Richard North, 29/11/2020  

In yesterday's piece I recorded the fond hopes of the Telegraph that a breakthrough on fishing could be close in the EU-UK talks.

It is a measure of the volatility of the issue, and perhaps the lack of realism on the part of the newspaper, that in just 24 hours its mood seems to changed completely. It is now reporting a warning from Downing Street that Britain could be "just seven days away from leaving the European Union without a trade deal".

Needless to say, one could be troubled by that assertion – that we are "seven days away from leaving the European Union". Maybe the Telegraph hasn't noticed that we actually left on 31 January but then an organisation that used to employ Johnson as a writer cannot claim to have the best possible grip on reality.

Even if one takes it that the paper really meant to refer to the end of the transition period, that isn't until the end of December, in just under five weeks. So even the "seven days" is a bit iffy. On balance, it is probably trying to tell us that it thinks that the negotiations currently at hand might break down within a week.

All the same, there is a sense of fin de siècle about all this, as we confront the repetitive cycle of talks over the same issues, despite the Telegraph's optimism. And, after ten months of talks, the same "significant gap" exists on fisheries.

Such is the change of mood, though, that Number 10 is asserting that, "No deal is arguably underpriced", a variation on a theme of "no deal is better than a bad deal", one presumes. But the comment is taken to mark a toughening of the UK's position.

The paper – doubtless with the same degree of diligence that it crafted its earlier report, has "multiple sources" in the UK government saying that the talks are likely to be concluded by next weekend, with one source saying that they should be resolved "one way or another" this week.

Oddly enough, it is the turn of the Sunday Times to be optimistic, telling us Brussels is putting "pressure" on Barnier to conclude a deal, with von der Leyen being "quite helpful" and "keen to unblock things".

She has, we are told, sent one of her most senior officials, Stephanie Riso, to assist Barnier. Riso was part of Barnier's team during the Brussels negotiations with Theresa May's government and is seen as someone who can help to find a solution.

If that is the case, she certainly has her work cut out, as the Telegraph is picking up on the "risible" EU offer of an additional 15-18 percent fish quota to be allocated to the British in their own sovereign waters.

Ministers are said to have expressed "scorn" on the offer, with another UK government source saying that it shows how far apart the two sides are. Adding that "the EU side know full well that we would never accept this", he says that "There seems to be a failure from the Commission to internalise the scale of change needed as we become an independent nation".

And now, it seems, Scottish fishermen (fisherpersons?) are the one community in Scotland who are actually in favour of the London government. Elspeth MacDonald, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen Association, has said that the EU is behaving "like the bully who steals your lunch every day and expects the UK to be grateful for a few crumbs he hands back".

Dismissing Barnier's offer as "paltry", she said the EU had to "wake up and smell the fish", rejecting the idea that negotiators could offer to give the UK fish "of which we now the legal owner".

With that, those pesky "sources" are making it clear that "the UK team will not settle for anything less than a great deal for UK fishing communities that guarantees for the first time in nearly 50 years that we have control over our waters". They add: "If the EU don't move we are prepared to leave the transition period on Australia terms".

They hope that the EU will come up with some fresh thinking, with a source "close to the negotiations" dismissing attempts to date, "because what we've seen so far doesn't cut it".

To add to the litany of woe, the Observer has decided to match the Telegraph in the pessimism stakes.

This paper, however, has "scepticism" residing in the EU camp, with Barnier not even prepared to give seven days to the effort. He has told his colleagues that he is prepared for [only] four more days of make-or-break negotiations.

This time, we get "EU sources", who say there is a growing feeling that the lack of progress and the need to prepare businesses for the repercussions of a no-deal "British departure from the EU" made it unwise for negotiations to continue beyond then.

And there we have it again – a "British departure from the EU". Hey folks! We left on 31 January. This is about ending the transition period without a deal. What is it with British journalists on this?

But we're nevertheless getting the consistent message that Barnier has been advised by officials in the European Parliament that arranging for sufficient scrutiny and a consent vote by MEPs, before the end of the year, would be difficult without a deal by Wednesday.

Unlikely though it might seem, we're told that an "extraordinary sitting" of the EP has been "pencilled in" for 28 December. I really don't see that happening. But there is a "worst-case" option of the deal being provisionally applied and a vote being held by the EP after the end of the year, if further time appears useful. However, we are told that this option is not currently being considered.

Drilling down deeper into what is going on, Barnier is said to have expressed his dismay to EU ambassadors that the UK was still claiming that the EU-Canada trade deal offered precedent for its negotiating demands. He describes progress on "level playing field" provisions as "ephemeral", with one week's progress constantly at risk of being undone by the next.

This is a sort of "Grand Old Duke of York" strategy, where the negotiators are marched up the hill one week, and down again the next, getting nowhere at all. But as long as the UK is pretending that it wants a Canada-style deal, while demanding more and offering less, and the EU is making clumsy proposals on fish, there really isn't much room for manoeuvre.

And, on top of everything else, even if the two sides do manage to agree, there is the ERG waiting in the wings, which has made clear that it will vote against the legislation if "UK sovereignty" is compromised – not that any of them have expressed any clear indications that they know what the term means.

So here we are again, a few days closer to an infinitely moveable deadline, that has had us in the last chance saloon for over a month, with no better idea of where we are going than the last time the subject was addressed. If it does end on Wednesday, it will not be a moment too soon.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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