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.

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.

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.

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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  1. Eustache de Saint Pierre

    All of that with the unresolved problem of the Irish border lurking in the background, of which the centenary for partition will occur on the 3rd of May 2021.

  2. Noel Nospamington

    There are some conspiracy theories going around that to get around the Benn act, which forces the PM to sign a letter to the EU asking for an extension…

    Johnson will end up proposing by next weekend, the May withdrawal agreement with the backstop moved to the Irish sea plus some feel-good obfuscation to hide that fact, in order to get both the EU and British parliament to accept and pass it.

    Then after this newish withdrawal agreement deal is passed in the British parliament, it will neutralizes the Benn act. This will then allow Johnson and his remaining hard leavers to block for the remainder of October, all additional legislation required to enact this deal.

    This blocking and the various court challenges should provide sufficient stonewalling as to allow a no-deal to occur on the 1 November.

    1. fajensen

      Good one!

      Brexit is getting like Tour de France, in that we know that everyone are doped up, the mystery is who will get nailed over it and the chemical composition of the dope. Likewise, the mystery is how Boris Johnson is going to ‘pull the fast one’ everyone suspects he is going to pull and what ‘the fast one’ will be!

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      I know this theory has been bandied about in the press, but Parliament can only approve an agreement that the UK government has signed. They can’t approve May’s agreement with a verbal or napkin-doodle fudge. It has no meaning with respect to EU procedures. They will have to approve a final deal which won’t be ready yet.

      Johnson may try to muscle them with some barmy half-baked deal but I can’t see Parliament going for that.

      1. Noel Nospamington

        The Irish Sea backstop was first proposed by the EU, and May managed to convince the EU to move it to include all of the UK in the backstop. So I do not think that moving the backstop back to the Irish Sea would be a problem for the EU, as this is in line with their original position.

        The only issues are with the feel good obfusications which Boris’s team are proposing to make the impact of the Irish Sea backstop less obvious in Northern Ireland.

        Once the EU accepts this Boris deal, British parliament when faced with a choice between the Boris deal verses a no-deal or long extension, may end up passing the Boris deal. Since they don’t want to get blamed for allowing no-deal or blamed for holding up Brexit.

        However now that the press and public are aware of this scenerio, I can see someone adding a rider to the Boris deal bill, which includes an extension offered by the EU, especially since Boris lost control of the order paper in parliament. Such an extension would be used to prevent Boris from stonewalling implementation of the deal in order to force a no-deal on the 1 November.

  3. John A

    Well, you can see how ridiculously Ruritanian the whole farce is by checking out images of the opening of parliament today. Full on costume parade with beefeaters, horses, pikestaffs, swords, walking backwards and queen in full dressing up mode with crown, orb and all sorts, brought in a horse drawn carriage.

  4. Biologist

    I know people know this already, but the level of reporting in British media is absolutely abysmal, which makes me think that Jonhson won’t have any difficulty in spinning any narrative in his advantage in an election, whatever the outcome of the negotiations / fights with EU, the UK parliament and the judiciary.

    My personal take is that Johnson is going through the motions of trying to get a deal. If it works, and by some miracle the UK parliament approves it, he can go into the elections as the PM who got Brexit done.

    If the negotiations with the EU fail, and the Benn Act (probably via the courts) forces Johnson to ask for an extension, he goes into elections as the victim of the saboteur elite (EU, parliament, judiciary).

    If Johnson manages to force no-deal on 31 Oct, he goes into the elections as the PM who ‘do-or-die’ delivered Brexit on the 31st as promised.

    To me it seems clear that Johnson wants an election, as the Tories are well ahead of Labour in the polls ( This of course doesn’t mean that they will win a majority in parliament, given how the first-past-the-post system makes it hard to predict seat numbers from opinion polls, but I think it makes it more likely that Johnson will push for an election on his terms.

    Now to me the key question is how much control Johnson has over the timing of the election. I think the only way in which Johnson doesn’t get his election is if the opposition stop fighting each other and rally around a single person who can lead an alternative government as PM (whether caretaker or for longer).

    Johnson’s planning may indeed be bad, but his PR is not, and I think the media will fall in line, especially if the alternative is Corbyn in 10 Downing St.

  5. Mike

    We have to face the obvious fact that this lengthy procedure was well known to all sides of this issue well before Brexit hit the table. Somehow, this knowledge can’t lead to any other conclusions but (1) the UK has its head in a very dark and smelly aperture, (2) the EU bureaucracy and its procedures are meant to be convoluted, very drawn out, and therefore captive of its members unless they are willing to go to a grueling mat with great (not just competent) negotiators.

