Richard North, 22/10/2018  
 


I had the misfortune yesterday to read transcript of the interview between Dominic Raab and Andrew Marr.

There is something about the way Raab speaks which induces a feeling akin to vertigo. One knows he is saying something, and possibly something significant. But every time one tries to focus on it, the room starts to spin and any meaning from the words gets lost in a multi-coloured blur.

In terms of knowing any more about what transpires between the UK and the EU over the latest stages of the Brexit talks, we are not the slightest bit further forward. We simply get told to "listen to the mood music that came out of Brussels" last week, from which we will discern that "actually there's some goodwill and pragmatism on all sides".

This, it seems, is something we need to see through. But any more than that is not for us mere mortals to know. Mr Raab is keeping his own counsel on what happens next.

Furthermore, reviewing the transcript from the Nathalie Loiseau interview didn't take us very much further either. She is the French Europe minister and all she was able to do is confirm that which we already knew – "we need to fix the question of the Irish border". But we've known that for an awful long time.

The only thing of any interest from the interview was the non-comment about whether there will be a November European Council. Loiseau says – predictably – that if there is "sufficient progress towards a withdrawal agreement", there could be a meeting. But, she says, "there is no use meeting heads of state and government if negotiations have not come to an agreement".

So far, that knocks on the head the idea that there is going to be a repurposed meeting to discuss contingency plans for a "no deal". This was something we expected to see, to allow the Commission to set up its legislative programme to deal with the technical issues involved.

Alongside that, there has been speculation on whether any transitional period might be extended beyond the planned 21 months. But, according to Donald Tusk, this was not even discussed at last week's European Council. We simply get the same vibes: the Council President stands "ready to convene a European Council on Brexit, if and when the EU negotiator reports that decisive progress has been made".

On 18 October, though, Tusk was saying that: "we should be clear that, as for now, not enough progress has been made". With Loiseau saying essentially the same thing yesterday, we can assume that the lack of progress remains.

That leaves the unusual step of Mrs May planning to give a statement to the Commons today, in advance of the next round of discussions with Brussels. We expect to be told that "95 percent of the withdrawal agreement and its protocols are now settled".

The reason for this move, however, does not seem related to any developments in Brussels. They have more to do with Mrs May's need to stave off unrest in her own party.

As always, we have the tedious backdrop of gossip on the likelihood of palace coups and rebellions, all of which are keeping the London media amused and their columns filled. But nothing of that in any way helps us understand where the negotiations are going. These party manoeuvres are a distraction which serve no useful purpose.

In relation to the negotiations, there has been no movement on the main sticking point of the Irish border for some considerable time, with little sign of a breakthrough and nothing new on the table. We have reached a stage, therefore, where there is almost nothing new to say, and very little we can add to whatever has been discussed so many times before.

But that, in itself, is significant. October was supposed to be the deadline for completion of the talks yet this has sailed by with no sense of any urgency or indication of a completion date. One would have expected something of a frenzy by now, with the UK negotiators rushing back and forth, to and from Brussels, and earnest statements coming from Barnier and others about the state of play.

Yet, when the EU seems to be taking such a laid-back view, seemingly unconcerned about a November meeting – which leaves December for the next European Council – this can only mean one of two things. Either the "colleagues" have given up on the talks as a bad job, or a deal is already in the bag and Mrs May is playing out the drama for domestic political purposes.

On balance, I find it difficult to accept that we are definitely headed towards a "no deal" scenario. This will require a considerable degree of planning by the EU, with the provision of technical resources at the borders. There is no sign of the necessary degree of preparedness, and there is equally no obvious sign of any great concern.

Without being ready, the EU and its Member States need a transition period as much as does the UK – which can only come with the settlement of the Withdrawal Agreement. The relaxed attitude across the waters does suggest that this may be to hand.

If this is the case, we can expect a build-up of the theatricals over the month, with a heavily-staged climax in December when the parties emerge from the next European Council, to announce a miraculous, eleventh-hour agreement. The key then will be whether Mrs May can get it past parliament – not forgetting that any deal must also be approved by the European Parliament, which should not be taken for granted.

Where such an outcome looks fragile is that Mrs May's grip over her own party is so weak that she might not be able to get an agreement through Westminster. This is something over which Brussels has little control, which might suggest that the outwardly relaxed attitude of the "colleagues" is both premature and more than a little complacent.

At this point, we run out of speculative options, and must be content to sit back and be amazed by such developments as are announce – or steel ourselves for a disaster of monumental proportions. There is no way of telling what to expect.

To a great extent, though, it is already too late. We are assailed by reports of an increasing number of firms which stand ready to execute their own contingency plans by December, come what may. If a deal is not announced then, it won't make any difference. The uncertainty will be enough to do the damage.

Interestingly, the one thing that could make the situation inestimably worse is the prospect of another referendum. Civil servants, we are told, have estimated that it would take at least six months to get a poll up and running, which means that leaving the EU would have to be delayed.

In fact, to avoid a clash with the European elections next May, it is anticipated that another referendum could not take place for at least another year. And that, of course, pre-supposes that the European Council would be prepared to grant the extension of time, which really cannot be taken for granted.

Currently, therefore, the situation is as clear as mud. There is an almost total lack of substance to the information we're getting while the noise level is as high as it has ever been.

With no ability to influence events in such a chaotic environment – something shared with the highest and lowest in the land – this presents this blog with an important task, as highlighted by Peter Hitchens. As well as recording events, we need to focus on those who have led us into this chaos, and at least try to make sure that their selfish folly is not forgotten.






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