Richard North, 25/07/2020  

Whatever else she might or might not be, Angela Merkel is a fixer. And now, it seems, she is taking a direct interest in Brexit. This may be good for the UK. It may not.

As always, what you take from this development depends on where you stand – and what you read. The Guardian, for instance, makes it clear where it's coming from. It says that Germany, i.e., Merkel, is calling on the UK "to show more realism in [the] Brexit negotiations".

Predictably, the Telegraph takes a different view. Britain, it says, is looking to Berlin "to break [the] Brexit deadlock". But, it would appear, it is coming from the same direction: "One senior UK source close to the negotiations", it says, has it that "Angela Merkel's reputation as a dealmaker could be essential in ending the impasse".

In a sense, both papers could be right. Merkel could be about break the impasse, but not in a way that the UK will be happy with, demanding the "realism" that hasn't yet been forthcoming.

The situation on the German side, according to the Guardian has been informed by a "sobering" update by Michel Barnier following the recent round of Brexit negotiations.

After his presentation to ambassadors from the 27 Member States yesterday, a spokesman for the German government, which currently holds the rotating presidency, said the EU was ready to move negotiations quickly forward but "expressed the need for more realism in London".

The comments, it is suggested, will be a blow to Downing Street, where it had been hoped the resolution of the EU's internal budget and recovery fund debate would allow Merkel and the other leaders to intervene "in a helpful way", and unblock the negotiations following a month of little progress.

However, the Telegraph has it that British negotiators are "banking" on Merkel to unblock the Brexit talks, where Barnier has accused the UK of wrecking the chances of a trade deal with the EU.

As always, though, the Telegraph's own grasp of reality is a little slender. It suggests that, because Germany took up the six-month rotating presidency in July, that "allows it to set the bloc's policy direction until the end of the year".

This is far from the case. The presidency in question is of the Council of the European Union and, apart from the symbolic role, basically does little more than provide the "chair" for the meetings over the next six months.

Furthermore, although this paper is relying on a "senior [British] source" to say that "Mrs Merkel's reputation as a dealmaker on the European stage could be key to end the impasse", it is unlikely that she will interfere with the procedures established in the treaty, and directly intervene in the talks.

Direct intervention, in any case, isn't her style, so Barnier will doubtless remain in the hot seat and set the agenda. Merkel's influence is more likely to be felt than seen, so we needn't expect any last-minute tête-à-tête talks between Merkel and Johnson. The best that can probably be expected is direct contact between permanent representatives.

What is emerging, though, is the confirmation from both sides that the deal on offer is of "low quality", although it has been recently claimed by the British that a "zero tariff, zero quota" agreement is "a prize worth having".

One wonders whether the British team really has a handle on what is involved, and whether they understand what's involved when businesses have to suck up the full range of non-tariff barriers.

Another thing we get to hear, though, is that the EU will be open to revisiting some of the issues next year, to strike separate agreements if the current negotiation was successful. How that would be done has not been specified but my guess is that the initial "success" will be judged by whether the UK is prepared to accept an overarching governance structure.

Nevertheless, the main hurdles seem to be still in place, which could make any developments rather academic. The level playing field scenario hasn't been resolved, and the Continentals are not moving on access of European fishing fleets to British waters.

In fact, it is understood a number of the main fishing states reiterated to the room of ambassadors that they would not agree to a deal without agreement on fisheries.

We are told that last week's talks on fishing access focused on quota-sharing arrangements and the list of stocks for which shares need to be agreed. Barnier is said to have claimed the UK was effectively excluding European fleets from key stocks, a move said to risk destroying the EU's fishing industry.

The Telegraph, though, is obsessed with the idea that the German chancellor is going to take a personal hand in unblocking the impasse, an obsession apparently shared by The Times which seems to be talking to the same set of British officials.

Thus we're getting the view articulated from British officials that: "The German presidency, obviously, should pay more attention to what's going on, which I think has got to be helpful", with the source adding that: "Michel Barnier, in the final phase, hopefully ought to have some political guidance".

Yet, for all we know, Merkel (or her staff) may actually reinforce Barnier, backing him in upholding his mandate. Johnson/Frost really can't automatically expect a free pass, or even work on the basis that the negotiations are going to be any easier.

Oddly enough, the Mail is taking the Guardian line, having copied out its story from that source – and even acknowledging it. Although it tags on the contrasting Telegraph story, it doesn't seem to have anything to say for itself. As for the Financial Times, it doesn't have anything to say at all.

Basically, therefore, we haven't very much more to go on. Both sides have stated their positions publicly, letting us see what they want us to see, while nothing directly has come from Merkel. As so often on matters such as these, she prefers to work through spokesmen, with a good margin for constructive ambiguity.

When all is said and done though, Merkel (along with her French counterparts) has always had a strong influence on the Commission (as opposed to policy direction), so it would be unlikely if Barnier's mandate didn't already include a strong German endorsement.

But since Merkel also works closely with France, and the French have a special interest in the fishing deal, it is hard to see what concessions (if any) she could offer if she was so inclined.

That seems to be borne out by the chatter from Brussels. One EU diplomat says: "Germany will get a deal because that’s what Merkel does", adding that "They will be able to say they got agreements on the EU budget and Brexit in one presidency".

But the German government spokesman said the EU side will continue to approach negotiations with the UK with a united front. "The mandate is clear," said an EU diplomat involved in the negotiations. "You need unanimity to change it".

What doesn't need unanimity is the date which the negotiations end. David Frost believes a deal could be done in September, with the hope that EU leaders would approve it at the European Council, due for 15-16 October. It increasingly looks as if we will have to wait until we know what passes.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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