Brussels and Boris making heavy weather of getting a deal

BY Maggie Pagano | tweet maggiepagano   /  16 October 2019

Lord, what a difference a day makes, sang Dinah Washington. And how right she was: the last 24 hours look as though they have indeed brought the sun and the flowers, where there used to be rain.

In the case of Brexit, it’s been three and a half years of tempests. But the frenzied diplomacy of the last 24 hours, with DUP and ERG MPs in and out of the revolving doors of No10, suggests that they might – might – have finally broken the weather cycle.

As of a few minutes ago, there were high hopes that a legal text for the new Withdrawal Agreement will be ready ahead of tomorrow’s crucial meeting of European Council leaders.

But there are still some clouds. As Boris Johnson put it when speaking to a 1922 meeting of Tory MPs this afternoon: “We are at the Hillary Step. The summit is not far. But at the moment there is still cloud around the summit.”

The Hillary step is a reference to Mount Everest. On the question of clouds, there are three big cumulus ones in particular.

First, the European Union is still playing hard-ball demanding that in any future trade agreement Britain agrees to all future state aid, environmental and social regulations as part of the “level playing field” provisions.

France and Germany in particular are terrified that once the WA is agreed, Johnson will want to go for a basic free-trade agreement allowing the UK to diverge on environmental and social regulations. As one official said: “We will not accept a Singapore in the North Sea.”

Incidentally, The EU’s obsession with the UK becoming more competitive is understandable. But what’s not understandable is the constant comparison with Singapore which ironically has typically high standards on such regulations. They need to do some fact-checking before repeating this trope.

Secondly, there are also said to be DUP concerns over the EU’s plans for the consent mechanism which gives all Northern Irish politicians the right to approve the border proposals.

Thirdly, there are technical issues outstanding over how VAT would be levied.

Yet there is growing confidence that if the final touches of the legal text for an outline Brexit deal can be hammered out tonight or early tomorrow, then European Council leaders will give a green-light to the new proposals at the meeting.

There is of course a catch. Getting the thumbs-up from the Council’s leaders for a new Withdrawal Agreement is understood to come with a caveat: that Boris Johnson must get a parliamentary majority from the Commons when they are due meet on Saturday. First though, MPs will have to agree to an emergency meeting on Saturday – the first since the Falklands War in 1982 – in a motion to be tabled in the Commons tomorrow.

But that’s another potential cloud on the horizon – rebel Tory MPs, Labour and LibDem MPs are threatening to vote against the Saturday sitting in another effort to block Brexit. That in itself would be an outrageous and flagrant move, considering the urgency of the timetable and would appear to go against their own desire to insist on parliamentary control over the executive. Even if MPs don’t get to vote on Saturday, there are still ways around the narrowing timetable. The mood music from Europe’s capitals and from Michel Barnier, the EU’s Brexit negotiator, hints that the EU 27 countries and the UK could agree either another summit in a week’s time or a short extension in order to ratify the proposals.

Barnier is briefing the ambassadors of EU member states this evening. For now, the best outcome of talks is that European leaders agree to a new legal text in principle. As one ambassador is quoted as saying: “It can only be a political agreement. We have not seen texts and done legal scrubbing. We will need more time for that,” he said. “We can then come back to it.”

The withdrawal text will then need legal checking by customs authorities and the EU’s teams of lawyers, probably meaning a technical extension. German officials have suggested the technical work could take up to two months to complete.

There was more surprising sunshine today too from the Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, who said he still saw a “pathway to deal. There are many issues that need to be fully resolved. Particularly around the consent mechanism and also some issues around customs and VAT.”

But Varadkar, like Barnier, also spelled out hope about the timetable, adding that the Halloween deadline is still a few weeks away and that there is the “possibility of an additional summit if we need one.”

If there are more storms to come, it will be from Britain’s own MPs in the House of Commons threatening to vote down any new deal. That’s why bringing the DUP, the ERG and any of the rebel 21 Tory MPs onside in a charm offensive to agreeing on the new outline is so important to give Johnson even the slimmest majority. At the same time, behind the scenes talks are taking place with Labour rebels such as Stephen Kinnock and Caroline Flint who have said they will defy the Labour whip if required to vote against a deal.

As I have written before, Johnson has been learning how to count and may well have the numbers to get this proposal through the Commons. Independent journalist, John Rentoul, has been doing the maths and estimates that Johnson could be heading for a majority of 17 with 328 giving it their approval. He starts with the 286 MPs who voted for Theresa May’s deal on 29 March but then subtracts three -MPs like Amber Rudd who may vote against and since March, there’s been a LibDem gain. He reckons Johnson could bring onside 20 of the 28 Spartans, at least 15 from Labour rebels and one LibDem, Norman Lamb.

That would give Johnson his rainbow. But then the real fun starts, with the negotiation of a free trade agreement, which is the crock of gold. But that’s for another day.


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