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President Emmanuel Macron has doubled down on fishing today, warning the United Kingdom that failure to comply with French demands will result in a no-deal Brexit. There had been more optimistic reports over the last few days that a compromise was close on several contentious issues in the Brexit negotiations. That changed today and the EU is taking a tough line, led by Macron.
The French President has long been building up to this point, waiting for the right moment to dare Boris Johnson (with whom he gets on well in other contexts) to either withdraw from the talks or fold and concede. From the publication of the European Union’s negotiating mandate for the Brexit talks in February and onwards, Macron has consistently said that French fishermen should continue to have access to British waters after the end of the Brexit transition period.
Now, he has reinforced his position, telling a meeting of the European Council today that “If conditions aren’t met it’s possible we don’t have an agreement. We are ready for that”. Macron added that if “no good terms” can be found then the EU 27 will be “ready for a no deal.”
The French President unashamedly presented this as a point of national interest too: “Under no condition can our fishermen be sacrificed during Brexit. We didn’t choose Brexit”.
The intervention threatens to dash expectations of an EU-UK trade deal being struck by the end of the month. Although, Chancellor Angela Merkel has sought to adopt a slightly softer tone on fisheries, and it is still hoped that she might yet be able to persuade the French to follow her lead. Others have suggested that Macron’s position might not in fact be as maximalist as it appears.
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Still, there are other signs that the talks have hit a tricky spot. As leaders from the 27 EU member states met at a session of the European Council today, they also sought to free up extra time to continue Brexit talks beyond the end of the Council meeting tomorrow. European leaders warned that insufficient progress on outstanding issues had taken place while the official conclusions for the Council meeting called on the UK to make “necessary moves to make an agreement possible.”
In early September, Boris Johnson had today, 15 October, as the deadline for a big deal being in place in time for the end of the Brexit transition period. Yet in a call with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen today he is believed to have expressed his “disappointment” at a recent lack of tangible results. Downing Street says that the Prime Minister will consider the UK’s next move – whether to push ahead and strike a deal or prepare for WTO terms – on Friday.
Lord Frost, Downing Street’s lead negotiator, tweeted about his “disappointment” with the European Council conclusions this evening, hitting back at the “suggestion that to get an agreement all future moves must come from the UK.” Frost said that he will set out a full response tomorrow. Let’s see.
Whichever way the talks go from here, time is running out.
Manchester in revolt
The Mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham, said today that he will “stand firm” against the government as he vehemently criticised the decision to try and put the city into a strict “Tier Three” lockdown. Speaking to reporters earlier today, Burnham denounced the “punishing” local restrictions being imposed as “flawed and unfair”.
Channelling his inner tribune of the people, Burnham thunderously defied the commands of Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, as he said: “Greater Manchester, the Liverpool City Region and Lancashire are being set up as the canaries in the coal mine for an experimental regional lockdown strategy”.
Burnham added: “This is an important moment. Greater Manchester will stand firm. We are fighting back for fairness and for the health of our people in the broadest sense.”
Precisely what this resistance will amount to is not entirely clear as of yet. It might mean that Burnham and the mayor’s office are gearing up for a legal challenge to the decision.
Red Wall Tory MPs are also warning the Prime Minister that these policies make it look like the North is being punished for collective national failures.
Yet challenges are also being faced further south. London will go into Tier Two tomorrow evening, spelling catastrophe for the capital’s tottering hospitality industry. There is also talk of “circuit breakers” being introduced in Liverpool and Wales.
All the while, cases have been rising and rising across Europe. Germany recorded its highest ever daily rise in new cases – a shocking total of 6,638 – since the start of the pandemic yesterday. We will have more on this from Reaction tomorrow.
Hardly anyone is happy going into the winter, it seems – and it’s only mid-October.
La vie en Covide
It’s not just Britain turning day by day into an authoritarian nightmare, apparently. French gendarmes from the Central Office for the Environment and Public Health have searched the homes of leading politicians as a part of an inquiry into the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. Among the targets of the police probe are Health Minister Olivier Véran, the director of the national health agency, Jerôme Salomon, and former Prime Minister Edouard Philippe. The offices of Véran and Salomon were also searched for evidence.
Opposition politicians have responded with shock. Jean-Luc Reitzer of the French centre-right Republican Party has expressed his dismay at the nature of the search. Éric Coquerel of the left-wing France Unbowed said: “I really don’t think these raids are appropriate; this is a judicialisation of public life.”
The inquiry was set up in July, when a judicial investigation into the government’s handling of the Covid-19 epidemic was established in response to mounting public complaints. The current Prime Minister, Jean Castex, is also under investigation alongside the former Health Minister, Agnès Buzyn, but their offices and homes have so far not been searched.
While this all sounds like something that might have happened at the height of the revolutionary Terror of 1793-4 – I can confirm that it is in fact the latest news from across the Channel. The French have form when it comes to setting up terrifying Committees of Public Safety/Health (delete as appropriate).
Walter Ellis has more for Reaction today on Macron’s latest round of emergency measures, announced late last night, for major French cities. You can find his article here.