Some big moments in the Brexit saga will converge next week.
This Monday, the Joint Committee meets for the first time in a scheduled session since the UK introduced the legislation that breaches the Northern Ireland Protocol.
On Tuesday, the ninth and potentially decisive, round of future relationship negotiations gets underway.
Then on Wednesday, there is the deadline set by the European Commission for London to drop the offending elements of the Internal Market Bill.
And on Thursday and Friday, EU leaders meet for a summit in Brussels.
Brexit is listed as a cursory "information point" at the summit, but an elephant sized chair will be in place. "Leaders will find it hard to ignore the fact that the UK will have missed the deadline," said one EU official.
Both sides say the row over the Internal Market Bill and the future relationship negotiations should be kept separate. But in reality, they are interlinked.
The Internal Market Bill is illegal, fullstop, said the official. We're not going to ignore it. The question is the timing.
The EU will not agree a future relationship treaty if the Internal Market Bill remains intact. The threat of legal action is also real. While Brussels is not expecting the UK to meet Wednesday's deadline for dropping clauses 42 to 45, the timing of legal action will be key.
If it looks like there is a glimmer of progress in next week’s future relationship talks then the legal sword might be quietly resheathed.
"[The Internal Market Bill] is illegal, fullstop," said the official. "We’re not going to ignore it. The question is the timing. If we’re getting clear signals that they’re planning to solve it elsewhere and pull back the clauses, that will be taken into account.
"If the talks start to look promising then the Commission might decide not to fan the flames further. If you trigger a case before the European Court of Justice (ECJ), the [UK] government would feel the need to retaliate and the whole thing could blow up again.
"But that’s not the same as suspending the legal process."
The controversy that blew up over the allegation that the EU was threatening a food blockade of Northern Ireland is starting to recede. A claim that Brussels was withholding the granting of "third country" approval for UK food exports to the EU has been seen as a pretext for Downing Street to introduce the Internal Market Bill.
It’s understood officials on both sides made progress on the issue during technical talks this week.
But the bill is still in place. It has moved into the House of Lords having passed the committee stage of the Commons. There have been reports that progress through the Lords could be slowed so that it doesn’t become law before the EU’s 31 October deadline to conclude a free trade deal.
So, October is shaping up to be a tangle of high risk, high wire gambles where all the most divisive issues are supposed to get somehow resolved.
Let’s take the Joint Committee meeting on Monday first.
The Committee was created by the Withdrawal Agreement for both sides to implement the Northern Ireland Protocol, and to deal with any issues which arise over time.
The UK has three issues with the Protocol which the Internal Market Bill tries to overturn (a forthcoming finance bill will also tackle some of these issues):
1: the state aid provisions, which mean EU law can, in certain circumstances, have a reach back effect to the rest of the UK
2: defining which goods that have been imported from GB to Northern Ireland are "at risk" of crossing the border and into the single market. In particular, London objects to the view that if the Joint Committee can’t reach agreement on defining the risk by the end of the transition then the default is that all goods are at risk
3: exit summary declarations for goods going from NI to GB.
The EU complains that the Joint Committee has been working painstakingly on two of these issues (state aid does not come within the formal remit of the Joint Committee).
Furthermore, the Commission is adamant that the Joint Committee is not there to modify the Protocol, only to find ways to implement it.
With the dust still settling from the explosive arrival of the Internal Market Bill, both Dublin and Brussels are wary of the UK now using the threat of the bill as leverage. Simon Coveney, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, warned this week against the bill being used as "negotiating currency".
However, it seems clear this is exactly what London has in mind.
London regards the bill as a "safety net", the EU regards it as a gun to the head, whereby London keeps the threat of the bill on the table while the EU modifies the Protocol to its satisfaction.
The UK wants the EU side to commit during next week’s Joint Committee to intensifying the work on those elements of the Protocol the UK dislikes. Simply put, London wants Brussels to take as flexible an approach as possible.
"It’s right that questions related to the Protocol are being addressed in the Joint Committee," said a UK official.
"The government has said that it would use the provisions in the UK IM Bill only in the case of the EU being engaged in a material breach of its duties of good faith and thereby undermining the fundamental purpose of the Northern Ireland Protocol."
That still sounds like a threat, as it looks like London wants to reserve the right to decide what is a breach of "good faith". In other words, we’ll only use the loaded gun if we think you’ve misinterpreted the Protocol. In reality, the Protocol itself has a dispute mechanism for that very purpose.
London may attempt to hold on to the Internal Market Bill right to the very end in order to extract as many concessions as possible via the Joint Committee.
