Richard North, 29/06/2018  

I do get a little tired of these constant references to the "summit" in Brussels. There is no strict technical definition of the term which didn't really come into its own until the mid-fifties, but has since been used by lazy hacks to describe any international meeting of political leaders.

However, the European Council is an institution of the European Union, and the meeting over yesterday is one of the scheduled events which is closer to a routine domestic cabinet than it is to an assembly of independent leaders.

That said, there is something special about today's meeting – not that special as there have been quite a few of them: Article 50 meetings of the Council constituted as 27. That leaves out Mrs May who had yesterday to strut her stuff with her pre-prepared statements, before scuttling back to London and her comfort zone.

So far, though, the high ground goes to Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister. With Mrs May leaving it until after her pyjama party next month, before coming up with her ideas for the UK-EU relationship to put in her fabled White Paper, he told reporters: "I think it would have been helpful if they had had that white paper two years ago".

Not unreasonably, he went on to say: "You would have thought that before people voted to leave the European Union they would have an idea what the new relationship would look like but I appreciate that that hasn't happened, and two years later it still hasn’t happened".

With what some might think was chilling candour, he then added that he looked forward to seeing the plan when it was produced, but suggested that the UK did not understand that is was not an equal partner with the EU. "It needs to understand", he said, "that we're a union of 27 member states, 500 million people. We have laws and rules and principles and they can't be changed for any one country, even a great country like Britain".

"Any relationship that exists in the future between the EU and the UK isn't going to be one of absolute equals", he continued. "We're 27 member states, the UK is one country, we're 500 million people, the UK is 60 million. That basic fact has to be realised".

Needless to say, Varadkar reminded the reporters that he would not accept a land border with the UK, but said to be "responsible" Ireland and other countries would have to make preparations at ports and airports for the possibility of a no deal Brexit.

And that is something, we are told, that the Commission and Member States generally are beginning to look at rather more closely. Quietly they are stepping up work on emergency plans to deal with a hard Brexit, covering the first few days and the weeks thereafter.

Interestingly, transitional measures are being talked about, including unilateral actions taken to keep traffic flowing and permit essential cross-border activities. Options include extending the UK's formal exit date, treating the UK as if it were still in the EU for a few months, whether it asked for the extension or not.

The focus, apparently, is to avoid the chaos that would ensue, giving more time for preparation. Unilateral or "autonomous" measures could include grandfathering - or maintaining - regulatory permissions, such as safety certificates for airlines and ensuring the enforceability of financial contracts signed under UK law.

Other arrangements could, for a short period, keep open the Channel tunnel, by applying tariffs in aggregate - based on estimates of the volume of trade on the route - rather than on individual items, waiving the requirements for individual customs declarations.

Work is being kept under wraps, with very little information leaking from the system. Coordinated by Martin Selmayr, the Commission's secretary-general, measures will be on a basic, "bare-bones" level, limited to that which is strictly necessary to avoid absolute chaos, but no more. Arrangements could last for months, but some could be in place only for days or even hours.

This contrasts with the siren voices in the UK, renewing their calls for Mrs May to walk away from the talks rather than accept a "bad deal". Obviously, if there are contingency measure in place, this could be seen as reducing the UK's downside risks from a "no deal" scenario.

Thus, anything planned by the Commission, alongside Member States, is likely to be strictly time-limited and framed in such a way as to suit the needs of the EU, making few if any concessions to the needs of the UK. Measures could end without notice, and without consulting UK officials.

With that, any ambitions of getting anything substantive (or anything at all) out of this week's European Council has been long abandoned. All hopes now rest on the October meeting and even then there are expectations that the talks could run into the early New Year.

In any event, from the UK's perspective – according to Mrs May's former advisor Nick Timothy - the "time for playing nice with the EU is over". The Westminster narrative, it would seem, has it that Brussels "wants us to fail". Thus, we should "toughen up", and the Chancellor should immediately increase spending and staffing to prepare for "no deal".

Rather like the mobilisation plans of 1914, however, if we have both sides preparing for a "no deal", this can only increase the likelihood of it happening. Already, there are many who believe that the worst consequences won't happen, simply because they are so serious that the EU won't allow them to happen. Anything that reinforces that belief could have the unintended consequences of making them happen.

The great danger, then, remains the accidental Brexit, with the sides breaking away because no one was any longer committed to making a withdrawal agreement happen. We may avoid the spectacular "crash and burn" scenario, but the effect of a slow-motion train wreck might be just as severe.

The problem, as I see it, is that not only are there endless Muppets who have no idea what a "no deal" looks like, there simply isn't the capability within the higher reaches of government to draft an effective exit plan – even if one could be agreed.

The reason for that, Simon Nixon avers is that much of the British political class have never fully understood what the EU is or how it works.

This is the Chief European Commentator for the Wall Street Journal yet he himself seems to struggle when it comes to understanding the difference between the customs union and the Single Market. It is also the man, writing for The Times, who last year applauded "Snake Oil" Singham and his Legatum Institute report.

The reality, therefore, is better illustrated by Nixon's own inadequacies. Like those in government, he only has a very sketchy idea of how international governance works. And it is because they don't have that knowledge that our own government ministers and their advisors will be unable to produce a credible plan.

This is more than the problem of a split cabinet, of which Juncker complains. That is the symptom rather than the cause. In the political vacuum left by the lack of vision, ministers are bound to resort to squabbling between themselves.

All that matters then, as far as the EU is concerned, is simply to contain the damage and then put as much distance between the EU and the UK as is possible. If that means making what appear to be temporary concessions to the UK, then the "colleagues" will do what it takes. And if that engenders a false sense of security amongst the Muppets, I don't suppose they will care less.

The EU's patience must surely be close to running out, and there must be a limit to the tolerance they have for the continuous flow of drivel they read from the Telegraph and the other "Ultra" newspapers. When the "colleagues" resume talking today, though, the UK prime minister won't be there to hear their plans. And in Brussels, or so they say, no one can hear her scream.

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