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Brexit: where nothing seems to be real

2017-10-21 06:41:18

According to Laura Kuenssberg, political editor for the BBC, yesterday's "summit" was "all about the money". It wasn't, of course. It was what it has always has been right from the start: expats' civil rights, the Irish question - and then the money. This is made abundantly clear by the European Council conclusions.

"At its next session in December", it says, "the European Council will reassess the state of progress in the negotiations with a view to determining whether sufficient progress has been achieved on each of the three above issues". And that is unequivocal. It will be looking for "sufficient progress" in each of the three issues.

Only if the all three issues meet the requirement will it "adopt additional guidelines in relation to the framework for the future relationship and on possible transitional arrangements" – i.e., phase two of the talks. Thus, in substantive terms, nothing has changed.

Of those three issues, the money problem is actually the easiest to solve. We don't have to commit to a sum. All we have to do is to give - as has been asked - a "firm and concrete commitment" that the UK will settle all of its obligations.

The expat problem is less easy to solve, given the doctrinaire refusal to accept any role for the ECJ. Unless the UK can get round that, and allow a direct role for the courts as the final arbiter, the talks will stay stalled.

And then there is the Irish question. Here, there has been some progress – but only in terms of the Common Travel Area and the movement of people. As to the "hard border" and the movement of goods, there has been no progress at all. There is nothing on the table and no indication that the UK is prepared to offer an acceptable solution, recognising "the unique situation of Ireland".

Come December, therefore, everything points to the logjam remaining. But, in the meantime, the European Council has invited the Council (Art. 50) together with the Union negotiator "to start internal preparatory discussions" on the framework for the future relationship and on transitional arrangements.

This tiny crumb has been seized upon by some commentators as signs of a possible thaw, especially in view of the post-meeting comments from Donald Tusk. His impression, he said, was that the reports of the deadlock between the EU and UK have been exaggerated. And as regards the "internal work", he wanted to reassure "our British friends" that it would "take account" of proposals presented. Thus, the negotiations would go on, with the European Council president hoping to be able to move to the second phase in December.

A sign of things to come, though, was the remark by Angela Merkel. Speaking in Brussels after the European Council, she referred to phase two of the talks as being "undeniably … more complicated than the first stage". The EU, she said, would find it a bit more difficult to formulate a mandate to guide those talks. The difficulty would be how to protect the integrity of its Single Market, while avoiding damage to its economic interests.

Furthermore, it is quite evident that the EU has given little thought to what "transition" actually involves. Once the Commission starts applying its mind to the complexities, Mrs Merkel's words could turn out to be ominously prophetic. One waits for it to be realised that stop-gap measures will be only marginally less difficult to agree than the final trade agreement – should we ever get to discussing such matters.

Nevertheless, as regards the progress of the talks, Merkel has been expressing a certain amount of optimism, telling reporters: "I don't have any reason to believe we are not going to be successful". She acknowledges that they "may take a bit longer than we thought in the beginning", but the colleagues were "working hard to reach the second phase".

French President Emmanuel Macron, on the other hand has accused David Davis of seeking to bluff the EU into softening its negotiating stance by championing a "no-deal" scenario. However, he went on to say that: "If there are noises, bluff, false information by secondary actors or spectators to this discussion, that is… just life in these matters, or in the media. But in no case is it part of the discussions". At no time had Theresa May ever raised a "no deal" as an option.

At least this rhetoric (if that is what it is) has temporarily stayed the talk of a "no deal" scenario, even if Halligan is still churning out his stuff. This is partially offset by a piece in The Times, but there is a long way to go before the record is set straight.

How bizarre it is that we find ourselves aligned with Peter Mandelson, who told BBC Radio 4 on Friday that crashing out of the EU with no deal would be a national humiliation.

"This is our largest export market", he said. "We would be fighting at the border. It would be a very considerably more bureaucratic border as well. We would be jostling for access to the single market with every Tom, Dick or Harry in the world, without as I say our current rights and our current preferential access".

Moving on to a different part of the battlefield, while the top dogs have been playing in Brussels, the National Audit Office (NAO) has published a report on "Issues and challenges for government's management of the border in light of the UK's planned departure from the European Union".

This is an area where the impact could be so serious that trade could grind to a halt, not least because the need to inspect imports and exports of live animals and animal products, as well as plants, vegetables and fruits.

However, there is no sense of crisis emanating from the NAO, which could hardly be more laid back. "Demand for many border services could increase following EU Exit and require the UK to scale many existing border services", it says, adding that, "there may be an increase in volume of work for other agencies such as Defra, from carrying out biosecurity checks".

"One significant impact", it says, "could be that the UK may need to manage and track the biosecurity and public health checks of animals, products of animal origin, and high-risk food and feed".

As these services already exist, it could be considered a relatively simple task to do "more of the same", it adds, although it concedes that "this assumption may not prove true and in some circumstances, the ability to scale up operations will be constrained by physical and other infrastructure".

Scaling up services could be constrained by the lead times required to recruit and train new staff or design and implement new processes and systems. In many cases, these lead times could exceed one year. Thus, it concludes, although there are existing services that can be used as the template for a new or replacement service, this would still require significant design, system development and programme management effort.

Where one particularly takes issue with the NAO on this is the weakness of the assertion that demand for many border services could increase following Brexit. Under any scenario posited by the Government, there is no question of "could". Demand will increase, and on both sides of the border.

By comparison with the events in Brussels, though, this is small beer – although indicative of the lack of reality pervading the entire Brexit debate. In terms of the comments emanating from Brussels, one isn't sure whether the vague signs of optimism are simply a reflection of the lack of engagement of the leaders of the 27, or whether there is genuine desire to reach a conclusion.

There are even suggestions that the "colleagues" deliberately toned down the sabre-rattling to give Mrs May a break, fearing that if she was ousted, her replacement could be even worse.

But with the "Ultras" rattling out their propaganda, with the game-playing in Brussels, the lack of good information on the consequences of the negotiations failing, and the inability of media to report Brexit intelligently, we find ourselves trapped in a virtual world where nothing seems to be real.

From a torrid week, therefore, we emerge little further forward, the can having been kicked firmly down the road into December. Between then and now, we have two months more of seeing many of the same figures rehearse the same, stale arguments to an uncomprehending media, while the government struggles to present a coherent case in the Brussels talks.

Much more of this and we will be losing the will to live.