Richard North, 19/09/2018  

Can it really be the case that our prime minister believes that Efta/EEA States are part of the customs union? Yet that's what she tells us in a promotional film for her Chequers plan, asserting that a relationship built on the one Norway has with the EU "would also involve membership of the customs union which means we couldn't strike our own trade deals".

If the woman isn't telling a deliberate, unconscionable lie, then she is more ignorant than we could possibly have imagined. Bluntly, I don't know which is worse. Possibly, it is the latter. We expect politicians – even prime ministers – to be economical with the réalité, but to have one who doesn't know even the basics of something like the Norway Option is quite shocking.

But, if Mrs May really is that ignorant, she is in good company. Her cabinet secretary Dominic Raab seems to display that same lack of grip of the essentials in arguing that it was the EU's turn to move on its red lines. Interviewed by a group of continental newspapers, he told them, "We have shown a lot of flexibility and we have been very pragmatic", adding: "So I think this is the moment to see that matched… The ball is a little bit in the other court now".

This is another of those wondrous moments, where it is difficult to believe that a man in his position could be so far adrift from his brief. But if he needs to get back on track, all he needs to do is read the latest report from the select committee on exiting the European Union.

"The European Commission", it says, "has now indicated that the Chequers proposals for a Facilitated Customs Arrangement and a common rulebook are not viable and if this remains the position then the Government will need to adapt its approach to the future EU-UK economic relationship".

For this, therefore, we don't need any secret squirrel briefings from anonymous "EU diplomats", or messages in a bottle floated up the Thames. And, if anything, the select committee is late to the party, articulating what we have known for an awful long time.

But if you did want any confirmation, the Evening Standard is the place to be, with Ann Linde, Sweden's acting Europe minister. Speaking to the paper, she adopts an emollient tone, telling us that the EU leaders "could see Chequers positively", but there are some "problematic big areas". She is not prepared to be so undiplomatic as to say it is a "non-starter" but observes that "some of the things give rise to difficulties because it goes against EU principles". In other words, it's a non-starter.

As to any likelihood of "flexibility" – the crucial issue remains the Irish border. And, in setting out the programme for Salzburg, Donald Tusk is being less than supportive of British fantasies.

As regards Brexit, the EU leaders are seeking to reach "a common view on the nature and overall shape of the joint political declaration about our future partnership with the UK". They will then discuss how to organise the final phase of the Brexit talks, "including the possibility of calling another European Council in November".

Finally, they will be asked to "reconfirm the need for a legally operational backstop on Ireland, so as to be sure that there will be no hard border in the future". Limiting the damage caused by Brexit is our shared interest, Tusk says, but, "unfortunately, a no deal scenario is still quite possible".

Interestingly, the European Council president goes on to talk of acting "responsibly" in order to "avoid a catastrophe", but he needs to direct that sentiment directly to Mrs May. Whether deliberately, with malice aforethought, or through a profound ignorance that she has no business allowing, hers is not responsible behaviour. Not under any circumstances can it lead to a happy outcome.

At least, though, if the EU leaders agree to the extension of the deadline, they have given the UK another month to settle an agreement. But, if Mrs May and her ministers are effectively in denial, no amount of extra time will be to any avail.

The point, of course, is that the EU cannot deliver the flexibility that Mr Raab wants, and there was never any likelihood that it could. Thus, if at this late stage, it is still being expected by the UK team, led by a prime minister spouting error-strewn propaganda about the Chequers plan, we must consider the possibility that we are dealing with people so ignorant that they haven't the competence to see the Brexit talks to a successful conclusion.

Mrs May certainly shares Raab's fantasy. According to Reuters, she has been writing in Die Welt, arguing that both sides needed to show goodwill to avoid a disorderly UK exit from the EU.

"We are near to achieving the orderly withdrawal that is the essential basis for building a close future partnership", she wrote, adding: "To come to a successful conclusion, just as the UK has evolved its position, the EU will need to do the same. Neither side can demand the unacceptable of the other, such as an external customs border between different parts of the United Kingdom".

Taking a break from her literary endeavours, the prime minister will be at Salzburg today and she will get a chance to address the EU-27 over dinner. What she will say to them won't be recorded, and there will be no journalists present. The media will have to rely on statements from No.10 and leaks from the meeting where, one presumes, Ireland will be discussed.

But, if Mrs May thinks she is going to drive a wedge between the Commission and the Member States, we already have one of those helpful senior EU officials to deflate expectations. EU leaders will show their "strong support for Michel Barnier and strong support for the position of Ireland", he says.

Mrs May won't be there to hear this. She gets to speak today, but there is no discussion on Brexit until tomorrow, by which time she will have left. And the substance of those talks won't be recorded either. There may not even be much by way of an official communiqué.

Meanwhile, Michel Barnier has been preparing the ground with a press statement following yesterday's General Affairs Council in Brussels. Emphasising the need to "move decisively forward" on the Irish question, he reminded us that the formal proposal for the backstop had been on the table since February.

Using slightly different words from Tusk in his written statement, we see him talk of the need for a functional rather than legally operational backstop, although when delivered, Barnier was fully on-message using exactly the same words.

Once again we heard of the need to "de-dramatise the checks that "are required and that are caused by the UK's decision to leave the EU, its Single Market and Customs Union", while in what has been hailed as a "boost" for Mrs May, Barnier stated that: "We are ready to improve this proposal".

"Work on the EU side is ongoing", the chief negotiator said, "We are clarifying which goods arriving in Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK would need to be checked and where, when and by whom these checks could be performed. We can also clarify that most checks can take place away from the border, at company premises or in the markets" – adding words in his oral delivery.

Sky News seems to have an even fuller account, with quotes that are not on the Commission recording. These have Barnier saying: "What we are talking about here is not a border - not a land border, not a sea border. It is a set of technical checks and controls".

That leaves, says Barnier, the October European Council, which he says, "will be the moment of truth". He adds: "This is the moment when we will see if an agreement is within our reach, as I hope and as we are working on it".

This clarification on the border issue is helpful, not least because it is clear that Barnier is referring to checks carried out between the mainland and Northern Ireland – something which Sky News doesn't seem to understand, and where the Independent seems confused. This is not the ERG solution.

The original BBC rendition was similarly flawed, the website wrongly claiming: "The EU's negotiator said he wanted most new physical checks to be carried out away from the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, a key demand of Conservative MPs". It has now been corrected.

Necessarily, the Commission's proposal still pre-supposes that there will be regulatory and customs harmonisation between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The only thing that changes is that the putative "wet border" between Northern Ireland and the mainland becomes a fuzzy transition where checks are not tied to a particular location. But checks there will be, to ensure the UK does not sidestep EU controls on British goods. Once again, the Guardian gets close.

Whether this is the fudge, or part of it, that will get Mrs May off the hook remains to be seen. But there may be some greater significance to her Die Welt piece, where she specifically highlights the "external customs border between different parts of the United Kingdom". The "fuzzy border" could be presented as the concession that lubricates a deal.

At the very least, this may add some dynamism to talks on the margins at Salzburg, from which more could emerge at the Tory conference when the prime minister gives her speech. Then, we could even see the fat lady preparing to think about whether she should consider singing – or not.

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