Richard North, 28/07/2017  
 


You don't have to be very perceptive to realise that the Brexit negotiations are not going too well for the UK. In the wake of the previous week's session we've been watching the signs and they're there for anyone who wants to see – unless you' re Stephen Booth of Open Europe, in which case it's the EU that's in a mess.

He argues that the EU-27 lacks any clear idea of what wants from the negotiations, or what it wants to have achieved at the end of the process.

The best clue as to why Booth is living in the warm glow of an ultra fantasy comes from an article in PR Week which has the CEO of a major PR firm telling clients not to waste effort lobbying as the government wasn't listening.

This has been such a continuous refrain, from so many different sources, that we can't even begin to doubt the veracity of this particular observation. But if any confirmation was needed, it comes from Steve Bullock, former member of UKREP in Brussels, having also worked for the European Commission and the Department for International Development's Europe Department.

His first observation is that, if nothing else, the most recent contact session has shown that the level of complexity involved in Brexit is unprecedented – something we've been saying forever. But, says Bullock, Ministers seem to have inserted their heads firmly into the sand, hoping tricky problems will just go away.

Like any former FCO civil servant, though, he doesn't do detail. But he knows enough to support his claims, then moving on to say that the "incredible level of technical complexity" appears to have been ignored by the Prime Minister and government ministers. We can look forward to further weeks of startling discoveries of self-defeating implications of the Government's own Brexit strategy, he says.

As a result, he says, the chances of getting any deal, let alone a good deal, in the limited time available look minimal. His view is that Brexit would have been a terrible idea even if done as well as possible – something with which we can't agree – but we wouldn't disagree with his observation that, for the Government to blithely march the country towards consequences that they don't even themselves understand is "an appalling dereliction of duty".

But that is only the half of it. We are seeing from other reports that the UK team simply isn't delivering the goods.

An EU source complains that the UK is not providing enough position papers, something that is evident from the lack of material posted on the government's website and the lack of substance in ministerial speeches.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, we see media reports Michel Barnier telling member state representatives that the negotiations are faltering and the UK government's hopes autumn talks on trade are increasingly likely to be dashed. And this, Barnier says, is because the government had been unable to provide sufficient clarity on its positions during the last week's contact sessions.

Nor does this come out of the blue. Just a few days back we had Fabian Zuleeg, Chief Executive and Chief Economist at the European Policy Centre (EPC) offer his own observations.

What he says of the discussions in the UK is that it lacks a real appreciation of the view from the other side of the Channel. The assumption that the EU27 are willing to accept any deal to avoid Brexit is misguided. Not only are there red lines that they will not cross, but the clock is ticking as well. The time left to strike a deal is limited.

Cutting through Booth's superficial appreciation, Zuleeg makes the obvious point that it isn't for the EU to state what it wants. It is for the UK to come up with workable solutions otherwise it will end up with no deal at all. This may have negative consequences for the EU-27, but is seen as the UK's choice and not something that needs to be avoided at all costs.

The reason why the EU-27 are willing to accept a negative outcome is that greater goods are at stake: the unity of Union, the integrity of the Single Market and the future of European integration.

Then, there is the other essential. While there is willingness to find a compromise with the UK, a country leaving the EU cannot be better off than a remaining member. Allowing cherry picking of benefits would act as a signal to others inside the EU that a Europe à la carte is obtainable, opening the Pandora's box of disintegration.

Something that simply has not percolated the public discourse here is that the EU-27 are not taking a hard line for the sake of it. This is not malevolence towards the UK. The Union is a community of law, underpinned by the Treaties and safeguarded by the European Court of Justice. The notion that the EU could somehow concede on fundamental aspects of the treaties, Zuleeg tells us, is not only unlikely but would be struck down by the Court when challenged.

To have any chance of success in the negotiations, Zuleeg says, the UK must address the myths and misconceptions of the EU-27s position. We need to realise that there will be little give from the other side of the Channel. Significant concessions will have to come from the UK if there is to be a viable deal.

For all that, these downbeat messages would not have quite the impact if we could see signs of realism in London. We do not. The prevailing ethos seems to remain that, when the negotiations reach their nail-biting conclusion, Brussels will cave in.

David Davis seems to be on another planet. Urging both sides to demonstrate a "flexible approach", he says he is "confident" that negotiations will continue as planned. MinBrex just utters platitudes saying: "we have already made good progress on a number of issues".

Yet, with "chlorinated chickens" still in the headlines, not a day seems to pass without some new twist or complication emerging, most often showing up the government to be unprepared or unable to offer a coherent response. And, as the many pages of this blog have shown, there are many other issues waiting in the wings, as yet unaddressed and unresolved.

These are negotiations that are going nowhere. The phase one issues that the EU has planted on the agenda are basically housekeeping matters that should never have been allowed to solidify and become major areas of discussion. They could and should have been pre-empted and headed off.

To allow discussions to get bogged down in the ultimately irrelevant detail of whether the ECJ should have a role in what may or may not be a transition period, with hyperventilation over the intricacies of the Efta Court, is to illustrate the lack of grip over the agenda. While the commentariat hyperventilates over detail, the big issues go begging.

And that is the ultimate indictment of this government and its Brexit strategy. Forget about what Brussels wants. After all this time, there is no indication that the UK has any clear (or any) achievable objective or that might be attainable is even worth having.

When the history of this sorry episode comes to be written, I guess the words "incompetence" and "lack of vision" will feature strongly in their narratives. But it will doubtless be accompanied by a sense of incredulity that our current crop of politician managed to make such a mess of things.

Even now, we could write that history so, when all the elements are finally in place, it will be an account of epic length.






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