EU Referendum

Brexit: the day the deal died


For all the excitement of yesterday, the day appeared to finish on a positive note, with a 40-minute telephone conversation between Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson and Irish premier Leo Varadkar. That brought the promise of a meeting later in the week, suggesting that there is still the possibility of a last-minute deal.

The Irish Times, however, is not convinced. Although it agrees that one reason could be that it is simply too early to throw in the towel on the current round of talks, it could be that neither side is willing to concede victory in the blame game. Nobody wishes to be the first to pull the plug on the talks.

One might recall, though, that it was Varadkar who warned that, if there was to be an agreement on Johnson's proposal, a "realistic deadline" for the production of a final draft was Friday 11 October, to allow it to be assessed by Member States ahead of the European Council on 17-18 October.

If Varadkar is as good as his word – bearing in mind that Macron has also set a Friday deadline – then a further meeting is hardly going to achieve anything. It will be too late for Johnson to submit another proposal and, without that, the talks are going nowhere.

We are, therefore, effectively back to the start of yesterday with the telephone call between Johnson and Angela Merkel. But any analysis of this must take account of one salient fact: there is no official account of the conversation from Merkel and everything we know of what transpired comes either from "Downing Street sources" or the issue-illiterate media.

The most complete account of the conversation is probably this, which tells us that "the call with Merkel showed that the EU has adopted a new position". The account continues:
She made clear a deal is overwhelmingly unlikely and she thinks the EU has a veto on us leaving the Customs Union. Merkel said that if Germany wanted to leave the EU they could do it no problem but the UK cannot leave without leaving Northern Ireland in a customs union and in full alignment forever. She says that Ireland is the government's special problem and Ireland must at least have a veto on Northern Ireland leaving. Merkel said that the PM should tell Northern Ireland that it must stay in full alignment forever, but that even this would not eliminate customs issues.
And thus it goes on:
It was a very useful clarifying moment in all sorts of ways. If this represents a new established position, then it means a deal is essentially impossible not just now but ever. It also made it clear that they are willing to torpedo the Good Friday Agreement.
The news broke with, amongst others, the implausible Laura Kuenssberg retailing the improbable claim that Merkel had said that there "could only be a deal if Northern Ireland stays in Customs Union", something which is legally and practically impossible.

Northern Ireland cannot stay in the EU's customs union. When the UK leaves the EU, it automatically drops out. For the province to be in a customs union with the EU after Brexit, the UK must conclude a new treaty with the EU to create a brand new EU-NI customs union.

Here, the nearest comparison is Turkey. It is not in the EU's customs union - it has concluded its own separate customs union treaty with the EU. This underlines the simple premise that it is not possible for any state to be in the EU's customs union without also being in the EU.

This type of regime allows for trade deals with other third countries. If there is a differential on external tariffs, then goods imported and then re-exported to EU states require the difference to be paid.

Despite the obvious issue-illiteracy of the reports, however, the stakes were massively raised by the terse response of European Council president Donald Tusk. Addressing Johnson directly, he declared:
What's at stake is not winning some stupid blame game. At stake is the future of Europe and the UK as well as the security and interests of our people. You don't want a deal, you don't want an extension, you don't want to revoke, quo vadis?
Ireland's Simon Coveney quickly chipped in, saying:
Hard to disagree - reflects the frustration across EU and the enormity of what’s at stake for us all. We remain open to finalize a fair #Brexit deal but need a UK Govt willing to work with EU to get it done.
Yet, despite Tusk's comments, the news evoked a huffy response from Commission spokesman Pablo Pérez. He said, "Under no circumstances will we accept that the EU wants to do harm to the Good Friday Agreement. The purpose of our work is to protect it in all its dimensions", then adding: "The EU position has not changed: we want a deal. We are working for a deal".

Further doubts about the authenticity of the Downing Street source's account began to emerge with an intervention from Bruno Waterfield. He noted that, "Veteran diplomats and Brexit negotiators here don't recognise the Downing account of Merkel call", recording that: "[the] view is that a very difficult call has been misinterpreted or exaggerated because [the] Johnson offer on regulatory alignment (seen as positive) has been knocked back".

And then, while Angela Merkel maintained a dignified silence, her close associate, Norbert Röttgen intervened with a blunt statement: "There is no new German position on Brexit", he tweeted. With no attempt to sugar the pill, he added: "Frankly a deal on the basis of Johnson’s proposals [by] 31 Oct has been unrealistic from the beginning and yet the EU has been willing to engage. Blaming others for the current situation is not fair play!"

The picture, though, only begins to clear when we take account of an e-mail from an unnamed Downing Street source the previous day, rumoured to be from Cummings.

Putting together the clues, the indications are that an audacious Downing Street strategy is being played out. The aim, it would seem, is to sabotage the talks while transferring the blame to the EU for the failure to reach a deal. The timing is such that marking down the prospects of a deal as "essentially impossible" early in the week relieves Johnson of the need to meet the Varadkar/Macron deadline.

With the talks generally acknowledged as "dead", the play now revolves around the willingness of the European Council to offer an Article 50 time extension.

As it stands, Johnson must apply for an extension if he cannot come up with a deal. Smart money has him leading his party into a general election, which surely must soon come. He will fight on a no-deal platform, blaming parliament and the EU – and anyone else he can think of – for the deal not materialising, and for being forced to apply for an extension.

The "not my fault, guv" ploy might just win him the election, as long as Lib-Dem and Farage Party votes do not erode his support and give the game to Labour. And, once elected for a full term, Johnson's first action will be to take us out of the EU without a deal.

That much, of course, is speculation but it is not untoward to suggest that yesterday we saw history made. Certainly, the Mail is in no doubt, describing it as "the day the Brexit deal died". And its assassin was Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.