It’s understood that London does not just want assurances that the EU will meet its demands on a highly flexible interpretation of the Protocol. It wants to see the solutions on the table before the offensive parts of the bill are dropped.
Unsurprisingly, that is not going down well in Brussels.
"People are not impressed by the way this is being played by the UK," said one EU official, "so if they try to link the bill with the work of the Joint Committee it’s going to be ignored."
It also appears that London has a relatively generous deadline in mind.
October 31 is the EU’s deadline for securing a free trade agreement - and it won’t agree one unless the Internal Market Bill’s clauses have been dropped. However, the deadline to implement the Protocol is December 31.
In other words, London may attempt to hold on to the bill right to the very end in order to extract as many concessions as possible via the Joint Committee.
This won’t work according to the EU’s view of things. Brussels acknowledges that the bill won’t be back from the Lords before 31 October. So any trade deal clinched at the end of October would be conditional on clauses 42-45 of the bill being dropped.
A Free Trade Agreement (FTA) cannot be ratified without the consent of the European Parliament, and the main political groups there have said the parliament won’t ratify if the legislation that breaches the Protocol is gone.
Either way, at a time of minimum trust and maximum tension, this starts to look like an arms race of deadlines and ultimatums.
The UK could decide that the bill continues its slow march through the Lords, and that if its concerns are being met on the Protocol via the Joint Committee, and an agreement in principle has been reached on the FTA, then the bill would be accompanied by a declaration that, as the UK’s concerns were met, then the offending elements would not become "operable".
One theory is that the UK could leave the provisions "dormant" on the statute books as a kind of deterrent for the future. Again, the EU would regard this as a Sword of Damocles that would be unacceptable.
Ironically, the UK could decide that the best way to alleviate the pain of the Protocol would be to agree an FTA first.
The UK has long resented the idea of tariffs on goods going from GB to Northern Ireland where there is a risk of those goods going on to cross the border into the single market.
With an FTA there would be no tariff differential between the EU and UK and the issue would be much less problematic.
Similarly, the UK’s objections to the state aid provisions in the Protocol could be mitigated. The reach back effect of the Protocol occurs where the UK subsidises a parent company with significant subsidiaries in Northern Ireland.
Since this would be deemed as advantageous to those subsidiaries which will trade directly into the EU single market, the parent company would be "captured" by EU state aid law.
Next week is the last full negotiating round scheduled ahead of the European Council on 14-15 October, which Boris Johnson himself has said is the deadline for a deal.
However, if the EU and UK were to agree on a mutually reinforced state aid arrangement as part of the FTA, then the reach back from the Protocol would not have the same effect.
The subsidy would be dealt with by a British competition authority that would be enforcing the joint understanding enshrined within the FTA.
Both those scenarios depend on a deal being done.
The run up to the 31 October deadline was always going to be the high-intensity, final slog that people associate with the Withdrawal Agreement last year.
Following the Varadkar-Johnson breakthrough summit near Liverpool, a deal was done in the final furlong.
However, nonchalant predictions that the same theatre is simply playing out again should be treated cautiously.
Next week is the last full negotiating round scheduled ahead of the European Council on 14-15 October, which Boris Johnson himself has said is the deadline for a deal.
The deadlock remains over the key issues: the level playing field, state aid, governance (how disputes are settled), police and judicial cooperation and fisheries.
Depending on how things go during next week's free trade negotiations, there are two scenarios.
If there is significant movement, then both sides can start drafting a joint legal text in early October, allowing them to enter the "tunnel" that would run until the end of the month.
Things could still break down.
If Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, begins to drift too far from his original mandate, then EU leaders might want to apply the brake at the October European Council, and to take a long hard look at the kind of landing zone that is taking shape.
On fisheries, for example, Emmanuel Macron is likely to resist any major concessions that would hurt him electorally in 2022.
If there is no breakthrough next week, it's unlikely one will happen before the October summit. Then leaders will have to decide either that a deal is simply not possible, or that one final push in the last two weeks of October is worth it.
As of now, there are no plans for a High Level Conference - of the kind that took place in June - involving Johnson, and the presidents of the European Commission, Council and Parliament.
EU leaders could call such a meeting during their October summit, and it is tempting to see it as the final dramatic flourish in the long Brexit saga.
Indeed, some have wondered if there might be a "Taoiseach moment", some deus ex machina who could walk with Johnson in a leafy glade and unlock a deal as was done one year previously in Liverpool.
