Richard North, 26/10/2020  

Scanning the media commentary over the last 24 hours – in the absence of official statements on the progress of the EU-UK trade talks - I am seeing diverse reports, ranging from cautious optimism to studied neutrality.

In the latter event, we have AFP reporting that the UK and EU are still a long way from a deal, citing "several European sources". Both sides are preparing to resume talks this week and thus we are told: "The negotiations are progressing, but we are still a long way off".

The Times, on the other hand, seems particularly encouraged by the fact that Barnier is staying in London for intensive talks until Wednesday. This, the paper says, is "prompting hopes that a trade deal with the EU will be concluded".

The truth, of course, is no one outside the very tight circle of negotiators – and those to whom they report – has any idea of where the talks stand at the moment. Even those directly involved in the talks probably could not predict their outcome.

It seems a pretty safe bet, though, that there will be a deal of sorts, even if it is a "bare bones" tariffs and quotas deal, with the UK giving away the family silver and part shares in the kitchen sink in order to get something which will largely favour EU-based traders.

That is what Leo Varadkar is telling RTE, asserting that: "It's by no means guaranteed but I think on the balance of probabilities it will be possible to agree a free-trade agreement with the UK which means there will be no quotas and no tariffs".

At this stage of the proceedings, all that must matter to Johnson is presentation. Anything his negotiators get will be pretty thin gruel, so he needs something that he can big-up as a "victory", sufficient to keep his party on-side for the next few weeks, possibly carrying him over to the end of the year.

In this, he can rely on the combination of bovine stupidity and self-interest from his MPs, and the superficiality and short-termism of the media. Mostly, those organs which might be critical will be from the left of centre press, which can be safely ignored, while all can be safely relied on to move on to other issues once any deal is a few days old.

In any event, the time to have actually influenced the debate is long past. Offering an intelligent overview of the various exit options during the referendum campaign would have been a good start, and a serious analysis of what was meant by Mrs May's "no deal is better than a bad deal" would have done much to inform public opinion.

On both these accounts, the media failed dismally, and now all it has left is the role of spectator, filling space with speculation (and invention), for want of anything useful to report.

This reportage is being padded out with occasional articles which pick out some examples of the dire fate that awaits us once the transition period is over, without making any attempt to record the broader range of effects awaiting us.

The Telegraph, for instance, is carrying a story headline that: "Last-minute Brexit deal risks supermarket turmoil", although it does qualify the story by saying that, "grocers’ experience of pandemic stockpiling may help them prepare for a 'harsh' exit from the EU".

Actually, I don't see there being much of an immediate effect on retail prices or the availability of goods in the immediate aftermath of 31 December. The supermarkets in particular will – as the Telegraph suggests - be holding buffer stocks of key commodities, and imports to the UK will still be flowing.

The post-Christmas period, in any event, is dominated by what used to be called the January sales, but which now seem to begin on Boxing Day, or even Christmas Day.

Given that pre-Christmas sales will probably be depressed as a result of Covid – and the growing economic decline – there will most likely be plenty of stock in the shops (those which are allowed to open) – to fuel the sales. The growth in online sales will also confuse the picture.

In any event, the greater effect of Brexit is set to fall on our export business, and the damage there will probably not show up until the second or third-quarter figures, and even then the effects will be obscured by the Covid-induced recession descending into a structural depression.

Given that exports to the EU will take a hit, much will depend on whether we are able to build up exports with the rest of the world, and especially the United States. But here, as we have been recently discussing, much depends on the outcome of the presidential election – and the make-up of Congress.

Here, though, it is hard to see anything happening in a hurry. A worthwhile trade deal with the US might take years to conclude, and then a further while for Congress to ratify. And then, if Biden gets in and decides to favour the EU with a trade deal, our exports could decline.

The deal with Japan, for all the hype, will probably not deliver much in the way of increased trade in the short-term, and there is little else of substance on the horizon that could give us a short-term export boost. Realistically, even at best, we should be looking to things getting worse before they get better – and they will not necessarily get better.

As for the immediate future, Brexit news is going to be competing with the media obsession on the presidential election. With the media's general inability to report in depth on more than one subject at a time, we will probably find the coverage of any deal given less attention than it might otherwise have got – especially as there is also the ongoing drama of Covid to report.

Like it or not, Brexit is going to be forced to wait its turn, and much of the publicity may be reserved for the turn of the year when, traditionally, the media usually has little to report. By then, of course, it will be too late to influence events, and we will be consigned to the role of watching the train wreck unfold, as impotent spectators.

But we can't even guarantee that there will be a sharp political blowback. The inadequacies of the Labour opposition, and its reluctance to engage in Brexit – plus the obscuring effects of Covid on top of the slow-motion effects on the economy – might mean that media (and public) interest rapidly dissipates.

There again, even now there is the outside possibility of a no-deal outcome, especially if Macron, at the very last minute, refuses to give way on fish. But even if he does, there is Spain looming in the background, which also has strong fishing interests.

It is often the case in EU politics that one country will make the running – in this case France – while other Member States keep quiet as long as their interests are being served. Overcoming the French resistance, therefore, may simply expose a new level of intransigence, from the nation which brought us the Inquisition.

Nevertheless, a no-deal will provide the media with a new level of entertainment, and perhaps provoke a higher level of coverage. That might possibly briefly overtake the presidential election coverage.

For anyone particularly interested in EU-UK relations, though, the next few weeks may prove frustrating times.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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