Richard North, 14/03/2018  

With UK tanks poised to roll over the Russian border (not), European Commission president Jean-Paul Juncker has been in Strasbourg, talking about that all-but-forgotten subject, Brexit – and future EU-UK relations.

By way of a reminder, he told us that, 349 days ago (as of yesterday), on 29 March 2017, the UK notified the European Council of its intention to leave the EU. In 381 days, on 29 March 2019 at midnight, the UK will have left the EU.

From the earliest days of these "unique and difficult negotiations", he said, "our objective has always been, and will remain, to achieve an orderly withdrawal from the United Kingdom, in its own interest and that of the European Union".

Although you would not think it from the level of media coverage in the UK, or even the activities of our politicians, Juncker went on to say that, with "every day that passes the urgency to meet all the conditions necessary for such withdrawal is greater". This urgency, he added, should inspire us all, the European Union and the United Kingdom, to act with method, pragmatism and transparency.

In a way, though, this is a rather generous appraisal. Give that David Davis hasn't visited Brussels at all this year, the greater urgency is to get the UK to act at all.

As it stands, the proposed text of the withdrawal agreement is with the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers. Once agreed, the final draft will be transmitted to the UK as a basis for negotiation, reflecting "the unity of the 27 Member States of the European Union and its institutions".

Said Mr Juncker, "I would have preferred that the British had not decided to quit. But those who leave the European Union must honestly say what that means. If you want to leave four decades of joint agreements and solutions behind you, you have to accept the responsibility that everything cannot stay as it is".

It was obvious, therefore, Juncker told MEPs, " that we need more clarity from the UK if we are to reach an understanding on our future relationship". With one year to go, he said, "it is now time to translate speeches into treaties; to turn commitments into agreements; broad suggestions and wishes on the future relationship to specific, workable solutions".

And then it came to Ireland. Both the UK and the EU had agreed that the Good Friday Agreement must be preserved in all its dimensions. And life for citizens on both sides of the border should be the same as it is today.

Juncker then went through the options, remarking that the "backstop" solution would only apply if the other options did not materialise.

Therefore, he said, the Draft Protocol on Ireland should not be surprised or a shock. It translates faithfully last December's agreement into a legal text. And on this, the EU, the Parliament and 27 Member States stood "firm and united when it comes to Ireland". For us, he said, "this is not an Irish issue. It is a European issue".

Echoing Mr Juncker was Monika Panayotova, the minister representing Bulgaria as holder of the rotating presidency of the Council of Ministers. "Even though in the last fourteen months there has been a succession of speeches outlining the UK view on the future of our relations, we still need more concrete and more operational proposals", she told MEPs.

"At the same time", she added, "there are no indications that the UK red lines have changed since last year". To Panayotova, this explained why the draft guidelines due to be adopted by the European Council were not more detailed. But she was hopeful that the lack of detail would "provide the political space for broader dynamics in the negotiations with the United Kingdom".

As far as I recall, that's where we left it last week – or was it the week before that? In Brexitland, even though the clock is ticking, time has stood still. Revisiting what the "colleagues" have to say is like walking through the wardrobe to spell-bound Narnia, the land of perpetual winter.

The only slight glimmer of progress come from The Sun. In what it calls an "exclusive", it is telling us that Mrs May's "war committee" has agreed to climb down on its position on Britain's borders closing in 2019. It is now agreeing to extend unconditional free movement with the EU until 2021.

However, in the hard world of Brussels, the place to which David Davis never goes, it appears that nothing else has changed. The "colleagues" are refusing to make any concessions on the Irish border. There may be a quid, but no pro quo.

And just to rub it in, the Commission has published two more in its "Notice to Stakeholder" series. One relates to rules in the field of electronic communications, which currently allow providers established in at least one EU Member State the right to provide electronic communications networks and services in all other Member States without being required to have an establishment there.

They can start providing networks and services without any formal licensing process and are subject only to a "general authorisation" in each Member State where they provide networks or services. Member States may only request a simple notification, without any standstill obligation.

As of the withdrawal date, providers established in the United Kingdom will cease to benefit from the general authorisation regime. EU-27 Member States will be able to impose additional authorisation requirements on providers established in the UK.

Furthermore, with the UK becoming a third country for the purposes of EU rules on roaming, providers of roaming services will no longer benefit from the obligation of mobile network operators operating in the United Kingdom to meet all reasonable requests for providing wholesale roaming access.

The other Notice deals with rules affecting network security and information systems, which will impact on providers of digital services not established in the Union. They will be required to establish representatives in the European Union.

Slowly, inexorably, the grip of Brexit tightens. Yet, back in media land, the focus is still on Moscow, via Salisbury. Few other things are registering apart from the short-term distraction of Mr Hammond's spring statement. Journalists and their editors are determined to play out their single-issue obsessions. And in their land, Brexit isn't Brexit any more. Brexit is boring – yesterday's news that can't compete with the mystery and intrigue of Putin's Russia.

The effect of this is incalculable. Here we have the most important political event since the war and the negotiations have been sidelined by a temporary crisis, leaving the public uninformed and unprepared for what it to come.

The situation is then compounded by the Commission putting the onus on the UK government to come up with proposals for the next steps. For a short time, this hands it the publicity initiative – there is nothing new to entertain the media until the UK delivers.

This hiatus can only last for a short time – until the European Council on 22-23 March, when things have to come to a head. This gives ten days to play with Russia before reality hits. Then, Mrs May will either come up with a solution for the Irish question or, if Donald Tusk is to be believed, the talks are in crisis and Narnia comes to town.

At that point, the media is will have to deal with its single-issue obsession. If the talks are in trouble they will have to bite the reality pill. For the moment, though, it's play time. And the "sons of Adam" are still being turned to stone.

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