Dominic Raab's progress with Michel Barnier has underlined how bad David Davis was at the Brexit negotiations

After a promising start, the Michel and Dominic show could run and run

John Rentoul
Friday 31 August 2018 19:40 BST
Michel Barnier says 'operational backstop solution' for Irish border is essential

Dominic Raab is certainly better at giving the impression of a negotiator engaged in constructive talks than David Davis, his predecessor as Brexit secretary. Raab sounded focused and businesslike in his news conference after a six-hour session with Michel Barnier, the EU’s lead negotiator.

Where Davis often sounded as if he had shipped up to Brussels for an expansive chat about whether the art of the Italian renaissance was more accomplished than that of the Ming dynasty in China, Raab sounded like someone who wanted to nail down the meaning of “notwithstanding” in paragraph 18.4.

Raab struck one slightly dissonant note of Euroscepticism, when he said: “I understand the EU’s position and the legalism that underpins that.” But otherwise he was polite and optimistic about how he and his friend Michel would reach an agreement.

Barnier was also friendly, in his courtly way, insisting in reply to sceptical questions that progress was being made, and ticking off by way of example all the easy wins of recent months and years. Then he came to the “but”, which is that the most difficult problem – the Irish border – is still outstanding. The implication being that little progress had been made on that front.

It is hard to see how a deal on the Irish border could be “within reach”, as Raab claimed, but this is – despite perfidious Euro-legalism – the kind of fudge in the production of which EU institutions excel.

Raab was asked what the odds were on an agreement at the October summit. He said he was a negotiator not a gambler, but he was committed to the October deadline. That is still the public line, but as a negotiator rather than a gambler Raab knows that the deadline is bound to slip. Barnier insisted, again, that the EU needs three months for ratification between agreement at the European Council of EU leaders and the UK’s departure date of 29 March.

That would imply the real deadline is the European Council of 13-14 December, although some Brussels watchers that I speak to suggest that it could even be done by a special Council meeting in mid-January.

But there is some nervousness about the next two stages of the ratification process. First the agreement has to be approved by the UK parliament, with Labour still threatening to send Theresa May back to the negotiating table. Then – and this sequence is specified in Britain’s EU (Withdrawal) Act – by the European Parliament. It is this European Parliament process that is time consuming: a rapporteur has to be nominated, a committee stage navigated and then there has to be a vote in a plenary session of the whole parliament. All as MEPs are distracted by imminent elections in the summer.

After that, the withdrawal agreement has to come back to the EU Council for its formal signature.

Well, it could happen. But it is beginning to sink in at Westminster that, even if the deal is done, it would be only the start of many more years’ negotiation. Jacob Rees-Mogg says “chuck Chequers”, but he should realise that the Chequers plan has already been chucked into the next stage of negotiations. Raab and May are going to secure only a non-binding political statement attached to the withdrawal agreement about the future trade relationship between the EU and the UK.

This really is an example of EU legalism: that it will not start to negotiate the trade deal until after we have left. Which means we leave into a transition period in which nothing changes but with no guarantees about what comes next.

Even if a trade deal can be negotiated, it would have to be approved by all the national parliaments, including the regional parliaments of federal states – and remember that the Wallonian parliament in Belgium delayed the EU-Canadian trade deal last year.

If anyone has had enough of Brexit and is looking forward to it all being over on 30 March next year, they should know there could be many more years of torturous negotiations after that.

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