Richard North, 03/12/2020  
 


That Matt Hancock should claim Brexit as the reason why the Pfizer vaccine gained its rapid approval in the UK is unsurprising. This is classic behaviour for Tory ministers, for whom ignorance is no handicap to office. 

It is unfortunate that such a man is our health secretary, but that's what you get when you vote for Tories. Sadly, there's lot a lot of difference when you vote for any other party.

Meanwhile, there seems to be a determination on the part of the those self-same Tories completely to screw up any chances of a deal with the European Union. That much is said to be the consequence of the Taxation Bill, which the Johnson administration plans to introduce to the Commons next week – to which I alluded in yesterday's piece.

The Bill is to set out procedures for customs and VAT after the end of the transition period which, if implemented, will override parts of the Irish Protocol to the Withdrawal Agreement, in much the same manner that we saw with the UK Internal Market Bill.

To make matters worse, this comes as Downing Street has pledged to overrule the House of Lords amendments on the IMB and reinsert the removed clauses, despite ministers having acknowledged that, in overriding the Irish Protocol, they breach international law.

With the UK having already ignored the Commission's deadline to respond to its initiation of infringement proceedings – this latest move is seen as the "ultimate provocation" which could trigger a total collapse of the "future relationship" talks.

According to Irish broadcaster RTE, Michel Barnier told EU ambassadors yesterday that the UK government was triggering a new "crisis" with just four weeks to go to the end of the transition period. If the proposed Finance Bill contained clauses which "breached international law" there would be a complete breakdown in trust between both sides, he said.

This was echoed by Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney in an address to his parliament's upper house, when he declared that, "A second piece of legislation deliberately breaching withdrawal agreement and international law, will be taken as a signal that UK doesn't want a deal".

Although there has been recent chatter about the prospect of an extension to the transition period, Coveney has ruled this out, saying: "There will be no extra time. From 1 January, UK will be outside the Single Market and the Customs Union. This means new controls and procedures must be applied to any goods moving to, from or through Great Britain".

He adds what is only just beginning to dawn on our state broadcaster and other news organisation, calling for business and politicians to prepare for the inevitability of Brexit. "Irrespective of the outcome of the ongoing negotiations, the end of the transition period will bring substantial and lasting change and action must be taken now", he says.

As to the progress of the talks, as of yesterday morning it was being reported that there was little sign of major progress from Barnier. All he was able to do was reiterate that talks were still snagged on the "famous three", as they have been since February.

"He said the coming days will be decisive", said one of these ever-helpful senior but anonymous EU diplomats. A much vaunted mid-November deadline is now long gone, with full ratification of any deal before Britain leaves the single market and customs union now looking highly questionable.

We have, however, seen reports that the UK is prepared to makes concessions on fishing quotas, accepting 60 percent of the value of stocks from UK waters. If the previously cited level of 80 percent relates to volume, however, that isn't much of a movement. EU-flagged vessels tend to fish for the higher-value species, which could mean that there is very little difference in volume terms.

With that, the talks have moved into what is described as a "make of break" phase, signalled by the BBC drafting in the egregious Kuenssberg to prattle about pizza deliveries to the central London talks venue as the negotiations went into extra time.

In typical style, Kuenssberg manages to make it all about herself, "revealing" that several sources have told her that the talks are likely to be concluded "in the next few days", something an amoeba with learning difficulties might have deduced without resort to the "secret squirrel" stuff so favoured by our legacy media.

Nevertheless, there appears to be something of a disconnect in that, if the Finance Bill is not due out until next week and the fate of the talks are said to hang on them, it seems unlikely that they can conclude on Friday – unless there is a provisional agreement at negotiators' level which is subsequently pulled by the principals.

It is Barnier, though, who is saying that the coming hours were going to be decisive. The Member States, on the other hand, are showing him the red light, responding with: "What's the rush?". Ambassadors for every country bordering the UK – 11 all in all – have raised concerns on the level playing field and suggested that he was at the edge of his negotiating mandate.

EU ambassadors have also urged Barnier not to allow fishing to become the last issue on the table for fear of pressure at the last moment, enabling the UK to run away with a deal damaging to the European fishing industry.

Then, there is still the direct intervention of Johnson, in yet more discussions with von der Leyen. This has been held in reserve, potentially to add high drama to the last stages of the negotiations. Should he talk with the Commission president, he needs to lay off the rhetoric about the tootling of bugles and Blucher riding to the rescue – which might not play too well with Macron.

But if Johnson is determined to go ahead with his plans to circumvent the Irish Protocol, with his new Finance Bill, then anything he might have to say might be considered provocation. Any discussions with von der Leyen could, therefore, backfire, with the Commission president issuing an ultimatum.

Then, of course, there is the European Parliament. The threat to refuse ratification if the IMB goes through still stand, and last night's statement by Downing Street cannot have helped. We have yet to hear the parliament's response to the Finance Bill, but they are hardly likely to be impressed by this move.

As I understand it, the European Parliament must approve any decision to allow temporary application of any deal – pending ratification – which will require a vote before the end of the year. This could be the parliament's opportunity to make its views known, not least by refusing to hold an emergency voting session by the end of the year.

This might open the way for a ploy which is said to be under consideration in Brussels, where a deal is withheld into the new year, leaving the UK fully exposed to the rigours of a no-deal scenario, driving it back to the negotiating table in a chastened mood, more willing to talk turkey – to coin a phrase.

Then there is the potential reaction of Biden to consider. He has already told the New York Times that new trade deals are way down his list of priorities, and once he has been acquainted with the effects of the Finance Bill, it is reasonable to assume that we can kiss goodbye to the idea of a trade deal with the US.

From a position supposedly, of "holding all the cards", Johnson might in the very near future find himself holding a pack of jokers, and he still has to contemplate to prospect of the deal having to be ratified by all 27 Member States. Macron may well have the last laugh.

Also published on Turbulent Times.






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