Richard North, 20/09/2018  

In the wake of Barnier's press conference yesterday, when the EU's chief negotiator announced that the EU was ready to improve the "backstop" proposal, Sky News was chirping about the "boost" for Mrs May. Not 24 hours later, though, after Donald Tusk had warned that the UK proposals on the Irish question "will need to be reworked and further negotiated", the Guardian was writing about the "blow" to the British prime minister. 

That is a good measure of the roller-coaster ride we're getting from the media on Brexit. The narrative lurches from one extreme to the other as we progress (or not) through the negotiations, to the extent that the typical reaction is one of bewilderment, with people finding it increasingly difficult to work out what is going on.

Such responses are entirely understandable. No sooner had Barnier lodged his "washes whiter" proposal, up bobbed Mrs May to reject it as "unacceptable", refusing to accept any option that involves customs checks on goods moving from the mainland UK to Northern Ireland.

The reality, however, is that these wild fluctuations in the apparent fortunes of the negotiations are an artefact. As recorded by Reuters, the Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, is pointing out that there has been no progress in six months on the Irish question. And if there is no progress here, there is no progress at all.

If the Brexit talks were a patient on life support, therefore, it would be flatlining – showing no signs of life at all - with the relatives earnestly debating whether to pull the plug. Only the intense concern for the consequences is staying their hand.

Had the issues been set out clearly in the first place, we could perhaps have been spared the drama. We've spelled them out often enough and, when you do, it becomes obvious that progress is unlikely. The two sides have irreconcilable differences, stemming from Mrs May's Lancaster House speech and her determination that the UK should leave the Single Market.

The only real beneficiaries of the ignorance and confusion, therefore, are the media. As long as no one really knows what's going on, the hacks can spin to their hearts' content, filling space and the airwaves, giving the impression of an evolving story.

In fact, the more profound the ignorance, the greater the opportunities for strident copywriting, evidenced by the recent effort from Spiked. Writer and born-again "expert" on the EU, Ella Whelan, graphically misunderstands the nature of Barnier's improved "backstop" proposal, believing – as did many other hacks – that it applied to the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

This gave her 600 words of utter tosh to write on why the EU had been "lying about Ireland", demonstrating how the education system is producing English literature graduates who lack basic English language comprehension skills.

"Brussels bureaucrats are changing their tune", she asserts, relying on "newspaper reports" which supposedly tell us the EU is "secretly preparing to accept a frictionless Irish border after Brexit". So, Whelan smugly declares, "perhaps the Irish border wasn't such a big problem after all", adding: "The Times reports that, 'EU negotiators want to use technological solutions to minimise customs checks between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic'".

But it is the collective ignorance, rather than the efforts of any particular individual, that has brought us to the pass where Mrs May was still able to tell the press on her way into the meeting that her Chequers plan was the only option that would deliver frictionless trade and resolve the Irish question.

One might recall at this stage that this is the "summit" at which some commentators predicted there would be a deal agreed, giving Mrs May a magnificent victory, right up to press where Philip Johnston, writing for the Telegraph, tells us that "the single-minded Theresa May can almost smell victory".

"What we are now seeing", he writes, "is a carefully choreographed exercise designed to let her claim some sort of domestic triumph without compromising the EU's cherished fundamental principles". Johnston goes on: "We can expect to hear more of this at Salzburg as European leaders seek to protect the integrity of the EU while seeking to maintain good future ties with the United Kingdom".

This, of course, was never to be. Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz, holder of the rotating EU Council presidency, set the scene, warning that Mrs May would need to compromise, declaring: "We stand ready to compromise but we also expect that from the UK and so I hope that in her speech today we will hear a step forward".

For that speech, all Mrs May was allowed was ten minutes after the dinner in the Felsenreitschule, a theatre familiar from the closing scenes in The Sound of Music (pictured). Somewhat less entertaining than the von Trapps, her initial pitch had been uncompromising. "If we are going to achieve a successful conclusion then, just as the UK has evolved its position, the EU will need to evolve its position too", she had said on her way in. 

After the actual dinner, she told her fellow leaders that: "The idea that I should assent to the legal separation of the United Kingdom into two customs territories is not credible", thus confirming her rejection of Barnier's initiative. Then we have the Guardian reporting that she "tried to threaten EU leaders", telling them the UK would not seek to delay Brexit – thereby hinting at a "no deal" outcome.

Prompting a remark from Jean-Claude Juncker that a deal remained "far away", this is hardly the sound of victory. And nor is the prime minister holding the domestic front. Being as unhelpful as possible, her former Brexit secretary, David Davis, has lifted bits from a speech he is due to give in Munich to keep the hacks entertained.

Dismissing her Chequers plan as "unpopular" and failing to represent what people voted for at the time of the referendum in 2016, Davis beat a familiar drum, declaring that the prime minister had previously promised to "return control over our law, our money and our borders".

But the Chequers plan, he said, crossed on all of those red lines. "The EU is often correctly described as having a democratic deficit", he added: "But Chequers is devoid of democracy altogether".

Unsurprisingly, when Donald Tusk spoke of there being "perhaps more hope", he was addressing the media before the meeting had begun. He hardly needed to observe that "there is surely less and less time", but he confirmed that he will be asking today at the meeting of the EU-27 for an additional European Council meeting in mid-November.

If that is agreed – and there are no indications that it won't be – this will probably be the only constructive thing on Brexit to emerge from Salzburg. The meeting will be held four days after the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. But, with the two sides as far apart as ever they were on the crucial Irish question, it is difficult to see how two more months will make any difference.

Perhaps, after all, something will be resolved from talks on the margins at Salzburg, between Mrs May and EU leaders. Inevitably, the hacks will attempt to keep the narrative going, with talks of rifts and separate deals. Failing that, there will be plenty of friction to report during the Tory conference, which is the next big event on the agenda. Since reassuring her Tory tribe will be her first priority, not a few are suggesting that we're not going to get any sense from Mrs May until after conference.

That leaves the October European Council from which to glean clues as to whether there is a mood change, and whether serious attempts will be made in November to conclude a deal. There will, of course, be much theatre and an amount of ritual posturing, but if there is victory to be had for either or both sides – the October meeting will be the one to watch.

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