Richard North, 23/10/2020  

It looks to be thin pickings for the next few days, or even weeks. With the negotiations starting up again, senior figures in Barnier's team have told EU diplomats not to leak details of their Brexit meetings to the press during the intensified negotiations.

Officials have been warned that leaks of sensitive information could derail the "delicate" talks and risk a no-deal which means that information might be hard to come by. On the other hand, the EU diplomatic corps seems so stuffed with "anonymous sources" that the whole system is as leaky as a sieve.

For the moment, though, we have to be content with Barnier telling us that Britain and the EU have a "huge common responsibility" to avoid a no-deal Brexit, his one great contribution to the knowledge of mankind as he arrived in London for the first day of "rebooted" trade talks.

Much to our surprise (not), we also learn that Number 10 is warning that "significant gaps" remain between the two sides. The usual culprits are involved: fishing, "level playing field guarantees" and enforcement (aka governance). Its view is that it is "entirely possible that negotiations will not succeed".

Talks have gone into the intensive phase and will continue through the weekend, resuming in Brussels next week. However – perhaps unsurprisingly – the not so silent officials are warning that there will not be a breakthrough this week.

Obviously not having been completely bound by their newly imposed vows of silence, EU diplomats in Brussels have predicted that fishing would be the easiest of the three outstanding issues to solve.

"All three issues remain open, but I would be more cautiously optimistic about fish," says another of these non-leaking EU diplomats. "But don't tell Paris", he adds. Another Brussels source says that the issue of fish was "symbolically big but practically small".

It is "politically difficult" but "technically possible" to balance UK demands for increased fishing opportunities and the EU need for access to British waters, sources said.

Macron, of course, is the key here, and there is talk of compromise in the air. He has even suggested paying for a fishing quota, although no sum has been mentioned. Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte – also with fishing interests - is meeting von der Leyen, in The Hague on Friday. This is fuelling speculation that a deal could be done, although speculation is cheap and not often borne out.

However, if speculation is all we're going to get, then we have to make the most of it, as they stretch out the tedium. Eventually, they'll get there – wherever "there" is. Meanwhile, we have the train wreck of Covid-19 to entertain us. Here, The Times is telling us that £2 billion has been lost to criminals in a furlough cash fraud.

HM Revenue and Customs have estimated that between five and ten percent of the £39 billion in payments made under the Treasury’s job retention scheme are likely to have been claimed fraudulently by organised criminals posing as legitimate businesses.

This brilliant scheme is brought to us by the tawdry mob which is now managing Brexit for us. With such dedicated minds at work, what can possibly go wrong?

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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