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Brexit: The Ticking Clock

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As most UK and Irish readers have likely read by now, things are not going at all well with the crunch effort to seal a Brexit deal. Headlines like the Financial Times’ Brussels baffled by UK’s ‘complex’ proposals to fix Brexit deadlock speak volumes, in a bad way. Even worse, the article proper quotes an EU source re the UK’s proposal” “fiendishly complex and not yet properly worked out.” The BBC was not much cheerier: Brexit: ‘Big gap’ remains in UK-EU deal discussions.

The EU’s official statement was terse and by diplospeak standard, not encouraging:

Michel Barnier briefed EU27 Ambassadors this afternoon, following constructive technical-level talks with the United Kingdom over the weekend. He will also inform the European Parliament’s Brexit Steering Group this evening.

A lot of work remains to be done.

Discussions at technical level will continue tomorrow. Michel Barnier will brief EU27 Ministers at the General Affairs Council (Article 50) on Tuesday.

Reader David underscored the significance of “technical talks”:

It’s also interesting that the Commission describes these as “technical talks”, which in Eurospeak very clearly refers to the stage before there is any question of a political-level discussion. The talks are continuing tomorrow, which means that the best that can be hoped for by the EC on 17 October is that some kind of potential way ahead will have been mapped out, for future work if there is approval for it. We are, in other words, a very long way from an agreement, and the EU, at least, seems to be taking an extension more or less for granted.

It was a given that there would be no EU Council sign-off this week, even though the BBC is promoting the odd notion that the EU has “softened its position” by letting talks continue Monday and hold an EU Council briefing Tuesday.

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For any deal to move forward in a serious way, the sherpas would have needed detailed documents to present to their principals today, Monday. To approve something of the magnitude of a new Withdrawal Agreement, a treaty draft would have to be largely done.

As David indicates, the two sides haven’t even worked out what in private sector negotiations would be a non-binding letter of intent for their bosses to review and approve, reject, or send back for renegotiation. Only after the two sides have agreed on terms can the negotiations on actual text take place, and those involve a lot of to-ing and fro-ing.

This tweetstorm (hat tip guurst) describes how elaborate the process is for a full blown trade treaty. We’ve repeatedly said that there is no way the UK and EU can conclude the treaty that would define their relationship after the transition period in two years unless the UK lets the EU dictate terms. I’m including this here because even with a shorter and more expedited Withdrawal Agreement negotiation, there are still formalities, like translating key documents Member State languages, that make it impossible to come to terms over a highly caffeinated weekend.

Needless to say, this means that if the negotiations don’t fall apart on Monday, which is possible, all the EU Council would be able to do is authorize more talks and pencil in an special session for later this month. But even if real progress were made, the best the EU Council would be likely to do is sign off on key terms, not a final deal.

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Richard North points out another timing wrinkle:

When one sees the FT talking of “an extra summit”, however, this does make sense. This paper suggests 29-30 October, but there is the matter of the European Parliament ratification. The last plenary of the month is on 23 October, which sets its own limit.

Now the question is whether Boris Johnson has come to realize that his “get a deal at the EU Council” ploy was never going to work. Yet Johnson also seems to believe another fantasy, that he could get the EU to agree to a deal in principle, and then get Parliament to approve that. It is inconceivable that Parliament, particularly one that has taking to giving the PM marching orders upon occasion, would swallow a “Trust me on the details” for something so important and politically charged.

In other words, the Benn Act requires Johnson to seek an extension if he has no deal as of October 19. Johnson’s own path to a deal, assuming things don’t fall apart, would also require him to seek an extension. And don’t kid yourself that the weird line that regularly comes up in the UK press, that the EU would offer an extension, might save Johnson’s face (which separately assumes the EU would want to cut Johnson a break, a fact not in evidence. From Reuters:

“It’s up to the Brits do decide if they will ask for an extension,” European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker said in an interview with Austrian media outlet Kurier. “But if Boris Johnson were to ask for extra time – which probably he won’t – I would consider it unhistoric to refuse such a request.”

As Juncker points out, Johnson does not want to petition for more time. Johnson regards that as politically toxic, since he will have violated his October 31 “do or die” Brexit commitment. Nigel Farage would campaign hard for Leave votes. Johnson has refused to message to allow himself wriggle room with an extension; at best, he might have hoped to depict himself as a Benn Act victim.

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And the worst scenario for Johnson might be if he actually came to an agreement after an extension and then had it voted down by Parliament. But that assumes he hasn’t lost a vote of no confidence before then.

So there are two scenarios. Either Johnson is hoist on his own “Brexit by October 31 petard” and his improvisations to get there are only painting him in a corner, or he plans for the negotiations to fail and has some sort of Plan B that would either lead to a crash out or enable him to wash his hands of the matter. Mind you, given the caliber of Johnson’s planning to date, I wouldn’t bet on his Plan B working all that well either. But given the fix he is in, resignation is still possible if he thinks he has a way to spin the circumstances to his advantage in a general election.

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