Richard North, 07/09/2020  

The Telegraph says that there have been so many "critical" weeks for Brexit that it is unwise to predict another.

Personally, I don't have any problems with that. Most of us have been burnt far too many times by things not panning out as we might have imagined, and there really are too many imponderables for any confident predictions to be made.

But that is about as far as we go with the paper. Its view is that the "biggest stumbling block" to a Brexit deal is the EU's intransigence. It believes that the EU continues to regard the UK as a "satellite state", arguing that, unless it alters its stance, "an agreement would not be worth it".

To be blunt, I don't really understand what the paper means by "satellite state". Apart from anything else, it's value laden and, in many senses, pejorative. It also lacks any precise definition – essentially, it could mean anything.

If we take a geographical parallel, for instance, then yes, indeed the UK is a "satellite" of continental Europe. We are, after all, an offshore island and, unless we're planning on emulating North Korea, we will continue to be drawn within its orbit.

But what the Telegraph seems to be doing is parading the Frost mantra of "independence", and using "satellite" as an antonym. In other words, if we are not wholly "independent", then we are a satellite – totally binary, black and white.

The problem as we all know, though, is that this isn't a binary issue. This is a world full of greys – and the big word the Telegraph needs to learn is "interdependence". As we discussed yesterday, there is no such thing as true independence. The only variable is the degree to which we all rely on each other.

To forge a deal between nations is simply to formalise the relationships, defining the areas where we work together, the duties and obligations and how we manage the relationships.

In this context, we have had to put up with some ocean-going stupidity about being prepared to "walk away" if we don't get the deal we want. There is no sensible scenario where the UK does not have a formal and productive relationship with the Member States of the EU, or indeed the EU institutions.

Here, the language used doesn't help. For instance, the paper talks of the "divorce" being due to become absolute at the end of the year, but the UK isn't married to the EU and we are not separating physically from Europe.

As long as we are close neighbours, what we should be doing is working on a different kind of relationship. There are no conceivable grounds where we can co-exist without a formal relationship. A "no-deal", as such, is not a long-term option.

Thus, to talk of walking away, setting ourselves up as a "independent" nation at the end of the transition period, without a deal, is the height of absurdity. It is not a sustainable scenario. "No-deal" is simply unfinished business.

In this, there is a cruel irony. Ending the transition period without a deal isn't taking back control. It's giving up control, leaving the work to the next, or successive governments. Walking away is dumping the problem in someone else's lap.

Nevertheless, for the Telegraph, complacency seems to be the order of the day. Brinkmanship, it says, is nothing new and has always ended in a breakthrough that has allowed a deal to be achieved. This week, it says, "we should find out if this pattern is to be followed once again, or if no deal really is the most likely outcome".

One suspects, however, that the writer hasn't read the Financial Times. It is telling us that the UK is planning to undermine the Withdrawal Agreement with new legislation which will override elements of the Northern Ireland protocol.

Under the Withdrawal Agreement, the UK must notify Brussels of any state aid decisions that would affect Northern Ireland's goods market, and compel businesses in the province to file customs paperwork when sending goods into the rest of the UK.

However, the bill, due to be published on Wednesday, will explicitly reserve for the government the right to set its own regime, directly contradicting obligations under the Withdrawal Agreement, in full knowledge that this will breach international law.

As such, it would "clearly and consciously" undermine the agreement on Northern Ireland, and put us on a collision course with the EU, Barnier having warned that "a precise implementation of the withdrawal agreement" is vital for the success of trade talks and a key issue of trust between the two parties.

Furthermore, the autumn finance bill, used to write the Budget into law, is also expected to overwrite a third aspect of the Northern Ireland protocol covering the payment of tariffs on goods entering the region. And both instruments, if passed into law, will force the UK courts to follow the UK law in preference to the treaty, diluting the ability of the protocol to intrude on UK state aid policy.

A government spokesperson seems to be indicating that these provisions are "fall-back options" in the event that outstanding issues with the Northern Ireland protocol are not resolved.

Christophe Hansen, the European Parliament's rapporteur on the future trade agreement, reminds the FT that "respect" for the Withdrawal Agreement is a core "trust" issue and a “litmus test” of the UK's willingness to honour deals with Brussels.

"It is very important for us to see that it is put in place", Hansen says, warning that otherwise, the EU could not be confident that Britain would respect any future partnership arrangement.

This seems to make a mockery of any idea that the UK is serious about its negotiations with EU, rather making redundant Johnson's plan to give the EU just 38 days to strike a deal, warning that if there is no breakthrough by 15 October, the UK will accept a no-deal scenario and "move on".

Not only are the legislative initiatives sending the wrong signals, but Johnson's bizarre behaviour neglects the essential issue that the ball is currently in the UK's court.

If we understand the situation correctly, the EU is waiting for formal proposals from the UK, without which there can be no progress. At this stage of the proceedings, it does not seem possible that the EU can simply roll over and make concessions to the UK.

But then, if Johnson really plans to say today that a "No-deal can be a good outcome", it seems the best thing for the EU to do is let him get on with it. When it doesn't turn out to be so good, he can then explain to the nation why he got it so completely wrong.

This alone seems to be a major miscalculation. If Johnson was set on blaming the EU for our downfall, then he should be seen to be going the extra mile, doing everything he could to seal a deal. This casual, almost complacent approach has the appearance of political suicide.

On the other hand, it could be that Johnson and his advisors have swallowed their own bullshit, and really believe that a "no-deal" would be a good thing. But if they really are that stupid, then we have bigger problems then we can even begin to imagine.

Certainly, if yesterday's uptick in Covid-19 reports represents part of a continuing trend, then any chance of an economic recovery over the winter looks slim, opening the way for the coup de grace in the new year, as the no-deal TransEnd kicks in.

The one consolation, though, is that the worse it gets, the quicker we get rid of the idiot in No.10. It may not be a lot, but these days we have to take what we can get.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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