Richard North, 02/12/2020  

Before representatives of the original Six came to sign the Paris Treaty on 18 April 1951, establishing the European Coal and Steel Community, the negotiations had run so close to the wire that there was not time to produce a cleaned-up final draft. Thus, they improvised and signed a pile of blank sheets. "Europe" was born with a blank cheque.

Clearly, the "colleagues" are not prepared to repeat that trick with the final treaty which sets up the "future relationship" between the EU and the United Kingdom. Rather than take the text on trust, "nervy" Member States, we are told, are to demand to see the final draft of any deal before it is agreed.

This deed is set for early today in a video conference with Barnier, who is currently in London, amid concerns that he has "gone native" and, as legend had it, is preparing to concede too much ground in the final days of negotiation.

Of course, there is always a chance that this is another of those shaggy dog tales, as we're reliant on the notorious anonymous source, this time a "senior EU diplomat". This person says the Member States have confidence in Barnier as a negotiator but there is "some nervousness" following his briefing last Friday when he spoke of allowing some "flexibility" over aspects of customs and border controls.

At that stage, there had been no reciprocal movement from "Team UK" in the shape of a "robust system of dispute settlement", which Barnier admitted could "give rise to concerns about cherry picking". This, it seems, was enough to have the Member States asking to see any finished draft. "Being in the dark makes people nervous", this EU diplomat says.

Putting names and faces to the concern, we have Macron, and Belgium's prime minister, Alexander De Croo. They have spoken at a joint press conference, telling reporters that they were determined to ensure that EU interests were not damaged in the last moments of the negotiation.

Macron is reported as saying: "We are particularly vigilant on the level playing field, today and in the future, and the question of fishing. The preservation of the activities of our fishermen in British waters is an essential condition, the fair rules of the market in the future equally so".

It's actually fairly unusual, to my memory, for individual heads of state to go public at the final stages of a negotiation – not that we have much precedent to go by, as this is the first time a Member State has left the fold. But here, Macron may be sending a message to Barnier, as he says that "France won't accept a deal that doesn’t respect our interests in the future".

De Croo was obviously there to provide a supporting cast. He used a football analogy to emphasise his concern about the UK scoring a "decisive goal … in the last minute". That he and Macron are speaking together sends its own signal, as the deal is deemed "concluded" by the Council by QMV. France alone cannot veto it.

Then we get to the nub, as "some diplomats" are said to be concerned that von der Leyen might be on the verge of authorising Barnier to offer too many concessions in order to enhance her own legacy by sealing a last-minute deal.

Belgium firing a shot across the Commission president's bows, in this context, is quite significance. The home state for the Commission's headquarters is usually the most loyal of friends, so De Croo plus Macron is a powerful combination.

There is certainly something in the von der Leyen saying that she is determined to secure a system that goes beyond a conventional free trade "non-regression" clause on environmental or social standards.

She says that discussions are focused on how to "replicate control of the level playing field", allowing UK access to the market without quotas or tariffs, while ensuring that "all companies play by the same rules in the single market".

Until very late, it was only the Guardian running this story, but that paper was joined by the Financial Times, headlining "Barnier faces pressure from national capitals over Brexit compromises".

The thrust of the story is essentially the same, with a little more detail in some areas. For instance, this paper says that the EU has recently given ground on some points relating to trade in goods, including on customs facilitations and steps to facilitate roll-on roll-off freight crossing the Dover-Calais short straits.

It seems that Brussels has also softened some of its demands on rules of origin, relaxing requirements on how much of a good must be locally produced for it to qualify for tariff-free trade.

It is these concessions, as much as anything, which seem to have stoked concerns in Paris and other capitals that the EU might be paying too high a price for a deal, leaving the UK able to "cherry pick" the benefits of the Single Market.

On this side of the Channel, business leaders have been told to be ready for a conference call with Michael Gove, on Thursday, which has sparked speculation that the talks could reach a climax this week. But, even as negotiators are seeking to push a deal over the line, the FT says that Britain is preparing further measures that would violate the Withdrawal Agreement.

This, apparently, is a new taxation bill containing clauses threatening to overwrite sections of the Northern Ireland protocol. We don't have any details as yet, but the timing – to say the least – seems a little unfortunate.

With the Telegraph also joining the throng on the "Barnier under pressure" story, though, one wonders if this isn't a deliberate plant to establish a meme that the Commission is going overboard to be "nice" to the Brits.

One can just never tell with these talks, but there always lurks a suspicion that the flow of information is being manipulated, specifically to manage expectations and to guide sentiment in the "blame game". It cannot hurt the EU cause for the world to know that Barnier is prepared to give away so much that some of the Member States are worried.

That way, when the likes of Macron roll over and the UK still doesn't concede the final points, the blame can be dumped fairly and squarely on the "intransigent" Brits – or maybe that's just too cynical.

The Telegraph, however, does pick up that this is "a rare rebuke for Mr Barnier" and represents "a seldom-seen hint at disunity among the remaining 27 member states in the face of Brexit". Given how much store has been set on the "unity" of the EU-27, that in itself gives one pause for thought.

So far, the UK – under both May and Johnson – have sought as a matter of policy – to drive wedges between the Commission and the Member States, and between the Member States themselves. If cracks in the façade were really beginning to show, this would represent something of a success for the Brits.

The key determinant, if this is the case, will be the stance taken by Merkel – with Germany holding the rotating presidency. And if she and Macron, expressing the view of the "Franco-German motor", come together, the rest of the States tend to follow and the Commission will stand to attention and salute.

The worst of it though is that Leo Varadkar is talking about a deal being done "in the next couple of weeks", and the expectation now seems to be that the talks will definitely stretch into next week. One might, therefore, expect Tuesday's European Affairs conference to be the cut-off.

In the meantime, we are told that the EU will launch contingency measures either today or Thursday if it has been unable to conclude a deal with the UK. This is from another of those "EU diplomats", who says the move is necessary because "it will be roughly three weeks left until the end of the transition period".

"Companies and institutions like customs offices around the EU", he says, "need to have clarity about what tariffs to impose and other measures if there is no deal and by the middle of the week we will have finally reached that point when such measures have to be spelled out".

With tomorrow being set as "the limit", dare one even hope that this is the real deadline, and that the torture might soon be over?

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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