If it was a tiger that went in the tank, as enthusiastically advocated by prime minister Johnson, it was a paper tiger. And all that does is clog up the filters and prevent the engine running. Furthermore, cleaning out the debris is a difficult and expensive job.
But that’s always the same with Johnson. He bounces onto the stage, utters some singularly inappropriate phrases, prattles incoherently for a while and then buggers off to let everyone else – anyone else – sort out the details that he can’t be bothered with (which is all of them).
And so it has come to pass that those “future relationship” talks, even with the “tiger in their tank”, have got absolutely nowhere and have broken up early over “serious” disagreements, with Michel Barnier complaining of “lack of respect and engagement by UK”.
“Our goal was to get negotiations successfully and quickly on a trajectory to reach an agreement”, Barnier said in a statement. “However, after four days of discussions, serious divergences remain”.
That, of course, comes as absolutely no surprise. If there is any surprise to be had, it’s that the talks lasted as long as four days. There have never been any indications that Johnson has been serious about these talks, so the likelihood was always that they were going to break up in disarray.
Barnier says that Brussels had “listened carefully” to Johnson when he did his “thing” about tigers, and made vacuous noises about wanting a “political agreement” over the summer. And now that the talks have broken down, the recriminations flow, to the point where not much sense can be made of them.
We learn from Barnier, for instance, that the EU has recognised British “red lines”. These include the role of the ECJ, the refusal to be bound by EU law, and a fisheries agreement that recognises the UK’s sovereignty. It has thus hinted at several concessions, across the board.
This is matched by a complaint that the EU’s willingness to be flexible on its initial demands in light of the British positions had not been met with similar understanding from Downing Street over Brussels’ red lines. Downing Street needed to “reciprocate with new proposals”, the EU says.
David Frost, on the other hand, seems to be in the market for extruded verbal material, saying virtually nothing at some length. His big thing is that the British side still wants “an early understanding on the principles underlying an agreement”, which he hopes can be secured by the end of July.
Oddly enough, the normally astute Denis Staunton for the Irish Times seems to think that the abrupt end to these talks was “not only surprising but perplexing”.
Perplexing it may be – nothing to do with Johnson is ever straightforward – but surprising it never was. The writing has been on the wall so long it is starting to fade.
Staunton, however, takes some comfort from “the language on both sides”. He says it was “restrained” and Frost’s had none of the belligerence that often characterises his rhetoric towards Brussels.
The fact that Barnier chose not to give a press conference, he says, was seen by some as another happy augury but Staunton says it wasn’t. Simply, he was deferring to the COTFROG and Ursula von der Leyen, who were giving a joint press conference later.
However, Barnier is also said to have accused British trade negotiators of “a lack of respect” and when von der Leyen and COTFROG got going, Merkel warned EU Member States that they needed to be prepared for a no-deal TransEnd.
Why the tone of the two parties should thus give rise to such optimism isn’t immediately apparent. At this stage, with little to be gained either way – with only a very limited trade deal on the stocks, one of the greater concerns must be to establish a firm base for blame avoidance.
Barnier, in particular, will want to tell his domestic audience that the EU has gone the extra mile, not least because it then clears the way for the EU to do what it always does – screw the Brits.
Team Johnson, from the look of it, is away with the fayries anyway. And with Frost apparently trotting off to a new job at the end of the month (or not), he has good reasons for not starting a spat that he can’t finish.
But what makes this more than a little bit redundant – and so utterly tedious – is that we’re almost down to the level of two bald men fighting over a comb. Any deal done – if there is one done – must be measured not by what it includes but what is left out. So very little can be agreed in the time that anything delivered will be a weak, unlovely thing.
But the real giveaway is that the UK has yet to set out plans for how it wants an agreement to work, on areas as diverse its own state aid regime, to a fully functioning fishing policy.
Throughout the entire Brexit period the UK stance has been to let the EU make the running, and then knock down what it offers. There is only so much of that one can take before even the most patient of negotiators begins to feel they are being taken for mugs.
Yet, on fishing in particular, Barnier is saying that there needs to be a “sustainable and long-term solution” on fisheries, taking into account the needs of European fishermen for certainty over their livelihoods. An effective all-encompassing dispute settlement mechanism is also necessary, to ensure both sides stick to their obligations.
Here, the issue is – as it is elsewhere – that the British government doesn’t have the first idea how to manage a modern fishery. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) has given way to Defra, which doesn’t even have “fisheries” in its title. Any expertise there was in the department has long gone.
Something about which we haven’t been hearing much of late is also of importance – governance. A little while back, this was of some importance, with the EU wanting a single, over-arching agreement, with standard rules and institutions, and a common dispute procedure.
Now we don’t seem to hear so much of this, but that doesn’t mean it is no longer important. Most likely, Barnier has given up on trying to get any sense out of Team Johnson and is just going through the motions.
The thing for sure here is that he doesn’t need to throw his toys out of the pram. All he has to do is wait until after 31 December, and watch the Brits having hissy-fits when they discover what being outside the internal market really means.
In time – and perhaps when there is a different administration – Barnier (or his successor) can come back and we can all start talking again. Then perhaps the UK will have people who are prepared to behave like adults, and look anew at what sort of relationship we need with our closest neighbours.
Until then, we are going to see a lot of this sort of ritual dance. It may die down during the holiday period and pick up the tempo as the autumn turns to winter. And there may be a last flurry of activity in the dying days of December, although that will be for show. Any agreement has to be ratified, so a last-minute deal is not on the cards.
Meanwhile, there will be more talks next week. These will be in London, another session of face-to-face meetings. I don’t expect we’ll get much more out of them than we did this week. If we do, then that really will be a surprise.
Also published on Turbulent Times.