    Does anybody remember Trotsky’s post-revolution suggestion for a United States of Europe? All impossible then, but what a difference it would’ve made in defining “in” and “out” for recidivists. Under existing financialized capital, a bad joke upon the populations involved.

    1. MisterMr

      There is nothing “convoluted” in this, it’s just that the UK enjoys varius vantages by being part of the EU and they don’t want to lose said vantages (but still they want to leave the EU).

      If this wasn’t the case they could just have a no-deal brexit and go on (which is what is likely to happen anyway).

      Also, the idea of a United Europe is around at least from the times of Giuseppe Mazzini (one of Italy’s founding fathers) in 1835, no need to summon Trotsky:

      1. Nix

        Also, most of the convolutions around Article 50 in particular were devised by its principal authors, uh, the UK, back in 2009. The entire *point* was to make it so painful to leave that nobody would ever be so mad as to try to do so. (This sort of thing is very much a British approach, and not the way, say, Germany would have approached this sort of legislation at all.)

      2. Mike

        OK, I guess we “accept” such bureaucratic wrangling because advantages outweigh disadvantages. That kind of reasoning should leave all of us cold and dry. The UK in 2009 was a different animal, and had not suffered the onslaught of propaganda around Brexit. Its leadership was, shall we say, less obnoxious. And less in denial of the reality of negotiations necessary. But, read the tweet listing the various steps along the way by Chris Kendall, and the timeline involved. To say this is not convoluted is blind to the details. I would now say this is tantamount to Connecticut, California, or Texas leaving the USA, and having to pay how many billions for the privilege. Both sides knew this, so my post was saying that no-deal was the unplanned plan in the UK all along, and the EU should’ve dropped the diplo!@#$* and told them straight, without sugar-coating.

        Mazzini’s call was one for a “united” all-class Unites States of Europe, not a Europe led by workers (which Mazzini opposed) – again, different emphasis, different details. That’s why Trotsky.

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      The “convoluted procedures” are what it takes to get treaties. This has nothing to do with the UK. The only country that often concludes bilateral treaties regularly in <2 years is the US, and that's because we dictate terms.

      Now as we indicated, the Withdrawal Agreement is not a full-blown treaty but some similar processes apply.

      And it's ironic to see complaints about EU procedures when 1. Some of this is what it takes to negotiate a proper complex agreement; 2. The other parts are to assure member states have a look-see and are OK with it. The EU is regularly charged with having a democratic deficit, yet it gets harangued for having both Member State and MEP signoff, two levels of checks. Would you rather have this all done by the European Commission? Even that wouldn't save much time.

      1. Mike

        My response is that each side knew what such a divestiture would entail. The EU was not honest with the UK about the actual deadline for such a leave to be arranged due to being “diplomatic” and not blunt, and the UK was just not honest, period. This should be no surprise to us, and we have nothing to teach either side about negotiations. The sad part is we look at the step-by-step process and get bogged down in it while the forces behind Brexit always angled for this, and we could’ve seen it coming.

        So, is the UK in negotiations to have their own trade deals with the rest of the world now, will that take longer than the drop-dead date of Oct. 31, and what advantage to the UK? The question is laughable, but it is the question hanging over this whole process.

  6. Anonymous 2

    There is a report that Corbyn might be prepared to support Bercow as Prime Minister. I assume Johnson has thought of this and may see a way out for himself by resigning as PM before 31 October, allowing a caretaker government to be established in the expectation that this would lead to an early election when he could run from the Opposition side arguing that the previous Parliament foiled his efforts to take the UK out of the EU but that if he was returned with the necessary majority he could do so. I would then expect him to throw the DUP under the bus and go for a NI-only backstop.

    Enquiries into possible criminal conduct when Mayor might scupper this but I imagine he would take the risk.

  7. dcblogger

    a no deal Brexit would be unmanageable, so it is inevitable that there will be smuggling on a massive scale. I suggest that BoJo and his cronies and already have plans in place to profit from it.

  8. Synoia

    Brexit is similar to demolishing a house, starting in the basement with a few large hammers.

    Mr Gravity is not your friend.

    1. Portlander

      But maybe the hammering will bring the whole EU crashing down. The whole structure needs to be fixed. New basement, new plumbing, new efficient lighting and windows. But the current landlord likes the old drafty castle just the way it is, so it will need a big tenant moving out to force the needed upgrades. And maybe then, the U.K. will want back in.

