Richard North, 25/05/2018  

No sooner has Ivan Rogers done with his "blathering Brexiteers" than another player enters the field – the famous "anonymous EU official" – to whom they must some day erect a statue in the Place du Luxembourg outside the European Parliament in Brussels.

Standing in for what in earlier times might have been the "unknown soldier", this intrepid official yesterday briefed a group of UK journalists, all of whom presumably knew exactly who he (or she) was, but are willing to preserve anonymity for the sake of a juicy story. One assumes from the circumstances, though, that the official speaks for and with the full authority of the European Commission.

Covering the Guardian version of the encounter, the paper chooses the headline: "UK 'chasing a fantasy' in Brexit talks, top EU official warns", with the sub-heading, "Senior official involved in talks says EU will not negotiate under threat, after a fraught week in Brussels".

In the manner of modern journalism, the paper thus writes the story in the heading, which it goes on to repeat in summary in the opening paragraphs, before elaborating on the story in the main section and then summarising again in the conclusion. We thus get told the story four times in the space of less than a thousand words – even if the broadcast media do it better, offering as many as six versions of a story in the same bulletin (then repeated hourly thereafter).

Anyhow, through the marvels of repetitive journalism (begetter of repetitive strain injury), one gets to learn that it is indeed "the EU" which has accused the British government of "chasing a fantasy". Furthermore, it has warned that it will not negotiate under threat, "after a fraught week of Brexit talks in Brussels that have raised serious concerns about the future of the negotiations".

You do love the add on. To mere invisible mortals like myself, who have been warning for ages that the talks are under threat, it now suits the London zombie media narrative to tell us the same thing in order to add gravitas to their story.

A lot of this seems centred on "bad discussions" about the role of the UK in the Galileo satellite positioning system, after the government had suggested it would seek to recover more than €1 billion of contributions to the project unless the European commission lifted a block on British firms being involved.

This, we are told, has triggered "a particularly strident response", with an implicit threat that such posturing could unravel the discussions. Says our intrepid EU official (anonymous and bar): "The EU doesn’t negotiate under threat", adding: "Such a request for reimbursement would be backsliding and unacceptable".

One wonders whether this theatre is being engineered for our entertainment, or what purpose it serves describing talks as "bad-tempered", but one can certainly understand the comment that "frustration is mounting". Join the club.

The grief of the EU negotiators - shared by one and all - is that almost two years after the referendum the British government has not come to terms with Brexit. The intrepid one says: "I have to say on the basis of this week’s discussions, I am a bit concerned because the pre-condition for fruitful discussions has to be that the UK accepts the consequences of its own choices".

He adds: "I am concerned that if the current debate continues, in three months’ time it will be the EU that will be made responsible for the Brexit decision. We need the UK to accept the consequences of its own decisions", then coming up with this entertaining line: "To paraphrase The Leopard by Tommaso di Lampedusa, I have the impression that the UK thinks everything has to change on the EU's side so that everything can stay the same for the UK".

This is not a lot different from what Barnier has been saying and, only yesterday Ivan Rogers was saying that there will need to be new legal agreements negotiated … "which will not be at all the same – cannot be the same – as the one pre-exit". It seems the lesson still hasn't sunk in.

It can't have helped Whitehall blood pressure when the EU official treated the assembled journalists to a "forthright point-by-point deconstruction of the UK's negotiating positions". Amongst the highlights, he stated that the EU would not allow the UK the access it wants post-Brexit to the Galileo satellite programme. This, he said, would give Downing Street the ability to "switch off the signal for the EU".

He also ruled out the UK retaining use of the European arrest warrant, as it could put in jeopardy "the lives and liberty of citizens". And then, responding to UK complaints that the EU's proposed free-trade deal was "insufficient", he pointed out that the UK was asking for a more trusted position than that enjoyed by the Member States, which are held accountable by the ECJ and the EU institutions. This, the official described as "a big ask" and "not where the European council is at".

Funnily enough, we had Ivan Rogers ask yesterday why members, who have painfully agreed an extremely detailed constraining single rule book, should "allow a non-member greater latitude than they have themselves to achieve so-called comparable regulatory outcomes – and agree a non-ECJ unique resolution mechanism to decide whether they are comparable?" If there is a thing called a "pre-echo", it came from Sir Ivan when he said: "This is not going to happen in a month of Sundays".

That left the EU official to pour cold water on the UK's suggestion that it could try to change the EU's rules from inside before it leaves to gain access to its programmes post-Brexit. The official sniffed that the commission's negotiators would report back to the member states on the development.

To all this, it may come as no surprise that the UK's response hasn't been a particularly happy one, at least according to the BBC. It has its own unknown official to step into the breach to describe his counterpart's remarks as "laughable", warning the EU against "trying to insult us". He gets his statue, in due course, on the empty plinth in Trafalgar square.

Nevertheless, in this battle between titans, I would have thought that "chasing a fantasy" is as close as you are going to get to a diplomatic insult, which suggests that the EU is not so much trying as succeeding.

But then, this can hardly be a surprise when the issue of the Irish border in stasis. This has our EU official complaining that "we are running out of time" after informing us that there had been no agreement in three days of talks this week. To add to the last lot of talks, that means that the "crunch items" of customs and regulatory alignment between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic are no closer to being solved than they have ever been.

Thus does the EU official observe that progress on the Irish border – "let alone substantive progress" is proving "elusive". But where, as always, the UK wants to roll the issue into the general EU-UK trade talks, the EU official is adamant: "We need to have the recognition that the backstop has to be Northern Ireland specific", he says. "We have to do away with the fantasy that there is an all-UK solution to that".

Never one to be outclassed, this is countered by the UK unknown official, who dismissed the remarks. They are simply the EU's "public negotiating position". We are thus informed that the UK "presented seven papers this week, in the interests of resolving difficult issues in the interests of both sides, so the claim we aren't providing enough detail is laughable".

He adds: "The risk is that, if they follow down this track, putting conditions on our unconditional offers and trying to insult us, the EU will end up with a relationship with its third biggest economy and largest security partner that lets down millions of citizens in the EU and UK".

That has to be a new one, but you can't blame the man for trying: "a relationship … that lets down millions of citizens in the EU and UK". I'm not sure what Brussels will make of that, especially when the egregious David Davis beefs it up with a tweet asserting that the EU's attitude "would lead to a substantial and avoidable reduction in our shared security capability". He added: "Our citizens depend on this, let's not let them down".

So, it seems, the big objective is not to let down our citizens – as, of course, defined by the UK negotiating team.

We have not recently had any figures on suicides for EU officials, or the numbers referred to specialist units for treatment of mental health issues, but one warrants that, amongst Commission veterans, PTSD is going to be a major factor – we may even need a tomb for the unknown official.

That, presumably, will be in or near the graveyard of fond hopes, as more and more of the UK's positions are demolished. What started off so bright and cheerful, with knockabout press conferences between Barnier and Davis has now degenerated into a battle between unknown officials.

When it's all over, the very least we can do is raise statues to them.

comments powered by Disqus

Brexit - the first year - New e-book by Richard North
Brexit - the first year - New e-book by Richard North
Buy Now

Log in

Sign THA
Think Defence

The Many, Not the Few