Sunday 26 July 2020

If the EU wants a deal the solution is simple: fire Michel Barnier: Matthew Lynn

More reality-defying nonsense from the Telegraph, in which Matthew Lynn explains that it's all the fault of that pesky Frenchman who smells of garlic (I paraphrase). Matthew is the chap whose greatest hits include "It is time to get tough with the anti-business arts elite" and "Wales and Scotland will fall further behind England if they insist on lifting lockdown later."

Here we go with his exceptionalist tripe:

The clock is ticking down. The ports are being prepared, customs officials are being hired on both sides of the English Channel, and companies are being warned to make sure they have new systems in place. After yet another tense round of negotiations, this week it looked more likely than ever the UK would end its transition agreement with the EU without a trade deal. The two sides remain as far apart as ever on fishing, and a level playing field on regulations and state aid. After months of talks, there is no sign of positions shifting.

The EU keeps saying it genuinely wants a deal. But if that is true, there is a simple solution. It should fire Michel Barnier, its chief negotiator. Over three years, the Frenchman has been a complete failure. High-handed, patronising and provocative, he never seems to have grasped that the job of a negotiator is to find a compromise, not simply antagonise the other side.

A deal is there to be done. But Barnier himself has turned into the main obstacle. Replace him and the talks could get off to a fresh start–and still succeed before Christmas. After Britain left the EU, it was, to put it mildly, a slight surprise that Barnier was appointed to lead the trade negotiations.

After all, he had hardly been a great success negotiating the withdrawal agreement. He massively overplayed his hand, making a series of demands so outrageous that no self-respecting country could ever accept them.

Even though former prime minister Theresa May would take almost any terms, he pushed so far that he provoked a rebellion in the Conservative Party, secured a worse deal and then the election of a government committed to Brexit with a thumping majority. A good outcome for the EU? Not really.

As trade negotiator, he has just pressed the repeat button. The UK gets lectures on state aid from an EU which has just waved through – to take only one example – a massive bailout of the German airline Lufthansa that will involve massive subsidies and protection from takeovers.

And we are subjected to endless bizarre, hard-to-follow speeches about how our proximity means we can’t possibly trade on the same terms as Canada or Japan – when, to any neutral observer, the complete opposite would seem to be true.

Hardcore Remainers love to describe Barnier as a "master negotiator" with a "grasp of detail" that "runs rings" around the "amateurish" British. The immense size of the EU market meant we would have to accept pretty much whatever we were offered. But negotiating isn’t just about making demands, threatening retaliation and goading the other side. The actual objective is to find a deal. Often, that will mean calming ruffled feelings, dialling down the rhetoric and tracking down the common ground, the compromises, and the concessions that can be made.

Measured by that standard, Barnier has been completely hopeless. The result? Even though a deal is clearly in the interests of both sides, right now it looks as if it will be impossible.

The UK has changed its team plenty of times already. Since this process began, we have been through two prime ministers, three Brexit secretaries (and four if you count the abolition of the department) and a couple of chief negotiators. Through it all, Barnier just sails on and on, failing to reach an amicable agreement in round after round of talks.

If the British Government wasn’t refusing his demands for an extension, he’d probably be there in 2030, still lecturing everyone, still priding himself on his fantastic negotiating skills and still without an agreement. It would be easy to break out of that cycle. Fire Barnier, and appoint a replacement. That would have two big advantages. First, it would give the talks a fresh start, and send a powerful signal that the dialogue was about to change, and on the EU as well as the British side of the table. The tone would immediately be different.

Next, it would allow both sides some wriggle room. A new EU negotiator could easily argue he or she had reviewed the mandate and come up with a slightly different set of compromises, while the British could likewise trim their demands and get away with it politically. For breaking a deadlock, some fresh faces often make all the difference. And of course, if we are being honest, it would help if the EU’s chief negotiator wasn’t French (I mean, let’s face it, we irritate them and they sure irritate us sometimes).

A Swedish, Dutch or Finnish chief negotiator could probably get an amicable deal wrapped up in no time.

A deal is massively in the interests of both sides. The EU runs a £72bn trade surplus with Britain. Sure, it can live without that, but tariffs and customs checks will still hurt, and even more so at a time when Covid-19 has already created the worst economic downturn in almost a century. And the EU may not be as important a market as Project Fear sometimes argued, but it still accounts for 43pc of our exports.

We could manage on World Trade Organisation terms, but we would certainly be better off without the disruption that would cause.

Companies, tourists and even pets will all face extra hassle without an agreement. But right now, Barnier himself is the main obstacle to achieving that. Over three years, he has turned himself into part of the problem, not part of the solution. Of course, this is the EU. It doesn’t ever sack people for failing (because, heck, once you started where would you stop?). But, in truth, Barnier should have been fired a long time ago and replaced by someone who knew how to reach a deal – and without him that could still be achievable.


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