EU Referendum

Brexit: round in circles


One of the more interesting comments to emerge this weekend comes from Leo Varadkar. He says that, if there is to be an agreement on Johnson's proposal, a "realistic deadline" for the production of a final draft is next Friday – 11 October - to allow it to be assessed by Member States ahead of the European Council on 17-18 October.

While the general UK media chatter is focused on 19 October – for no other reason than it is the date set in the Benn Act – this is indeed the "realistic deadline" for any deal. The 27 Member States need to look at a final draft, in advance of the General Affairs Council on 15 October, when the decision will be made to forward it to the European Council (with the appropriate recommendations).

Without the preliminary stages, the European Council won't even consider a draft which means that unless a final legal draft can be agreed by the end of business on the Thursday, there is very little chance of a deal being agreed by the coming session of the European Council. For one to be agreed by 31 October, there would have to be a special Council called, which might be difficult to arrange.

With the talks only re-starting on Monday, that effectively gives David Frost and his team only four working days to come up with a draft that is considered to be an acceptable basis for discussion, and then negotiate any changes. These, obviously, will have to be cleared with Downing Street and then the draft will have to be approved by Barnier before being translated into the EU's 24 official languages and then forwarded to the Member States.

Some of the Member States are required by their constitutions – or conventions – to consult with their own parliaments – or, at least, the party leaders – adding more time to the process. Some insist on responding to communications from Brussels in their own languages, making it a point of principle to do so. That adds an extra time constraint, before the papers can be delivered to the General Affairs Council.

Since these are procedural steps, it is only with very great difficulty that short-cuts can be taken, and to attempt to do so is not without risk. If Member States feel they are being excluded from the process, or their views taken for granted, their ambassadors may be instructed to block progress at the General Affairs Council, just to make a point.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, it was an extremely cautious Michel Barnier who addressed an event in Paris yesterday, sponsored by the French Le Monde newspaper, with input from the Guardian, telling the audience that when he was mandated by the European Commission to negotiate Brexit with the British government, he "imagined it would be very complicated, and I was not disappointed".

Making his position clear on the current proposal, he said that, if the Johnson government does not "come back with new proposals on two serious problems that we have reported to them, I do not see how we could move forward".

The problems in question are the return of customs controls between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and the right of veto over the agreement London wants to grant to Northern Ireland. "We must preserve the unity of the island [the Good Friday peace agreements exclude the return of a physical border between the two Irelands], but also protect the integrity of the single European market", Barnier said.

Asked for his response if the negotiations failed again, Barnier said that "these negotiations have been lose-lose since the beginning". He added: "We are ready for a no-deal, even if we do not want it", reaffirming that, "The no-deal will never be the choice of the EU, if that happens, it would be the choice of the United Kingdom".

Interestingly, he then made an observation on an issue which perhaps isn't given enough prominence, especially in the context of Johnson's vacuous "get Brexit done" slogan. The discussions will not end anyway, he said: "Agreement or not, this is not the end of the story. The whole future relationship with the United Kingdom remains to be defined".

Ominously, the Le Monde report concluded with Barnier saying that trading is "as important for Europe" as it is for the UK, then remarking: "With the way the world is evolving, the European countries, individually, will not be at the tables of the big countries in 2050".

"If we want to be respected, to participate in the new world order", he added, "we have to be around the table". And to achieve this, the only way "is to be together as twenty-seven". And it was this that had Le Monde remark that "Brexit has definitely not shaken the European project".

Nevertheless, Barnier takes a positive view about wanting a deal with the UK and says, "For me the most important is the long-term reconstruction of the relationship with a country that will remain our partner, our friend and our ally". It isn't all doom and gloom.

Although a participant in the conference, the Guardian's "take" has a somewhat different emphasis, articulated in today's Observer.

This report opens with Barnier saying that Johnson’s government will have to bear full responsibility for a no-deal Brexit, "as more than three years of talks between the UK and Brussels appeared on the brink of collapse last night", characterising Barnier's comments as having the appearance of "the opening shots in a blame game as both sides sense failure".

This is not a wholly inaccurate view. The noises coming out of Downing Street are not encouraging, with the "Second" Cummings declaring, as late as Friday evening, that if Brussels did not soften its opposition to the UK's proposals, the UK would be ready to leave with no deal.

Barnier, though, is unequivocal, telling Guardian journalists that there were serious problems with Johnson's proposal. It threatened the EU Single Market and did not answer EU concerns on the need for customs checks: "We are a Single Market", he said. "That's a complete ecosystem, with common rights, common norms, common standards, common rules, a common legal system. It requires checks at its borders".

This is the first time for a while that Barnier has talked about the Single Market "ecosystem", and if he is to be faulted for anything, one might suggest that he does not give it enough emphasis. Certainly, the concept does not seem to have penetrated the minds of Johnson and his team, who still talk of regulatory conformity as the be all and end all of Single Market access.

Whatever passed in Paris, though, sentiment cannot be improved by the lead headline in The Sunday Telegraph, which declares: "Boris Johnson to sabotage EU if forced to delay Brexit".

The report talks of Johnson vetoing the EU's Multi-annual financial framework (MFF) – where the talks are effectively conducted on an intergovernmental basis - and sending a "Eurosceptic" commissioner to Brussels to "disrupt" the Commission's workings. In the latter event, the Nigel Farage has been named.

In reality, neither ploy might have much effect. Procedurally, there are ways of by-passing the MFF when it comes to framing annual budgets. Interference, while irritating the "colleagues", would have little practical effect. As to planting Farage in the Commission, perhaps Downing Street hasn't realised that nominees must be "adopted" by the Council and the European Parliament must approve them.

Thus, while Steve Baker, former Brexit minister, compares this to shooting "a nuclear weapon into the heart of the asteroid", he is talking crap as he so often does. His comments are almost as bizarre as David Cameron's, who told an audience at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on Saturday that the Johnson had a "good chance" of securing a deal.

By way of contrast, Barnier talks of having found "solutions" to Brexit last November, with Theresa May. "We worked, seriously, methodically, together with her government", he says, and now there is Boris Johnson "questioning a very important part of that agreement".

Johnson, he warns, must realise that "a deal is between two parties". Britain cannot demand concessions the EU cannot make, as the argument goes round in circles.