Richard North, 15/10/2020  

Johnson is to decide on the "next steps" for the future relationship talks after the European Council which starts today. This emerged yesterday after his scheduled telephone conversation with Ursula von der Leyen, which was joined by European Council president, Charles Michel.

A No 10 spokesperson says that Johnson "noted the desirability of a deal" during the call and also "expressed his disappointment that more progress had not been made over the past two weeks". Both sides, we are told, are calling on the other to compromise on key issues, including fishing and state aid policy.

Speaking after the call, von der Leyen reiterated the EU position. "The EU is working on a deal, but not at any price", she said, adding that "conditions must be right" on fisheries, level playing field and governance for the EU to sign an agreement.

Earlier, during the call, Johnson had said that he looked forward to hearing the outcome of the European Council, which starts today, and "would reflect before setting out the UK's next steps".

This remark suggests that Johnson is to delay his self-imposed deadline of the 15 October and is now calling for the EU to agree to round-the-clock talks, extending to the end of the month.

At today's Council, EU leaders will be given an update on the talks by Michel Barnier, following which a lengthy discussion is expected. A senior EU diplomat said: "What we want to show is we are willing and ready, once the UK moves, to work really hard to conclude a deal".

If, as is likely, talks do resume, fishing will be the key element. France has vowed its fishermen will not be sacrificed to get the deal but has signalled it could compromise if their access to the Channel was protected. Germany on Wednesday increased pressure on EU fishing nations, its government saying: "If there is no deal then the EU quota will be zero ... it's politically sensitive but technically feasible".

This is borne out by the prime minister's spokesman, who says that "There are still differences, with fisheries being the starkest. We need to get substance settled". He added it was impossible to "pre-judge" Johnson's decision on the talks, although there is every expectation that they will continue.

However, according to the Guardian, there are possibilities of movement on the fisheries issue. The French EU affairs minister, Clément Beaune, a former adviser to Macron, has made a point of raising the need to maintain the status quo in the English channel. He says that Paris does not believe there was any margin for negotiation on the current fishing arrangements in the UK’s six- to 12-mile exclusive economic zone, where 84 percent of the cod quota is landed by French fishermen.

Any loss for French fishermen on that coastline is regarded by Paris as too politically toxic, with communities generally using small boats that have fished in British waters for centuries. But EU diplomats suggested there might be room for manoeuvre in the wider seas, including the Celtic sea, Irish Sea and the waters around Scotland, where large fishing vessels operate.

France among others would, however, insist that any losses for European fishermen in British waters should be made good through taking away UK rights to EU waters.

In an indication of a possible opening, though, Barnier has told MEPs on Tuesday that Downing Street needed to offer Scottish fishermen an opportunity to develop fisheries in their own waters, in light of the growing independence sentiment in Scotland.

David Frost, in turn, has told his boss that a deal could still be done by the end of the month but only if negotiators met every day for detailed talks on the basis of legal texts. As it stands, no common legal texts have been exchanged and "landing zones" on areas closer to agreement have not been put to paper.

Meanwhile, transport secretary Grant Shapps has admitted that flights between the UK and the EU could be grounded if there was a no deal because the European Commission has not yet offered any emergency connectivity plans to replace existing arrangements.

Both sides agreed prior to the first scheduled Brexit date of 29 March last year that flights would continue for 12 months even if no trade deal was reached but the European Commission has not yet made any similar guarantees. Shapps has said it is "critical" that air links are not severed, stressing the "mutual importance of aviation and travel".

However, this is an issue on which we have been writing since 2014 – long before the referendum. It really is quite remarkable that something so predictable – and important – is still not resolved with only 11 weeks to go before the end of the transition period.

If it were not for the effects of the Covid-19 epidemic on air transport generally, one could imagine the industry being in a state of blind panic. Short of the repeat of the EU's unilateral contingency mechanisms, though, there is barely time for the conclusion of a Bilateral Agreement on Safety in Aviation (BASA).

Further, if UK-EU relations deteriorate as a result of a failure to agree a deal, it is unlikely that the EU will be willing to come back after the end of the transition period and enter into new negotiations. This could end up being a long-term problem of some significance.

Not unsurprisingly, therefore, the Guardian is complaining that Johnson has "needlessly wasted time and goodwill". It dismisses the idea that completion of a post-Brexit free trade deal at today's European Council was ever going to happen. The prudent action, of course, would have been to extend the transition period but that was never going to happen either.

But neither – despite the provocation of the Internal Market Bill – have the talks collapsed. The paper is convinced that Johnson's bluff has been called and the talks will continue, not least because the government cannot afford to ignore "the additional burden that a no-deal separation would inflict on an economy assailed by a second wave of coronavirus infections".

In our favour, it observes, raw self-interest is rarely far from the prime minister's attention, and that metric has always pointed towards the need to steer hard for compromise and land the deal. The evidence of recent weeks, it says, indicates that he is reaching that conclusion, in his own way and in his own time. But he needs to get there faster.

Illustrating what's involved, one senior EU diplomat has likened finding the solution to convincing a reluctant child to eat his vegetables. "What do you do?", he asks. "Do you force it through? The other option is try and find a way around the issue and mix it with bananas. But in the end, it is the same. He or she will eat their veggies".

An unedifying sight though it might be, the odds are, therefore, that Johnson will be forced to eat his veggies. One could hope that he chokes on them, but then we would be the losers. It must suffice that he finds the experience extremely unpalatable.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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