Richard North, 24/03/2018  

It seems as if Russia has served its unintended purpose of distracting from the European Council and the guidelines on the future relationship with the UK. Mrs May has walked away with expressions of solidarity from the EU and Member States, claiming the deal brokered with the EU has laid the ground for a "new dynamic" in the talks.

With that, a complacent media is variously reporting that Mrs May has achieved "success in negotiating a standstill transition deal", while the Mail has the prime minister hailing the "spirit of opportunity". The Wall Street Journal even went so far as to declare: "Prime Minister Theresa May concluded on Friday what probably counts as her most successful EU summit".

This is an utterly bizarre "take" on what feels like the most ignominious surrender since Lord Cornwallis ceded Yorktown, Virginia to Washington on 19 October 1781 – on receipt of news of which, Prime Minister Lord North is said to have repeatedly exclaimed, "Oh, God! It's all over!".

In accepting the terms set out in the guidelines adopted by the European Council yesterday, Mrs May has effective opened the way to a further 21 months of subordination to the EU, without being able to take part in any of the decision-making processes that attend membership of the EU.

Not only that, the guidelines pave the way to a future partnership that "will inevitably lead to frictions in trade" and "unfortunately" will "have negative economic consequences, in particular in the United Kingdom".

In entirely uncompromising terms, the European Council has reiterated that "any agreement with the United Kingdom will have to be based on a balance of rights and obligations, and ensure a level playing field", noting that, "a non-member of the Union, that does not live up to the same obligations as a member, cannot have the same rights and enjoy the same benefits as a member".

The Council recalls that the four freedoms are indivisible and that there can be no "cherry picking" through participation in the Single Market based on a sector-by-sector approach, which would undermine the integrity and proper functioning of the Single Market.

Thus, it further reiterates that the Union will preserve its autonomy as regards its decision-making, which excludes participation of the United Kingdom as a third-country in the Union Institutions and participation in the decision-making of the Union bodies, offices and agencies.

Leaving no room for ambiguity, it states that the role of the ECJ "will also be fully respected" and, while it is ready to "initiate work towards a balanced, ambitious and wide-ranging free trade agreement", it cannot "offer the same benefits as Membership and cannot amount to participation in the Single Market or parts thereof".

At the Council, we heard that the EU "wants to have the closest possible partnership with the UK, which would cover trade and economic cooperation, security and defence, among other areas". However, we are told, the EU 27 leaders noted that UK's current positions "limit the depth of such a future partnership".

Donald Tusk told reporters, "We want to use the positive momentum in the negotiations to finally settle outstanding issues such as the solution to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland". He added: "In parallel, we will start our first talks about the future EU-UK relationship. Leaders will assess in June if the Irish question has been resolved, and how to go about a common declaration on our future". 

 Even to get this far, the UK has had to agree to substantial payments to the EU budget, make substantial concessions on the free movement of persons through the transition period, and to commit to a solution on the Irish border which Mrs May declared "complexly unacceptable" to any UK prime minister.

One other price we have had to pay is the effective "betrayal" of our fishermen as the UK agrees to a continuation of the hated Common Fisheries Policy.

Even then, the transition is not a done deal. The Times is reporting that this is not enough to calm the jitters of business leaders. Thousands of jobs in the City of London, it says, will begin migrating to continental Europe from next month. Mrs Mays "success" will not to stop companies in regulated areas such as finance, chemicals and pharmaceuticals from implementing their contingency plans for a so-called hard Brexit.

All aspects of the deal are linked under the principle of "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed". The companies have concluded that the chance of a failure to resolve remaining differences about the transition period, such as over the Irish border, is still too high to take the risk of not being able to trade in Europe after March next year.

According to the paper, one "senior city figure" has said that between 5,000 and 10,000 jobs of finance and support staff would move by the end of this year. Another figure advising companies on their Brexit plans said more than half of all the companies they had contact with in regulated industries were intending to go ahead with their contingency plans.

This, in fact, is only to be expected. The shape of any free trade deal that the EU is prepared to offer will not give market access to UK-manufactured pharmaceuticals, chemicals, automotive and aviation products, and a host of other products. Even cosmetics will be affected.

Interestingly, calls Mrs May's deal a process of "managed surrender" which, I suppose, is something more than Cornwallis managed. As a sub-heading, it declares: "London talks tough but gives Brussels what it wants".

Yet, the national humiliation is by no means over. The withdrawal talks, says, are likely to become even more lopsided as an unofficial October deadline for agreement on the framework of the future UK-EU relationship draws near.

Any resemblance with a negotiation among equals is purely cosmetic, it adds. And that will be a different sort of cosmetic to the ones we will no longer be able to sell in the EU and wider EEA.

Michael Leigh, a former head of the European Commission's enlargement department, sees the withdrawal process in terms of an accession negotiation in reverse. And, like our entry negotiations, the balance of power and time are, once again, not on London's side. The prospect of a no-deal Brexit is more harmful to the UK than to its continental partners and we have too much to lose.

Leigh reminds us of how, during our entry negotiations, the UK's chief negotiator Con O'Neill described how, for the accession process to succeed, we would have to: "Swallow the lot and swallow it now". It turns out, Leigh says, that "leaving the bloc is a strikingly symmetrical process".

Despite this, the "ultras" have been remarkably quiescent. One wonders if the essence of the May surrender has really registered with them. Their house journal the Telegraph, for instance, leads today with an "exclusive", headlining: "Cars to travel slower than bicycles on England's clogged-up roads within a decade". The European Council is scarcely reported, while most of the media seems to be obsessing over the sacking of a person called Owen Jones - I think.

Whether the "ultra" silence represents merely the calm before the storm or just another Tory surrender on the scale of Maastricht remains to be seen. "Ultra" leader Rees-Mogg and the other mouths alongside him will have their chance, no doubt, on Monday when Mrs May reports to the Commons on her adventure in Brussels. But something tells me we should not hold our collective breaths.

It is, after all, the combined efforts of the "ultras" that have brought us to this point, where the "least-worst" Norway option has been rejected, only for us to end up with something inestimably worse. One hopes, at least, that they are able to express a little shame for what they have done.

These people, though, are High Tories. They don't do shame, although they are past masters at betrayal. It's what they do superbly well – the only thing in which they actually excel. But, in this case, first and foremost, they have betrayed themselves – as well as those who were foolish enough to rely on them. North's first rule of politics comes to mind: never trust a Tory. The second rule is: always obey the first.

For those who might have looked to the bankrupt Ukip for salvation, all they have is an etiolated ex-leader throwing dead fish into the Thames. Farage might just as well throw himself in afterwards, for all the good he is – despite an apparent Damascene conversion, confiding recently that that the government's "biggest mistake" was not going straight way for the Norway option.

Any which way, Brexit is now going to be a matter of counting the job losses and the missed opportunities. It didn't have to be this way but, if we have a political class where incompetence seems to be its highest aspiration, I suppose we should have expected it. Now we have to clean up the mess.

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