations, as it did during the withdrawal agreement talks. This is seen as a mistake which allowed Barnier to "hold the pen".

This time round, we are told – by another of those convenient anonymous sources - that the government will discuss texts that have been drafted by its lawyers and there will be a British draft treaty text before anything drafted by the commission.

Another source says it has not yet been decided whether the government will publish its own draft treaty to put pressure on the EU, but we are asked to believe that: "We (the government) have been clear what we want and will continue to be so".

It is something of a stretch to accept that this government has been at all clear about what it wants. Any such assertion is more like one of those Orwellian inversions. It may say that it wants a Canada-style deal but, in the period left for negotiations – now less than eleven months – there is no realistic prospect of such a deal being concluded.

This speaks to the lack of clarity in the government's position where it claims to seek an outcome which is quite obviously unattainable, for want of which it offers the alternative "Australian model". Yet the details are unspecified, leaving it deeply ambiguous.

If, from the outset, the government plans to table "confidential legal texts" shortly after talks begin in early March – as we are told it intends – and these are based on a Canada-style deal, we would expect the EU's negotiation team to consider it, whence the expected response would be the production of a counter-proposal. This can only slow down proceedings which, in the context of an already perilously short time left for talks, could jeopardise the whole deal.

On the other hand, if it is the government's intention to pursue the "Australian model", this is not helped by Commission president Ursula von der Leyen's response to the concept.

Speaking to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, she asserted that, "Australia without any doubt is a strong and a like-minded partner", and then told MEPs that, "the European Union does not have a trade agreement with Australia. We are currently trading on WTO terms".

"If this is the British choice", she said, "we are fine with that without any question. But, in fact, we just are in the moment where we are agreeing with Australia that we must end this situation and we work in a trade deal with them".

In fact, discounting the MRA on conformity assessment, and the framework agreement (which has trade elements), the EU's own treaty database yields records of no less than nine trade agreements between the EU and Australia.

While no one would argue that the relationship between the EU and Australia is close-knit, it is not at all the case that trade is solely on WTO terms, as von der Leyen claims.

In any event, she rather misses the point in that the use of the Australian model would not replicate the antipodean arrangements. Rather, it describes the structure of a relationship which comprises a mélange of sectoral and trade facilitation agreements, bolstered by a framework agreement and a number of political declarations. This contrasts with the Canada-style which relies on a single, overarching comprehensive trade agreement.

Like it or not, this "mélange" approach certainly seems to describe the direction of travel, and even the Commission is reconciled to a "bare bones" treaty to take us past the end of the year, with other sectoral arrangements "fleshed out later".

One can anticipate an outcome which might deliver a framework treaty in December, covering institutional and administrative arrangements, with the talks continuing into next year to forge deals on the many sectoral issues which will require attention.

Rather than the adversarial stance taken by Johnson – which seems to be rubbing off on the Europeans, it would be more useful if he set out realistic expectations, as a precursor to the coming talks. The very last thing we want is what is being suggested by Olaf Scholz, the German finance minister.

He has told The Times that he hoped negotiations on the detail of a future trade treaty would remain under wraps until they were ready. "I hope it will not be a very public debate but rather with a lot of work done by people who understand trade questions of industries, businesses and markets", he says.

By contrast, the Commission says it is essential to ensure that citizens and businesses are informed about the development of the negotiations.

This, it adds, "is also necessary to ensure an informed public debate on the future relationship between the EU and the United Kingdom", on which basis it intends to maintain "the high level of transparency as during the United Kingdom withdrawal negotiations".

I suppose there is a first time for everything but the Commission is perhaps being over-optimistic if it expects an informed debate. Neither in the run up to the referendum nor since have we ever got close to that, and von der Leyen's recent comments haven't helped.

As it stands though, it would seem that Johnson would prefer to have no debate at all, informed or otherwise. After all, Brexit is "done". But when the queues build up at Dover and we discover for ourselves that frictionless trade is not an academic concept, it won't be Brexit which will have been "done" but the British people.

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