Richard North, 06/03/2020  

People, and the media especially, seem to have incredibly short (or selective) memories. It was only on Monday that the idiot Johnson was burbling that "we've been making every possible preparation" for the Covid-19 "problem", and that the country was, "very, very well prepared".

Only four days later, we had the chief medical officer, reported by none other than the fanboy gazette, telling us that there was a "slim to zero" chance of avoiding a global pandemic. This, he said, could see "huge pressure" on the NHS, making it impossible for all who need beds to get them. Quite simply, the NHS does not have enough beds to cope with the likely number of patients.

Johnson's earlier, casual and entirely unwarranted optimism – supposedly his trademark - contrasts brutally with the clinical precision of the professional. But, by now, the media has forgotten about Johnson's prattling, or is willing to give him a free pass.

That also goes to Whitty's projections for the trajectory of the epidemic, with 50 percent of all the cases occurring over a three week period and 95 percent over a nine week period. Furthermore, with that sort of intensity, it is very clear that the handwashing rituals proffered by Johnson will have no impact whatsoever on the epidemic profile.

Many of those who are giving Johnson his free pass on Covid-19 are, of course, the same people who have tolerated his burbling about the "fantastic" deal that we're going to get from Brussels on the future relationship – ignoring the propensity of this man to live in a fantasy world of exaggeration and plain, unvarnished lies.

But, if yesterday was the day when Johnson's bravado on NHS preparedness was being ruthlessly exposed, so too were his fantasies about the "deal" his sidekick David Frost will be able to extract from the European Union.

In almost as brutal a fashion, these were put to bed by Michel Barnier in his press conference at the completion of the first round of the EU-UK negotiations. 

For instance, he said, 1 January 2021 – at the end of the transition period - will not be like 1 February 2020. "On that date, as it has decided, the United Kingdom will leave the single market, the customs union and all our international agreements". It will no longer be business as usual, neither for the United Kingdom, nor for us. And it seems to me, on both sides, he added, that these final changes, and the difficulties associated with them, are often underestimated.

By way of examples, Barnier noted that on 1 January, customs formalities would apply on all imports and exports with the United Kingdom. On that day, financial institutions established in the UK would automatically lose the benefit of the "financial passport". And then, UK-issued authorisations or certifications would no longer allow a product to be placed on the European market, whether vehicles, industrial goods or even medical devices.

Cutting through to the chase, Barnier said quite bluntly that "the future partnership that we are negotiating, however ambitious it may be, will not avoid these points of friction". And that's the truth of it. Even at its very best, the result we get is a poor shadow of what we have at the moment. And that is assuming the best possible outcome which, from Barnier's account of the negotiations so far, is a distant and receding prospect.

Reviewing the progress of the negotiations so far, he noted convergence on some of the EU's objectives. And some specific points had been agreed, such as cooperation on civil nuclear power and the participation of the UK in certain Union programmes.

These, however, were vastly outweighed by the differences which, Barnier said, were "very serious", mentioning four in particular that would have to be solved for progress to be made.

The first, unsurprisingly, was the question of the level playing field. Harping back to the Political Declaration, Barnier reminded us that the EU had agreed with the UK to prevent trade distortions and unjustified competitive advantages on both sides. The parties had also agreed to maintain high standards, "as is normal in a modern and sustainable commercial policy".

And, while the UK had affirmed that it upheld its ambition to maintain high standards, there were two difficulties. Specially – as set out by Johnson in his Greenwich speech - the British did not want to translate the commitments into a joint agreement and they did not want appropriate mechanisms to ensure compliance.

To Barnier, this was puzzling. "If we agree to maintain high standards, why not formally commit to it?", he complained, adding that, to do so "is a matter of trust".

The second point concerned judicial and police cooperation in criminal matters. The EU wanted cooperation in this area that reflected common interests, geographic proximity and shared challenges, whether dealing with terrorism, organised crime or money laundering.

But, he said, ambitious cooperation required commitments on both sides with regard to the fundamental rights of individuals. Yet the UK had informed the EU that it did not want to make a formal commitment to continue to apply the European Convention on Human Rights. And nor did it want the ECJ to play its full role in the interpretation of European law.

If this position is maintained, Barnier warned, "this would have an immediate and concrete effect on the ambition of our cooperation, which will remain possible on the basis of international conventions, but which cannot be as ambitious as we wish".

As to the third point of divergence, this encompassed the governance of any future agreement, and "horizontal provisions". The UK was insisting on concluding a multitude of specific sectoral agreements, on a case-by-case basis, but Barnier did not understand why, as we negotiate all of these issues in parallel and coherently, we should be heading towards a myriad of agreements.

Why not, he said, register our future relationship in a global framework? This is what we have proposed. This point, he asserted, "is not an ideological question". He wanted "an effective agreement" which avoided the unnecessary multiplication of parallel structures and agreements - with separate ratification procedures.

Finally, there was divergence on fishing. The UK did not want the fisheries agreement to be part of our economic agreement. They wished in particular to negotiate reciprocal access to the waters on an annual basis. This, said Barnier, is "absolutely impractical" with more than 100 species involved. What could be done with Norway and five species could not translate into the UK scenario.

Thus said Barnier, "I want to be clear once again: a trade and economic agreement with the United Kingdom will have to include a balanced solution for fishing".

Without then going into detail, Barnier offered two "possible keys for success". Number one, he said, was that there should be no going back on our commitments – a clear reference to the Irish Protocol. Number two was "mutual respect". The UK had spent a lot of time this week insisting on its independence, which nobody was contesting. Simply, the EU was asking the UK to respect its independence.

Just as the UK sets its own conditions for opening up its market, the EU sets its own conditions for opening its markets for goods and services. Thus, the real question was: "what we do with our respective independence?"

The common challenge, as two independent entities, was to agree on ground rules that made it possible for cooperation in trade and travel, and to agree to maintain coherent and comparable high standards over time, that protect our citizens, our consumers, our workers, and our planet.

Taken against Johnson's Greenwich speech, however, there is no possible room for compromise. In particular, the level playing field provisions – as expected – are likely to be a deal-breaker. The EU is not showing any signs of movement on this point, any more than is Johnson.

One can also see the direction of travel on the European Convention on Human Rights. This has snuck in fairly recently, but UK membership has long been an issue of contention. If there is to be a meeting of minds here, it is going to take some hard negotiation.

Equally interesting is the governance issue. For some years now, we've seen the EU negotiating with Switzerland in an attempt to reduce the 200-plus agreements to a single, manageable treaty with a common framework and standard procedures.

And one can see the point. In reviewing the current EU-Swiss relations, in 2010, the Council of the EU described the model as "complex and unwieldy to manage", one which had "clearly reached its limits". The very last thing the EU will want to do is replicate that structure with the UK.

And then there is fishing. As a touchstone issue, one or other side will have to let go. With talk of the Royal Navy being geared up to intervene, it does not look as if a resolution to this issue will come easy. It could also be a deal-breaker.

This, though, is the first round and – as Barnier says – you expect difficulties at this stage. But one thing is clear in this negotiation, he says: "we will defend the interests of our citizens, our consumers, our workers and our businesses".

Would that we could expect the same from Johnson, if not on Brexit, certainly when it comes to dealing with the scourge of Covid-19.

comments powered by Disqus

Log in

Sign THA

The Many, Not the Few