  9. Tony Wright

    Aah, the Brexit sherpas. At least they get paid better than the Himalayan ones, who get less than $10 a day to schlep their own weight up mountains at between 3000 and 6000metres altitude. And then have to spend most of that on two meals a day. So if hiking in the Himalayas tip generously.
    Mind you, the Brexit sherpas will probably have an even higher burnout rate and have to spend a fair amount on psychotherapy…

  10. FKorning

    The queen’s speech tied the tiller to the course on Brexit, bar throwing a few bones to the left (climate change) and right (criminal sentences). But the key take-aways are Brexit and end to Freedom of movement, and a push for a “high-wage low tax” environment. Race to the bottom rentier capitalism. Ones wages might be high, for the fortunate few, a good portion are going to the local landlords and service providers. It’s a push for a dickensian dystopia of workhouses and an asymmetry of civil liberties versus corporate and moneyed interests.

  11. ljones

    Well that made intresting reading. You’d get quite a different opinion if you look at the UK press whose reporting right now is just …. bizarre. But on the reporting of brexit in the UK media;

    One newspaper last week was reporting one labour MP specifying that “30 labour MPs” would back boris’ idea. But then in the next sentance? “We don’t trust him one bit”. The two comments just don’t make sense. Why would you back something from someone whom you don’t trust?

    I don’t like to bad-mouth the BBC but their coverage of brexit is odd as well. Depending on who is reporting and which channel reporting ranges from “it’ll be very hard to get a deal but we will” all the way to making it sound as if johnson has the pen in his hand and is about to scribble his name on the paper any second.

    Or last week when we were told “that they’re in the tunnel”. Tonight it is “they might be in the tunnel”. Um….?

    As for the BBC however I think they are scared of a fully-formed tory govt. and are probably worried that the “british broadcasting corporation” might end up as the “boris broadcasting corporation”.

    Lots of far-too positive coverage of brexit here. Although I guess all these terms like “finding a path to a deal” and “the tunnel” are largely diplomatic speak which mean something completely different……no idea.

    I still think it is the case that johnson dosen’t really want a deal – after all if he got one surely brexit party members are simply going to stand up and say “Betrayal!” . And as someone above has pointed out maybe the real idea is to “pretend” to get a deal, get one but then block everything so nothing happens. Or as an alternative – you get a “deal”, say how wonderful it is, win an election then kill it by inventing some reason why it wasn’t so great after all or you just simply walk away.


    1. Mattski

      The BBC, no one ever cares to notice, is a mouthpiece of British government. Shilling for a failing project and critically analyzing the death throes are different projects.

    2. fajensen

      after all if he got one surely brexit party members are simply going to stand up and say “Betrayal!”

      They would be shouting the same if Boris’s Deal somehow made Marcus Licinius Crassus Dives himself return from the realm of the dead and riding into London on a jewel-studded unicorn, spreading Gold, Incense and Myrrh in abundance to all Brexiteers present, before raiding Brussels with his equally undead legions, returning to London with the entire GDP of the EU in the form of bearer-bonds!

      The common denominator for Brexiteers is that they are always angry and resentful whatever happens ‘out in reality’.

      Because unreasoned anger is for crazy people, they are eagerly waiting, one could even say hoping, for some kind of dastardly plot of treason and betrayal to happen in the shadows in order to validate that the way they are feeling is entirely normal.

      Once Brexit is done & dusted they will just recalibrate and continue to be angry and resentful about something else.

      1. anonymous

        Anger is a justified response when all possible manner of agency is systematically removed. Plenty on the other side like me are angry and resentful. Furious. Rights are being stripped of millions, families being torn apart, businesses crushed, civil liberties and societal progress is being reneged upon by a retrograde luddite junta. We should blare out and blast out our discontent on Guy Fawkes night. Let it be the loudest yet (within the bounds of safety).

  12. ljones

    “Brexit talks in brussles on brink of deal”, “Boris Johnson ‘on brink of Brexit deal’ after border concessions”.

    I wonder what johnson promised and how does this relate to this threads’ main post. Or are these headlines just more bad reporting? Is “his deal” just the conclusion to technical talks? Or is the main post in this thread (on this page) just plain ol’ wrong?


  13. FKorning

    Updates: DUP scuppers deal, redux. Media still shockingly lacking detailed content on what was on table or what was deemed inadequate… What about the mandate to inform the public and hold power accountable? Where has investigative journalism gone? No doubt burried under the fog and cloud cover at the summit, masking the edge of the precipice. Let’s just get it done, right this way, lemmings.

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