Richard North, 23/08/2018  

I get the feeling that the Brexit debate has crossed the Rubicon, although that's probably not the right parallel. More precisely, it's entered a new dimension in which words and phrases have their own meanings totally different to what we understand by them.

Pre-eminent amongst these phrases is the much-used "no deal" which, in this dimension, means what it says – a meaning so transparent and familiar that it barely needs definition. But, in "dimension x" the phrase seems to mean exactly the opposite of what we understand by it.

Only this could explain the reports in sundry newspapers, typified by this in the Independent where, we are told, Dominic Raab is risking "a new row" with Brussels by demanding that the EU does more to ensure adequate preparation for a no-deal Brexit.

This is a reference to the speech that Raab is set to make today, when he is expected to complain that British and European institutions have not been able to work together in enough areas to guarantee the smooth continuation of life if negotiations fail to reach a deal.

British officials, it is said, feel that while EU Member States are ready to begin no-deal preparation in more areas, the European Commission is not "facilitating" cooperation.

Thus, if the negotiations fail, Raab asserts that "we will continue to behave as responsible European neighbours, partners and allies", extending to "necessary engagement with our EU partners when it comes to no-deal planning".

We have confronted this before, in rather different circumstances, but the fact that this seems to have been adopted as official policy takes some getting used to. As from today, we will have a British minister openly acknowledging the concept of a post-Article 50 Brexit which involves leaving the European Union without a formal withdrawal agreement.

Of course, this can't be happening in this dimension where "no deal" actually means "no deal", hence my certainty that we have slipped into a new dimension. It cannot be possible that a representative of our government is, on the one hand, expecting negotiations with the EU to cease and, on the other hand, that they should continue.

Here, one is not sure whether the plan is that the dialogue should continue with the Commission or other representatives of EU institutions, or with the Member States. And if it is the latter, one wonders what the aim might be. After all, Member States are not authorised to negotiate on behalf of the Union.

Looking at this in the round, it is as if the last 17 months of negotiations haven't existed. Article 50 is no longer of any relevance and we are rebooting the inter-dimensional computer so that we can start again at year zero.

This then meshes in with the fabled "technical notices", some of which we expect to see today. Their purpose, we are told, is to provide "information and guidance" with the "overarching aim" of facilitating "the smooth, continued, functioning of business, transport, infrastructure, research, aid programmes and funding streams".

In some cases, we learn, this means taking unilateral action to maintain as much continuity as possible in the short term, in the event of "no deal", and this will happen irrespective of whether the EU reciprocates, allowing us to "diverge when we are ready, on our terms" from the European Union.

Of course, we will know more later today when we see these notices that the government is prepared to publish, but if we can gain "the smooth, continued, functioning" of just about everything without a deal, there was quite obviously no need to expend such an enormous amount of time and energy in travelling down the path of Article 50 negotiations. The sooner they are dispensed with, the better.

In this dimension, though, where Article 50 negotiations still exist, it would be interesting to observe how this European Commission might react on being told that the talks were quite unnecessary and that it is just as easy for the parties to achieve what they want with a "no deal" scenario which will somehow miraculously beget exactly the deals we couldn't get with a deal.

It appears that the key to all this miraculous no dealing, according to the Guardian, is unilateral action taken by the UK, with Mr Raab under the impression that implementing border checks or travel restrictions in respect of EU goods and citizens would "risk triggering a tit-for-tat battle with Brussels".

More correctly, it seems that Mr Raab is proposing unilateral inaction, but if it is truly the case that he believes this will affect the UK's new status as a third country and free up UK goods from EU border controls, and that no other restrictions will apply, then there would be good cause to be worried. Thank goodness this is only happening in an alternative dimension.

The greatest danger that the UK might otherwise face is that the two dimensions merge or, horror of horrors, that there isn't a new dimension at all. In that case, this is our new reality in which a "no-deal" leads to everyone pretending Brexit hasn't happened and we all continue on exactly the same lines as before.

From Bloomberg it seems that we must get used to calling this a "business as usual" option, where Mr Raab wants life to continue as normal in the event of a "no deal".

Despite the fact that the EU treaties will disappear at the stroke of midnight (their time) on 29 March, that the golden coach will turn back into a pumpkin and the horses back into white mice, individual institutions on both sides will still need to engage to agree "sensible" solutions to keep things running smoothly.

Here, we get to see writ large the concept of "side-deals", of the type that the Bank of England and European Central Bank are apparently trying to do over financial services regulation. Should this ploy work, "there are other areas where such engagement needs to take place, whether between the UK and the EU on data protection or between the UK and EU Member States, for example between port authorities", Raab is going to tell us.

On that basis, it is quite evident that we are not actually looking at a "no-deal deal" but "side-deal deals" (note the plural). "That is the responsible thing for us to do on all sides", Raab believes, who seems to be looking forward to lots and lots of them.

Furthermore, in order to pursue these, we are looking for a happy atmosphere as the prime minister has pointed out that these would be "hard to negotiate in an acrimonious atmosphere after the collapse of talks".

What happens before our happy officials get together to make these side deals doesn't seem to have been specified, and neither do we get any sense of a timescale for these miraculous events, even though we don't have lots and lots of time before things must happen.

On reflection though, this can't be real. Perhaps Mr Raab has been transported to another dimension where he is speaking to us via some magical portal and his message is getting scrambled in the process. We cannot seriously believe that we have a minister who is that out of touch with the real world.

But then, what do we know? Mr Raab is freshly back from Brussels, where he has met Michel Barnier, so perhaps he is picking up vibes that are not apparent to us mere mortals. All our concerns to date might have been overblown and we can now relax in the expectation that the EU has been kidding all along and is ready to roll over and give us everything we want.

On the other hand, we might need to be on our guard against an embittered M. Barnier who, like a demented Sideshow Bob – now recast as Sidedeal Bob - will be behind every bush ready to leap out and sabotage each attempt to reach an agreement.

Certainly, the talks begin to look more and more like an episode of The Simpsons, with Raab cast in the role of Homer. And that's got to be the explanation. We have departed the real world, and anything goes.

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