Richard North, 13/02/2020  

A vote in the European Parliament yesterday seems to have set in stone a final layer of unreality which, if allowed to stand, will ensure failure of the coming negotiations on our future relationship with the EU.

Even after the earlier debate attended by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Michel Barnier, it should have been clear to MEPs that Johnson has ruled out any idea of enforced regulatory alignment. But not only have they sidestepped that little problem, by 543 votes to 39 (with 69 abstentions), they have actually made it worse.

Specifically, MEPs are now demanding "dynamic adaptation" of EU and UK legislation, meaning that not only are we not allowed to diverge from current legislation, as EU law is changed (and new laws are introduced), the UK must update its statute book to ensure that our legislation remains in lockstep with the Union acquis.

Given the current stance of the Johnson administration, it should take little imagination for the European Parliament to realise that ramping up the EU's demands will go down about as well as a bowl of cold sick, even if it is a logical consequence of legislative alignment, and a feature of both the Swiss and the Norway (Efta/EEA) options.

But whether logical or not, the move is tactless – trampling on UK sensibilities in a cack-handed fashion that can only invite a hostile response. That much is evident in one of the few newspapers to pick up on the vote – not the Express or the Telegraph, which one might have thought would be happy to be bearers of bad tidings.

In this case it is the Independent which draws the short straw, headlining: "Brexit trade talks set for acrimonious start as UK accuses EU of being too tough". To this is added the standfirst, which tells us that: "UK officials accuse EU of 'cherry picking' as commission demands UK play by European rules".

Even then, the reporting is sloppy as the paper reports that the trade talks are "getting off to an acrimonious start in Brussels" after the European parliament overwhelmingly backed a no-nonsense negotiating mandate on Wednesday".

The point here is that the vote was actually in Strasbourg, so – if one is to be pedantic – the "acrimonious start" was not in Brussels but in the French regional capital. But then, little things like details scarcely seem to matter to the UK media. When Sky News runs the story on its website, it heads its piece with a stock picture of the Brussels chamber.

From the Independent, though, we get the case for the EU. Britain's closeness to the continent and the interlinked nature of the two economies, we are told, means the UK government must commit to maintain European standards on the environment, workers' rights, and safety – including future rules – if it wants trade access.

Undoubtedly the paper means enhanced or "frictionless" access – but we've all succumbed to the habit of using the shortcut. Anyhow, we are asked to accept that Brussels and the Member States are worried that the UK could slash standards and out-compete European businesses on an unfair basis. Thus, restrictions are needed to prevent this "if the UK wants to keep tariff-free access to Europe’s single market".

Actually, it's more than just tariff-free access we want – something seemingly on offer from von der Leyen. She says she is prepared to offer the UK "something we have never ever before offered to anybody else". This is to be "a new model of trade" and "a unique ambition in terms of access to the single market".

The catch, of course, is that "this would require corresponding guarantees on fair competition and the protection of social, environmental and consumer standards. In short, this is plain and simply this level playing field".

HMG's response, delivered by Johnson's official spokesman, is nothing if not predictable. "Half the time the EU is telling us they are surprised we are not more 'ambitious' and the other half of the time they are saying we're looking for too much", he says.

Warming to what looks like becoming a dominant refrain, the spokesman goes on to say that: "It's now the EU who are cherry picking, suggesting ambition only where it suits them and adding obligations that go beyond a standard FTA. We are clear and consistent about what we want – not a bespoke or special FTA, but similar to the one the EU already has with Canada".

One will nevertheless recall that CETA does not afford Canada frictionless access to the Single Market. In fact, my recent piece indicated that the agreement was not working very well for Canada.

For instance, in 2018, Canada sent just 3.1 percent of the 50,000 tonnes of meat authorised for export each year, and in 2017 the total was only 2.3 percent. That means CETA earned only $12.7 million for Canadian producers in 2018, against a theoretical potential of $600 million in any one year.

Fairly obviously, if HMG wants more favourable terms, it will have to make some concessions on regulatory alignment. But, says the official spokesman, "The British people voted to be independent with control over our rules and laws, and so we will not accept alignment to EU rules in any way".

And so the mantra develops: "Having autonomy over our rules and laws is exactly the same principle that the EU have set out in their mandate", he says. "In fact they have said the parties should ensure that the parties retain their autonomy and the ability to regulate economic activity. That is exactly what we are doing and asking".

Yet, despite all this, the Guardian seems to think that a Brexit trade deal, while tricky, is "not impossible", even while acknowledging that the UK and EU have very different concepts about what a deal means and risk ending up with nothing.

For a deal to happen, though, Johnson "has to swallow some pride" and then move on from the pretence that the strategic intimacy of the old relationship can easily be replicated in a new one.

To be honest, I'm not sure exactly what that means – it has the feel of one of those vacuous word salads that the Guardian is so fond of delivering. And if everything depends on Johnson swallowing some pride, then we are probably doomed anyway.

But, as we get closer to the date when the negotiations are to start, no one seems to be acknowledging that both sides seems to be drawing further apart. If this is part of the pre-negotiation sparring, then we really could do without the ritual. But if it represents a firming up of the positions on both sides, then we really are in trouble.

Both sides, it seems to me, need to pull in their horns, step back and look at what is realistically possible. The UK needs to accept that it is not going to get something even close to CETA, while the EU needs to stop wasting its time (and ours) pushing for the regulatory alignment that it is not going to get.

We need to work past the ritual dance, and accept that the conditions have already been set for a "bare bones" or de minimis deal, with further talks reaching into next year. If neither side can openly admit this, despite it being obvious to any halfway sentient observer, then they risk making themselves look bigger fools than they do already.

More to the point, the acrimony needs to stop. The even greater risk is that relations deteriorate to the extent that we really do end up without a deal. Unlikely though this might seem, it remains within the realms of possibility.

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