4 October 2019

The British government has at virtually the last minute submitted to the EU a detailed proposal on a new withdrawal agreement which the Irish prime minister and the EU Commission president are urging should be published. This is being resisted by London on the argument that it is ‘normal’ in negotiations to keep such documents confidential. In principle, the Johnson government is right. It is a well tried maxim of negotiations that, in order to avoid sabotage by interested parties at home, potential concessions to the other side need to be concealed until it is possible to reveal what has been gained in return. The trouble is that, since the British prime minister is the most notorious liar in public life in the UK, nobody in the EU trusts a word he says. In fact, Brussels suspects, with good reason, that Britain’s proposal to engage in serious talks on the details of a compromise settlement is not sincere and instead is nothing more than a cynical attempt to pass the blame for failure and the catastrophe of a no-deal exit on 31 October to the EU. The normal rules, therefore, do not apply.

Post script: The lead negotiator for the UK in Brussels, David Frost, is a former diplomat with plenty of EU experience in senior positions but his number two, Sir Edward Lister, despite great charm and a formidable reputation for bringing people together, has no diplomatic experience at all. He served for most of his career in local government, a journey that culminated in the post of chief of staff to Boris Johnson when the latter was Mayor of London. Thereafter, ‘Steady Eddie’  supported Johnson at the FCO before becoming his Chief Strategic Adviser at No. 10. The presence of a political strategist rather than a diplomat in such an important position on the UK ‘negotiating’ team in Brussels rather gives the game away. At the least, it can hardly inspire the EU with confidence about Johnson’s true motives.