That, however, remains fanciful. Last year, all the elements of the Withdrawal Agreement were already in place. What had to be unlocked was the Northern Ireland issue, and 26 other EU leaders knew that if Leo Varadkar (and the European Commission) were happy with a last gasp fix, then they were too.
Then, too, Boris Johnson appeared desperate for a deal, and to use that deal to win a general election.
Neither holds true now. There are multiple complex issues lying wide open, with different member states having different priorities. All 27 leaders must give unanimous consent.
It is not clear that Boris Johnson wants a deal, and the climate needed to achieve a deal is nothing like it was a year ago: hanging over everything is the Internal Market Bill, and a collapse in trust in the British government.
"The trust buck stops with Johnson and there’s no trust at the moment," said one EU source close to the negotiations.
The other reality is that both sides have been round the houses for months on the technical issues. According to the EU perspective, Johnson must finally make some sizable political compromises on state aid, the level playing and fisheries.
Even the issue of police and judicial cooperation, which was not expected to be that controversial, is proving intractable: the EU has been dismayed by reports that the UK will opt out of elements of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
If the EU is going to share its police databases with a third country, then it will want binding human rights provisions to apply.
EU officials complain that across the board, the UK tends to want agreements on basic principles, rather than legally binding arrangements that are clearly defined.
What frustrates many in Brussels is that the concessions the EU have made are not publicly appreciated in Westminster. On state aid, the EU has dropped its initial request that if the UK wanted high quality access to the single market it would have to sign up to the EU’s rules.
Boris Johnson made it clear during June’s High Level Meeting that that was not going to happen. So the EU said, let us know what your own state aid regime will look like so we can come to a coherent, legally robust understanding that protects both sides’ interests.
According to officials, the UK hedged for months, only publishing an outline of its future state aid rules two weeks ago.
The paper emphasised WTO state aid protections, which the EU has long argued are simply not strong enough for two large economies geographically side by side. A public consultation would have to follow. A true picture might not emerge until next year.
What irked the EU side even more is that, having argued for months that it would not accept state aid provisions that were more onerous than the EU-Canada FTA, London recently signed a trade deal with Japan, an FTA whose state aid obligations exceeded that of the Canada deal.
Indeed, EU officials complain that across the board the UK tends to want agreements on basic principles, rather than legally binding arrangements that are clearly defined, that can be properly implemented, and which have strong dispute resolution mechanisms, or "governance" in the jargon of the talks.
A picture emerges of a fundamental gap in ideology and philosophy. For a successful outcome at the end of October, that fundamental gap would have to be bridged soon (surely a cavernous political gamble by Johnson).
And then weeks afterwards, officials on both sides would have to scramble through the technical quagmire of converting the result into detailed legal text.
Officials on both sides say it can be done. This week Michael Gove told the House of Commons a No Deal was in no-one’s interests. Senior figures briefed by David Frost have said that the tone ahead of next week’s talks have improved.
Getting such a deal done requires a determination by those involved, not just the politicians, and this is where the chemistry and priorities of the dramatis personae may well be key.
Close observers of the negotiations over the past three and a half years recall that when Theresa May was prime minister, her senior negotiator, Olly Robbins and his opposite number Sabine Weyand, Michel Barnier’s deputy, supported by Stephanie Riso, had a shared endeavour in getting the Withdrawal Agreement done.
Getting senior officials to do the creative slogging at arms length from their political masters worked on one side of the equation.
Robbins was given a degree of leeway by Theresa May which meant progress with Brussels could be made, but it all ultimately backfired because what Robbins cooked up was unpalatable to May’s cabinet, and when May cajoled the cabinet to come on board, it ended up being unpalatable three times in the House of Commons.
Both Weyand and Riso have left Barnier’s team. Their replacements have nothing close to the Weyand-Robbins chemistry when it comes to their UK opposite numbers. That is natural, and it reflects the brutal changing of the guard imposed by Johnson and his special advisor Dominic Cummings.
Johnson sees the process as much more adversarial than Theresa May ever did, but that might not help much when you’re in the final stretch of a negotiation.
David Frost is not seen by member states as a neutral civil servant trying to stretch the political boundaries as far as possible to get a deal; he’s seen as a Brexiteer, someone who does have the trust of the British cabinet, but who does not command affection or trust in Brussels.
Senior figures regard Frost and Cummings as believing a No Deal outcome is no bad thing, and that the economic price is worth their political vision of Brexit.
Having said all that, a glimmer of hope in the negotiations next week could become viral. In these Covid-ravaged times, momentum may be all. Both sides will want to avoid being accused of digging in their heels when a deal was in sight.