Richard North, 30/08/2018  

There is an enduring meme which has been doing the rounds ever since the referendum – the British-inspired assertion that its approaches to individual EU Member States are bearing fruit, with varying numbers ready to peel off and support UK initiatives.

It doesn't seem to matter how many times Barnier insists that the EU-27 are united, or what the leaders of individual Member States say. Ministers and even the prime minister exploit every opportunity to put their own pitches, while anonymous sources are set to work with their background briefings, attesting to their success.

Yet, despite all that effort, the EU-27 have remained remarkably consistent in supporting their chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, support that was re-affirmed recently by French president Emmanuel Macron, who said that preserving European Union unity was more important than forging a close relationship with post-Brexit Britain.

Now, bringing them into line with the French, the other half of the Franco-German motor has made its views known. This came in the form of German foreign minister Heiko Maas speaking yesterday alongside Michel Barnier.

Maas was quite happy to concede that Germany was aiming for "a new, ambitious and close partnership with Great Britain following its departure", but at the same time he was keen to emphasise that the Single Market will not be weakened. Nor, says Maas, will the EU create "special rules" just to accommodate the UK.

In a very specific aside, Maas went on to say that an agreement on the withdrawal agreement must be reached by autumn, noting that "one last major hurdle" was the Northern Ireland border issue.

If the UK thinks is has detected any softening in the Member States' stance, it will get no comfort from Herr Maas, who repeats the EU line that the exit agreement must guarantee that the Brexit does not lead to a hard border in Northern Ireland.

The guarantee, says Maas, "must apply regardless of how the EU and the UK shape their future relationship. That is the only way to safeguard the Good Friday Agreement and peace in Ireland".

A report from Deutsche Welle thus has it that there is "not a hair's breadth" between the EU and German positions on Brexit, cementing in the traditional alliance between the EU and the Franco German motor.

In every possible sense, therefore, nothing has changed. And although (unusually) we don't yet have a transcript of Barnier's speech, we get from him also that the EU is ready to work with the UK on an "ambitious partnership", ready to describe it in a political declaration along with the withdrawal agreement.

The talk of a an "ambitious partnership" has triggered an amount of hyperventilation in the UK media, with the Mail, in particular, going overboard.

It has a headline referring to a "Brexit breakthrough" which is said to have sent the pound "soaring", it is claimed that "Barnier FINALLY says the EU will offer Britain a unique deal after months of stalemate". This is described as "the first hint of a climb down from Brussels", even though we are reminded that Barnier has rejected any "a la carte" choice from the Single Market.

Clearly, this is clutching-at-straw time, amplified by the lead story in The Times, the headline of which declares: "Make a deal with Britain, Macron tells EU leaders". This is styled as a "Brexit boost".

The essence of the story is that Macron "is preparing to throw Theresa May a lifeline", using the informal European Council at Salzburg next month to spell out a new structure for the EU, based on "concentric circles". This, supposedly, would have the EU and the euro at its core and Britain in a second ring.

The Times gravely presents this as coming from "diplomatic sources" as if it was something new or special. In fact, the idea is as old as the hills – something Booker and I describe in The Great Deception. It goes back to discussions between Giscard and Schmidt in the late 70s, with their talk of "variable geometry", and was still being talked about in the run-up to Maastricht.

That a media report can seriously be offering this as a template for a post-Brexit UK illustrates quite how far commentators have departed from reality – and how easy it is to build a spurious meme out of nothing very much at all. Here, The Times builds on this miasma to describe a "sense of optimism", which it says was "boosted" when Michel Barnier offered Britain an unprecedented trade deal that would keep ties "as close as possible".

What this actually says is that the media is all over the place, with a report in the Guardian telling us that Barnier is "failing to make himself available for Brexit talks", and is allegedly turning down requests to meet Dominic Raab due to "diary constraints".

Elsewhere in the paper (and repeated by others) we see a story describing how Cabinet Office minister David Lidington, has warned that relations between Britain and France are at "a fork in the road".

This man, described as Mrs May's de facto deputy, has told a group of French business leaders that the only alternative to the prime minister’s Chequers plan is a no-deal Brexit.

By way of background, we are informed that UK ministers are concerned that the French government remains "deeply sceptical" about the approach spelled out in its July white paper. Hence Lidington's speech serves as a warning that it is "too late to go back to the drawing board".

"With exactly seven months until the end of the article 50 process and less than two months ahead of the October European Council we face the choice between the pragmatic proposals we are discussing now with the European Commission, or no deal", he is quoted as saying.

And this, we are told, amounts to the clearest explanation by a senior minister of why the government believes the Chequers approach, with its common rulebook for goods and looser relationship for services, is the right one – and what the risks of rejecting it would be.

Yet, going back to the Berlin event, we have Barnier repeating the same, unvarying mantra that the British must respect the EU's own red lines. The internal market will not be changed and the indivisibility of the four freedoms is not negotiable.

Echoing British Prime Minister Theresa May's soundbite that "Brexit means Brexit," Barnier in fact delivered just one part of his speech in English, his own quip in retort: "single market means single market." This organisation of trade within the EU, he emphasised, remained "non-negotiable".

And there can be no question that Maas' position was identical: "Of course the door remains open for London," he said. "Britain can take part in the single market just as it is, but we will not wind the single market back, or deconstruct it, or create special regulations".

"It cannot be that Britain on its side just picks out all the positive points for itself," the German minister added, leaving the impression that "leaving the European Union entails no disadvantage at all".

There is simply no way past this, no matter how much the media or politicians try to spin it. If the UK insists on pursuing the Chequers/White Paper "plan" as the basis for the withdrawal agreement negotiations, while refusing to adapt it to the EU's requirements, the talks have nowhere to go.

Even then, nothing can progress until the Irish border question is resolved. For that, Dominic Raab conceded to a House of Lords Committee yesterday that "I don't have the solution to give you yet". And this comes with the recognition that the October deadline is not going to be met.

With that, no one should rely on perceived splits between Member States, nor nuanced interpretation of lines taken by different Member State leaders. Whenever it comes to the crunch points, they stand in line behind Barnier, not giving a millimetre (much less 25.4 of them).

The position in Brussels remains that it is for the British government to come up with proposals. In particular, it needs to live up to the commitments it made on an "all weather" solution to avoiding a hard border, if the backstop solution is to be rendered unnecessary.

If there is to be any change in that position, there might be clues to be seen in the Franco-German stance, but so far the motor purrs in perfect synchronicity. There is nothing to be gained by pretending that anything has changed.

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