Richard North, 22/10/2020  

"What will not change", Michel Barnier told MEPs in Brussels yesterday, "is the framework we have set on behalf of the European Union for our ambitious partnership with the United Kingdom. That is in respect of our decision-making autonomy, the integrity of our internal market, and the preservation of our long-term economic and political interests".

"These principles", he continued, "have been stated by the Union since the moment when the United Kingdom chose - as was its sovereign choice - to leave the European Union more than four years ago. And these principles are naturally compatible with respect for British sovereignty, which is a legitimate concern of the government of Boris Johnson".

Thus, Barnier said, "What is at stake today in these negotiations is not the sovereignty of one or the other of the Parties. We said it in the Political Declaration: any future agreement will be done with respect for the decision-making autonomy of the European Union and with respect for British sovereignty. What is at stake is the proper organisation of our future relations after the divorce, which is now a given".

So here we have it again, respect for "the decision-making autonomy of the European Union". Nothing fundamental has changed, and nor will it change. But the fact that Barnier is prepared to bring his team to London on Thursday is enough for the Telegraph to crow that the European Union had "caved" to British conditions in what is termed a "significant" shift in the EU's approach to the talks.

As to the official reaction, a Downing Street release states that "We [the UK government] have studied carefully the statement by Michel Barnier to the European Parliament this morning. As the EU's Chief Negotiator his words are authoritative".

"The Prime Minister and Michael Gove", we are told, "have both made clear in recent days that a fundamental change in approach was needed from the EU from that shown in recent weeks. They made clear that the EU had to be serious about talking intensively, on all issues, and bringing the negotiation to a conclusion".

"They were also clear that the EU had to accept once again that it was dealing with an independent and sovereign country and that any agreement would need to be consistent with that status". And now, the statement continues:
We welcome the fact that Mr Barnier acknowledged both points this morning, and additionally that movement would be needed from both sides in the talks if agreement was to be reached. As he made clear, “any future agreement will be made in respect of the decision-making autonomy of the European Union and with respect for British sovereignty.

Lord Frost discussed the implications of this statement and the state of play with Mr Barnier earlier today. On the basis of that conversation we are ready to welcome the EU team to London to resume negotiations later this week. We have jointly agreed a set of principles for handling this intensified phase of talks.

As to the substance, we note that Mr Barnier set out the principles that the EU has brought to this negotiation, and that he also acknowledged the UK’s established red lines. It is clear that significant gaps remain between our positions in the most difficult areas, but we are ready, with the EU, to see if it is possible to bridge them in intensive talks. For our part, we remain clear that the best and most established means of regulating the relationship between two sovereign and autonomous parties is one based on a free trade agreement.

As both sides have made clear, it takes two to reach an agreement. It is entirely possible that negotiations will not succeed. If so, the UK will end the transition period on Australia terms and will prosper in doing so.
Still, Downing Street maintains the fiction that a no-deal outcome is equivalent to "Australian terms", despite the claim being almost universally debunked. Johnson's administration, as always, exhibits its usual tin ear, never, ever conceding that it might have got something wrong.

Interestingly, though, the statement finishes off saying that, "It is essential now that UK businesses, hauliers, and travellers prepare actively for the end of the transition period, since change is coming, whether an agreement is reached or not". At last, the message is being delivered, although no-one can yet know the full extent of the preparations needed.

For the rest, we have little option to go with this charade, just six days after Johnson had declared that the trade talks were over – something which lacked conviction and was never going to stand.

Now, it looks almost certain that we'll be seeing a deal of sorts, although for a long time we have been aware that, even at its best, it will be thin gruel. But a headline "victory" will suit Johnson, especially as it will be many months before the damage will become apparent.

In a move that will delight the "they need us more than we need them" Muppets, though, we see EU carmakers calling on Brussels to "reconsider" its Brexit stance, as they seek "less onerous restrictions on qualifying for trade deal benefits".

This is according to the Financial Times, which has Europe's car manufacturers wanting a less restrictive stance on future market access to the UK, warning that aspects of the EU's current position are "not in the long-term interests of the EU automotive industry".

Specifically, they seem most concerned about rules of origin, and are asking that the EU should lower the percentage of components in a car that must be either European or British for the vehicle to qualify for the benefits of any EU-UK trade deal. They also want a "phase-in period" of the new rules, to help industry adapt to the changed business environment.

Michel Barnier, however, has said that businesses should be prepared to accept "short-term adaptation costs" in the name of protecting the EU's "long-term economic interests". He argues that the EU should not sugar-coat Britain's decision to leave the EU Single Market and Customs Union.

On the face of it, though, it isn't the car industry which is going to have the hardest time of it. Another Financial Times story tells us that British sausage-makers are facing EU rules that require prepared meat imports to be frozen.

The instrument concerned is Commission Decision 2000/572/EC, which applies only to imports from third countries and has not, therefore, applied to the UK to date.

At the end of the transition period, this is a real problem, in the sense that historically the British meat industry is fully integrated with EU member states, particularly the Republic of Ireland, and has been for 40 years, says Peter Hardwick, trade policy adviser for the British Meat Processors Association, with the move "set to devastate UK trade".

The meat industry is hoping that UK negotiators can secure an exemption to the rules but fear that, if they do not succeed, EU customers will look elsewhere when they are seeking premium chilled products.

Yet Defra is not optimistic. It has raised the issue with EU negotiators but there is no appropriate certificate of exemption which currently exists in EU law. It looks very much as if the industry will have to take the hit.

Thus, Gavin Morris, the group veterinary manager for Dunbia, the meat processing company supplied by 30,000 British and Irish farmers, says the requirement to send frozen meat would put a "huge question mark" over many existing contracts.

"The view we've gathered", he says, "is that a lot of existing commercial contracts for products and preparations to go to the EU fresh will just stop". He adds: "The clients will say 'we don't want it frozen, thanks very much, we'll source from somewhere else'".

This is just another example of the trials and tribulations facing British industry once the transition period ends – deal or no deal. It wouldn't have been a problem if we'd stayed in the EEA, but there you go. The next generation of EU citizens is to be deprived the joys of chilled British sausages, and you don't get a greater disaster than that.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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