Richard North, 01/12/2020  

With fish in the frame. The chips are down. And to entertain us all, in the red corner is Polly Toynbe, who confidently asserts that Johnson "will get a deal". In the blue corner, though, we have William Hague who tells us that: "A no-deal Brexit is far more likely than anyone is prepared to admit".

Basically, you pays yer money and you takes yer choice. Assuming we're not being treated to a stage-managed finale, the talks could go either way, as they run down to the wire with no resolution in sight.

Hague, though, might just have the edge in observing that, "France’s hard line position on fishing misjudges the Prime Minister's room for manoeuvre on sovereignty". To be more accurate, he's talking about the perception of sovereignty, but since Johnson wouldn't know the difference, we might as well treat it as the same thing.

The point made by the Telegraph editorial is that "Britain must not back down" – on fishing. "We want control of our fishing waters", of our fishing waters.

Rightly, for once (it doesn't happen often), the paper picks up on the history of the CFP, precisely the issues I rehearsed in July (here and here), pointing out the historical resonance and why fishing is so special to Eurosceptics.

One might suggest that, to date, Barnier has played a fairly sound hand in managing the "future relationship" negotiations. But, in his most recent handling of the fisheries issue, it is equally possible to suggest that he has made a misstep, in failing to recognise the emotional significance of the issue.

Representing the 27 Member States, of course, Barnier has his hands tied, and it is undoubtedly the French who are insisting that he takes a hard line – although I wouldn't be surprised if the Spanish weren't in there somewhere, pushing their own agendas.

But, since it was an egregious display of bad faith on the part of the French in 1970, who deliberately brought forward a regulation on the CFP before the UK had joined the EEC, in order to settle the details before we could influence the proceedings, the fact that the French are again front and centre is probably not helping matters.

Certainly, the comments of France's Europe Minister, Clement Beaune, cannot be helping. He has been warning that Paris would not allow French fishermen to be sacrificed to get the deal done, declaring that it was unacceptable that Britain "should lay down the law" in the negotiations.

"Our fishermen are no less important than theirs and they didn't have the right to vote in the referendum", he told reporters on a visit to Madrid, adding: "There can be no agreement unless there is one that gives sustainable and wide-ranging access to British waters".

Taken at face value – as seen through English eyes – this would seen to suggest that the French had not fully got to grips with Brexit. The whole point of leaving the EU, after all, is to "take back control", which means that the perfidious English have set their hearts on laying down the law.

The two sides, therefore, do seem to be taking irreconcilable stances, which does not augur well for the success of the talks. The Guardian makes this plain, having senior Irish and French and ministers warning that the EU is not going to fall into a Brexit "negotiating trap" being laid by the UK.

Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney is suggesting the UK is using fishing as leverage in other parts of the trade talks. There was the potential for Britain to agree compromises in other areas, including state aid and governance, then to use that to squeeze a last-minute compromise on fishing.

Coveney, though, stressed that the EU will not buy this ploy. "What we are not going to do is to get an agreement in all of these other areas and then allow a situation where the UK side say: 'Look, we’re not going to allow this whole thing to collapse over fish', and for us to essentially give Britain what they want over fish", he says.

That's what he calls the "British negotiating trap", making it clear that: "We're not playing that game". He affirms that: "If there isn't an agreement on this, the whole thing could fall on the back of it".

This, apparently, has brought Merkel into the fray. She has conceded that there is some anxiety about the prolonged negotiations, with the Netherlands, Belgium and France all asking the European Commission to trigger no-deal preparations in recent weeks.

Offering the usual platitudes, she expresses hope "that these talks will come to a happy ending". She also adds the standard caveat, saying: "We don't need an agreement at any price", then offering something of an olive branch. "We want one [a deal]", she says, "but otherwise we'll take measures that are necessary. In any case a deal is in the interest of all".

Interestingly, she then hints at a willingness to bundle access to the EU's single market in electricity with rights to catches in UK fishing waters. On this, she says: "Perhaps for some the most tangible are concrete questions, from the British point of view access to energy markets, from our view access to British fishing grounds".

It is in this space that Toynbee struts her stuff. She arguing that, although this government is disgraceful and dishonest, "it is not certifiably insane". Thus, however hard Johnson "bluffs and fibs to disguise the inconvenient truth", he will sign a deal.

Furthermore, in this deal, he will agree to align with EU standards on working rights, animal welfare, the environment and much else. For any future divergences there will be an adjudications body, which may or may not be the European court of justice.

Fish, she says, will be reapportioned, with complexity and transitions that try to shield the hard fact: we took back control of our waters in theory, but gave it up in the same breath because there is no fishing industry without that vital EU market to buy more than 70 percent of our catch.

This, she asserts, will be a betrayal of the Brexiteers, and she raises the possibility of rebel Tory backbenchers voting against the deal, with Starmer's Labour troops rescuing Johnson by voting for it. That would be a huge irony, mirroring the situation in 1972 when Heath relied on Labour backbenchers to get accession to the EEC approved.

But if history thus repeats itself, that would pave the way for more internal warfare within the Conservative Party. Far from settling the issues, Brexit will simply prove to be another chapter in the decades-long war within the party over "Europe".

It would be a delicious irony if this brought down Johnson, the possibility of which he cannot be unaware. And this may be why Toynbee is wrong. Hague would have it that Johnson simply has no room for manoeuvre, and cannot give way.

However, Macron has his own problems – not least with the first round of the French presidential election being held in April 2022. These elections tend to have a long reach, where Macron has as much to lose as Johnson. And, when les frites are down, hopes for a settlement begin to look extremely slender.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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