Richard North, 04/12/2020  

When I was learning to fly, I recall one day tooling around the sky with my instructor when we saw a rainbow in the distance. We both knew the physics, but just for the hell of it, we decided to chase down the end of the rainbow in search of the fabled crock of gold.

Needless to say, as we got closer and the angles changed, the rainbow disappeared. We never did get to find that fortune in treasure that awaits the first person to arrive when the rainbow is still there.

What brought this to mind, of course, is the current state of the "future relationship" talks, where – it seems – whenever there is a deal in sight and you get close to the end, just like the rainbow, it disappears. One might even call them the "rainbow talks", except that that could raise different connotations.

Nevertheless, with much talk yesterday of a deal being reached as early as Friday, here we are on the appointed day and, depending on which source you read, the deal is either hanging in the balance or chances are actually receding.

In my very last sentence in yesterday's piece, I did suggest that Macron might have the last laugh, but I wasn't thinking of hearing his mirth quite so soon. But there seems to be general agreement amongst the hacks that the French are the current obstacle to settling the deal.

The Financial Times, for instance, tells us that Macron has intervened directly, on fish and state aid, with British officials complaining that eleventh-hour demands have left an agreement "hanging in the balance".

Fishing, as always, is up-front, with Macron wanting to preserve "a substantial chunk" of existing fishing rights for his country's fleet, while he is also insisting on a strict UK state-aid regime "to avoid what Paris sees as unfair competition".

This is said to be alarming Boris Johnson, with officials from both sides admitting that any prospect of a deal by the end of the weekend has now disappeared. A senior British government official – anonymous as always - says: "At the eleventh hour, the EU is bringing new elements into the negotiation. A breakthrough is still possible in the next few days but that prospect is receding".

At the moment, though, the Telegraph doesn't seem to be working from the same memo. It is building up to a "High Noon" showdown between Macron and Johnson over the weekend, although "senior sources" are unsure as to whether Macron is setting out to sabotage the talks.

There is a school of thought which suggests that the "choreography" of the deal requires a last-minute drama, whence a third party – presumably von der Leyen – steps in as the last-minute conciliator with a creative compromise. The weary negotiators then go back to their talk and shortly thereafter, a deal is announced, with all parties wreathed in smiles.

Either way, that pretty much rules out the announcement of a deal today, and Monday is now being talked about as the latest unofficial deadline. That, itself, is getting perilously close to the European Council later in the week, lending sustenance to the idea that hopes of a settlement are receding.

Interestingly, the Guardian seems more inclined to pessimism, reporting that the negotiations have taken a "sudden step backwards", with an apparent eleventh hour hardening of the EU position said to have destabilised the protracted talks, "peeling back progress made over the previous 24 hours".

Rather than a showdown between Johnson and Macron, however, this paper sees the "wobble" as a prelude to the "long-expected arbitration meeting" between Johnson, and von der Leyen. That would actually make more sense, and if we see movement in that direction over the weekend, then we could be seeing a settlement announced early next week.

Drama apart, it is being acknowledged that the talks have gone backwards, with issues previously agreed now back in the melting pot. Some are saying that 24 hours have been lost in having to renegotiate parts of the deal.

But there are some signs which suggest that the dispute between the sides is real, and that there are serious, unresolved issues to be addressed. Barnier himself is saying that any deal should provide "definitions, principles and binding, workable and operational enforcement", which makes this far more than just a spat about French fishing rights.

The FT points to UK opposition to French-backed proposals for the level playing field, which requires Britain to create a regulator with powers to police state aid to companies "even before the money is handed out". And there is still the matter of the "ratchet clauses" that would force both sides to have environmental and labour regulations that evolve in a similar way over time.

The interesting thing here, though, is that with ECJ involvement ruled out, France is demanding the right for European companies to haul the UK government before the British courts if it violated its commitments on level playing fields.

Thus, we could see the British government taken to court in the UK, by governments of the EU Member States, with the prospect of penalties being imposed by British courts which the government would have to pay.

And yet, with the erosion of trust arising from the IMB, and the potential for further perturbation from the Finance Bill, enforcement issues have become all the more sensitive. Without a cast-iron agreement, with enforcement provisions that have real teeth, the UK government simply is not going to be trusted.

From the welter of noise surrounding the talks, however, we are still hearing seductive calls from the French to dump the talks this side of the new year, allowing them to resume in 2021, giving time for a period of reflection which would avoid the danger of rushing into a deal.

Nor is France entirely alone in this though, as there are concerns that Barnier, with so much invested in securing a deal, is in danger of over-stepping his negotiating mandate. One [anonymous] diplomat suggests that Barnier is treading "on the red line" in the most contentious areas.

For the moment, it seems that Barnier's most loyal supporter is Irish premier, Micheál Martin. He urges Member States to trust Barnier to deliver. "We are now at a very critical and sensitive point of the negotiations", he says – one of those statement of the bleedin' obvious in which politicians delight.

Tripping out the clichés, he then says, "I want to see a deal done and I believe a deal is possible", adding that: "It's clear to me that the landing zone is there for an agreement. We can't all be negotiators at the table, we've got to have faith and trust in the negotiating team to get a balanced deal over the line".

Foreign minister Coveney also got in on the act, prior to a meeting with France’s European affairs minister, Clément Beaune, in Paris. Coveney argues that it would be "a very dangerous assumption" that new talks could easily resume after a no-deal outcome.

This man thinks that the "political tension that would follow" the "significant disruption, costs, stress, and blame games between Brussels and London", would tend to rule out an easy resumption of talks.

And yet, the EU surely cannot have exhausted its creativity when it comes to cliff-edge talks. We have yet to see that famous device which brought the successful conclusion of the original CAP talks – the stopped clock.

Vested with magical powers, the Commission could doubtless freeze time for two or three weeks, with a raft of contingency orders giving this practical effect, to allow final details to be agreed. Perhaps all they have to do is send the fat lady away on holiday, or reinvent physics and start digging at the end of the rainbow.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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