Richard North, 03/09/2018  

Mrs May is saying "Chequers" and no further. She "won't surrender to Brussels" and is prepared to make the outcome binary: Chequers or no deal. And just to make it perfectly clear, how little room for manoeuvre she has, David Davis is saying he would vote against it, even as it stands.

And nor is Davis alone. He is joined by the oaf Johnson who uses his column in the Telegraph to say that, "in adopting Chequers, we have gone into battle waving the white flag". There is no equivocation here: Johnson is out in the open, in direct opposition to the prime minister.

The Times has it that there is another group in play, which calls itself "Stand Up 4 Brexit". It wants to force Mrs May back to the drawing board to restart negotiations, ripping up the EU negotiations to date.

On the other hand, Michel Barnier has been speaking to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. As translated by the paywall-free Guardian, he comes over with a similar lack of equivocation, stating that he is "strongly opposed" to aspects of the Chequers plan.

We have ourselves a scenario, therefore, following exactly the lines I set out in my piece on 29th August. Nothing has changed – the script is already written and the actors are playing out their parts in what is commonly known as a Mexican standoff.

The way Barnier is playing it, though, is to keep throwing the ball back into Mrs May's court. Rather than close things down, every time we reach an impasse, he courteously suggests that the UK negotiators go away and work out something to bring back which will meet the EU's unchanging needs. And each time this happens, we see a delivery of gold-plated waffle which fails to cut the ice.

But it is the essence of a Mexican standoff that neither side can achieve victory, yet neither can back down. And if M. Barnier isn't going to walk away, neither is Mrs May. She will keep returning with more nonsense statements, right up to the very last minute, declaring to the very last that she is "confident" that we can achieve a "good deal".

And here there is a certain amount of loose thinking going on about deadlines. In his FAZ interview, Barnier concedes that a deal might not be struck in October, with the inference that the talks might run on to November. If there is no deal then, however, is anyone seriously suggesting that the parties are going to fold up their tents and steal away into the night?

Obviously, if the talks fail then – as there is every likelihood of them doing – the parties are going to come back for another attempt at a deal, and another, and another, until we run out of time on 29 March 2019. At that point, the "no deal" cuts in automatically.

Some might argue that, if the talks do fail in November, or shortly thereafter, the parties will change tack and start focusing on the no-deal deal. But even if there was a willingness to do this, the EU must follow its own procedures in dealing with third country negotiations, which means that there cannot be any "no deal" talks until after we leave the EU.

However, not all is lost, it would seem, "The British have a choice", Barnier says. "They could stay in the single market, like Norway, which is also not a member of the EU, but they would then have to accept all the regulations and make contributions to European solidarity".

Interestingly, this is the actual rendition. The Guardian says that there would be "large payments to Brussels". It just cannot get its head round that fact that Efta/EEA states do not make direct contributions to the EU budget.

Nevertheless, since Mrs May has already ruled this out, many times, it is hard to see how she could change tack at this late stage and go for something she has decisively rejected. And one can imagine the squeals of rage emanating from the likes of Johnson if she was to take such a step.

There is one MP, though, he thinks he has the answer. Launching something he calls Better Brexit, Nick Boles wants to revisit the idea of using the Efta/EEA option as a temporary harbour, joining Efta as an associate member for the purposes of the EEA Agreement.

There is nothing new here, especially as the long-term outcome is a free trade agreement with the EU or, failing that, implementing a "massive programme of investment to transform UK's ability to trade successfully on WTO terms".

Why Boles (or anyone else) can believe that the Efta states will roll over and let the UK disrupt their arrangements with the EU is beyond comprehension. But to expect the Efta states to play a part in this charade has to be one of the best ways possible of ensuring that the "Norway Option" never happens.

Should we ever get to the stage where we manage to stay in the EEA, though, one then has to ask why there should be any support of negotiating an inferior deal, which would be the case if we subsequently opted for an FTA – or the WTO Option.

If this is the best on offer, then it is hardly surprising that we're in the mess we are. From the entire ranks of the political establishment, we've seen not one credible plan which would enable us to manage Brexit effectively.

To a very great extent, though, the damage is already done, witness the way the European Medicines Agency is panning out. With the removal of its headquarters from London, the UK regulator, which benefitted from substantial amounts of spin-off work, is being frozen out of the action.

Immediately after the referendum there was perhaps a small window when we could have reached out to the EU with an Efta/EEA type of deal which could have us more involved in the workings of the EU agencies. But that ship has now sailed. Third country status is going to hit us with a vengeance, and the political establishment has not even begun to realise the implications.

Yet such details are scarcely being considered or, where they are, the "ultras" simply move in to dismiss any adverse consequences as "project fear". The irony is that, in expecting favoured treatment from the EU, they are rejecting the plan produced by Mrs May, which has also been rejected by the EU.

But, while the EU is expecting substantial concessions, the "ultras" want to give way even less, in return for better treatment than is afforded even to Efta/EEA members.

The oaf Johnson, in particular, is keen to dismiss the Irish border problem, asserting that it is a "total myth" to say that we need a "hard border" when we leave the EU.

Had he spent a little time when he was Brussels correspondent for the Telegraph learning something about the EU, instead of fabricating his own Euro-myths, he might have understood that the EU's external borders have to be policed in accordance with its own rules, the essence of which necessarily turns borders between the EU and third countries into hard borders. That is the default position.

When the UK leaves the EU, its border with the Irish Republic also becomes part of the EU's external border. As such, the rules applicable will apply automatically – unless a special deal can be cut.

The essence of this is that it must be a special deal – unique to Northern Ireland – to avoid setting a precedent which other third countries can use against the EU, relying on WTO non-discrimination rules.

Such basic points seem totally beyond the comprehension of the "ultras", and indeed the UK government, which still hankers after a deal for Northern Ireland which can be rolled into the general trade deal agreed with the UK as a whole. It too does not seem to appreciate that to be special deal it must be separated from that general agreement.

And this is where Barnier came in. "If we let the British pick the raisins out of our rules, that would have serious consequences", he says. "Then all sorts of other third countries could insist that we offer them the same benefits".

For those who are so enthusiastic about WTO rules, it has to be the ultimate in irony that the very thing that stops the EU giving the UK what it wants are those self-same WTO rules. And so the Mexican standoff is where we're at. This is a game no one wins.

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