I don’t know if it was the intended strategy all along (I first mused about it in November), but in these fraught December days in the Brexit end game it has become abundantly clear that the UK’s negotiation tactic has been to run the clock down to gain leverage.
The reasoning is simple enough.
Ratification of any Deal on the UK side would take just two or three days of parliamentary time, and the Commons and Lords can sit between Christmas and New Year if necessary to pass a Bill to implement a Brexit Deal in UK law. That Tory MPs realised they’d missed important aspects of the Withdrawal Agreement when that had not been adequately scrutinised last year is conveniently forgotten. Number 10 would be all too happy to repeat the trick. That businesses have been screaming out for certainty for months, and now have just a couple of weeks to prepare, seems to not figure in the UK Government’s thinking.
All of that essentially means that the deadline for an agreement, UK side, would be at the end of next week – something like 18th December.
On the EU side it is more complicated. The estimated 600 pages of the agreement need to be translated into the official languages of the EU (some of this work will doubtlessly have been done already – at least for the parts of the text already agreed) and then the European Parliament wants to scrutinise and discuss the contents, demonstrating it is actually a Parliament more befitting of that title than either the Commons or the Lords. Even had a Deal been done this week that timetable for the EP would have been complex. That something now may only emerge Sunday renders the timetable next to impossible – the EP could simply rubber stamp a Deal around 28 December or not.
Why then is the European Parliament not screaming that they have been pushed into such an uncomfortable position?
Because, I think, they now know there will be nothing for them to ratify.
Bernd Lange is the only one of the UK Coordination Group MEPs sounding vaguely perturbed. Kati Piri says “at least we have a deadline“. And that’s about it. Tajani was busier tweeting about footballer Paolo Rossi.
The Commission also published its No Deal Contingency yesterday (more background from Bloomberg here), and Mairead McGuinness justified it on Wednesday, saying “I’m not very confident from the speech made by the British prime minister in the House of Commons today”. This is the Commission essentially saying they do not think a Deal by the end of the year is possible now.
Britain’s tactic to run down the clock only makes sense if there is a prospect of a Deal. If there is not, then the European Union can sit there, keep Barnier talking to Frost, and just wait. It might not be an elegant solution, but if the European Union is determined to not be the ones pulling the plug on the negotiations it works as a tactic.
So Sunday’s deadline may come and go. Further deadlines and meetings may come and go. But while the Brussels side sits there calmly, that is an indication No Deal is on the horizon. Were there to be a sudden frenzy of planning for extra meetings, or extra sessions of the European Parliament, that means a Deal is possibly on the way. At the moment there is no sign of the latter.