The French have been mightily busy in the past few weeks preparing this scenario. They have repeatedly misrepresented the UK’s offer on fisheries, which is, quite frankly, more than any EU state has a right to expect, in order to try to effect the trade off with the far more important issue of obtaining a stranglehold over the UK economy enforceable in the ECJ (“governance” is a polite cover for the kind of oversight the EU wants). Boris’s deadline of an acceptable outline of a deal being clear by 15 October has been openly mocked. We will carry on talking until 31 October, announced Michel Barnier (but what do you do if the other side doesn’t turn up?). This week the French foreign minister Yves Le Drian pushed the deadline to the middle of November. Today the (French – yes there is a pattern here) president of the ECB Christine Lagarde seemed to suggest that a deal could be reached at midnight on 31 December… meanwhile the French Europe minister Clement Beaune has been banging on about no deal being better than a bad deal and stirring up grave anxiety in French fishing ports. The French also pushed through a Council resolution and vote in the European Parliament to try to reopen the Treaty of Canterbury to give the ECJ jurisdiction over the Channel Tunnel. The UK’s adherence to data security and the GDPR has been called into question. The arguments over the Northern Ireland Protocol rumble on…
The thinking in Paris is clear. President Macron believes that Boris Johnson’s willingness to extend talks over the summer indicates that he is desperate to take whatever crumbs fall from the EU’s table (although the Internal Market Bill ought to have disabused him of that idea). He has convinced the EU27 that the PM is bluffing about walking out of talks if there is no progress… So the game plan is to call his bluff in the expectation that the EU can string out the talks until mid-November and beyond, even though Boris would immediately lose all credibility – both at home and abroad – as well as his considerable negotiating leverage. The EU would then double down on its unreasonable demands, pepper him with sneers and insults, refuse to discuss any UK proposals or agree legal text, and then offer up a last-minute concession (like accepting our generous fisheries proposals) while they stuff the legal small print on the level playing field and governance provisions with EU rules and judicial control which would hamstring us for all eternity.
Should the PM fail to accept whatever pig in a poke was produced by such a method, Macron would probably prefer no deal – that way he can strengthen his position in the EU in the hope that we would be forced on our knees back to the negotiating table sometime next year. Meanwhile his poll ratings would improve (there is nothing like a bit of Brit-bashing to boost a French presidential campaign) and he would have seriously undermined German dominance in the EU by forcing Angela Merkel to swallow a strategy for which German businesses would pay a heavy price. So he would regard it as a political win – and for France, politics will always trump economics.
Each step in the Brexit negotiation has been carefully orchestrated to undermine Boris Johnson and lure him into the tunnel of doom (one imagines something akin to the tortures of the Spanish Inquisition in the bowels of the Berlaymont). It is a cleverly staged production, but farcical nonetheless. And it has played for far too long. It is time for the Prime Minister to bring down the curtain and end talks now. If the EU27 really want a deal, they will have a humongous bust-up amongst themselves and return in short order with some common sense and fresh proposals which respect the UK’s position as an independent country. If not, no deal is certainly better than a bad deal, as Monsieur Beaune has so pertinently reminded us.
Caroline Bell is a pen-name of a civil servant who wishes to remain anonymous