EU Referendum

Brexit: a deal is nigh?


"EU and British ‘very close’ to reaching deal on Irish border" runs a headline in the Irish Times. Thus are we told that Simon Coveney, the Irish foreign minister (Tánaiste), believes a Brexit deal can be concluded by mid-November, adding that a lot of progress had been made in recent week, but "We are not quite there yet".

Bloomberg takes this further with a background briefing. A cloak of secrecy surrounds the negotiations on the UK's exit from the EU, it says.

According to this narrative, neither side has reported in any detail what's going on behind closed doors in Brussels since Mrs May's statement to parliament on 22 October. But we are supposed to take it that the lack of public comment doesn't mean nothing's happening.

UK and EU negotiators are locked away trying to break the deadlock and with just five months left before Brexit and, says Bloomberg, there are signs that a deal is being done away from the public gaze.

In private, officials on both sides are saying that the next time major Brexit news breaks is likely that they will have agreed to the terms of the "divorce". And that, we are led to believe, "could be sooner than many observers think". Mrs May's officials are said to believe intensive negotiations will deliver the decisive step needed for an agreement within the next few weeks.

As always, the sticking point remains the Irish border but even there, on the vexed question of the "backstop", there seems to be evidence of progress – that according to the Financial Times which has the EU ready to make a "fresh compromise offer".

Needless to say, we've heard this sort of thing before and in the three-dimensional chess game that constitutes the Brexit talks, these inspired leaks could mean any one of several things. One possibility is that the parties are setting up their alibis for when the talks inevitably fail, manoeuvring so that they can either deflect blame or pin it on each other.

Of course, it could also mean that the parties are actually closing in on a deal. That's what May's de facto deputy David Lidington said during a visit to Dublin yesterday. He said he "expects and hopes" for a deal in the coming weeks but wouldn't predict the timing. He did point out, though, that a Cabinet meeting could be called at any time.

With Dominic "Midair Bacon" Raab in Northern Ireland meeting Arlene Foster, the DUP leader is also happy to say that the UK and EU are "close to a Brexit deal".

This leaves the way open for the normal cabinet meeting on Tuesday. Exceptionally, the agenda has not yet been declared and the secrecy is raising suspicions that Mrs May and her aides are preparing to ambush ministers with whatever deal has been agreed, in an attempt to force the cabinet to agree to it.

Whatever the actual outcome, it would certainly make sense for the Commission to be pushing for a deal as the EU Member States are no more ready for a "no deal" Brexit than is the UK. On that basis, the EU needs a transition period as much as we do. We would thus expect a certain amount of creativity at this late stage in the negotiations.

With the media chronically unable to report detail accurately, though, if there really is a deal in the offing, we will have to wait to see some official documentation before we are able to judge what might have been agreed. If there really is something of substance, the fun will really start, as parliament gets to rake over the text.

However, there is something not quite right about the narrative as it stands. Such talks as there have been recently have been handled at official level but, for there to be a substantive agreement, principles would have to be involved – necessitating a meeting between Barnier and Raab.

Then, in the way of such things, one would expect something as important as a breakthrough in the talks to be milked for its dramatic value, with perhaps Mrs May jetting over to Brussels to meet Donald Tusk to settle last-minute points, and set the seal on an agreement. For all this work to be treated in such a low-key simply does not seem natural.

If one was to be unduly cynical, one might take the view that both politicians and media are finding the lack of progress as rather tedious and, like us, tire of having to report a day-by-day countdown towards a "no deal" Brexit. That is reason enough for them to indulge in creative speculation, just to give them something new to talk about.

In particular, it makes a change from having to predict potential adverse effects of a "no deal" scenario, something the media have never been very good at anyway.

That apart, this is one of those days when the press seems to have given up on the subject, with not one of the national papers carrying a Brexit-related story on its front page. Even the Arron Banks story has been relegated to the inside pages.

With criminality very much in the vogue, though, it was interesting to see the report in the Guardian on David Shipley, one of the producers of "Brexit The Movie", the feature-length film created for the referendum and financially supported by the likes of Arron Banks, premiered at the Leicester Square Odeon in London on 11 May 2016.

Shipley has now been charged with a £500,000 fraud, having been alleged to have committed fraud by fraudulently Photoshopping wage slips in order to inflate his salary levels in a bid to secure a loan approval.

He is also alleged to have committed a second count of fraud by abusing his position as managing partner of the hedge fund Spitfire Capital Advisors to cause the company to lose nearly £20,000.

If this man is found guilty of fraud, it will be entirely fitting as he produced a thoroughly dishonest film embodying virtually every Eurosceptic trope then in circulation, with most of the face we've since come to know and love.

Oddly enough, the Guardian seems to be the only paper conveying this news. Perhaps the surfeit of Brexit-related criminality is getting too much to take for the tender souls in the leave "community". Certainly, there is not a hint of a report in the traditionally Eurosceptic papers.

So far, no one has suggested that this is another reason why we should give up Brexit and return to the EU but, doubtless, there will be a few bright sparks who claim it in support of their yearning.

The one thing that has emerged from the comments on this blog, though, is that while there is plenty of enthusiasm for pointing out the Leavers' lack of knowledge, many Europhiles are quite unable adequately to describe the nature of the object of their affection.

One wonders, therefore, whether it is in fact possible to conduct a well-founded referendum on the EU in this county. The level of knowledge on both sides is so abysmal that an informed debate is almost impossible.

But then does that not make the case? If the majority – for good or bad – is not able properly to describe their system of government (with some even denying that the EU is part of our government, supreme in the areas of its exclusive competence), how can it possibly be called a democracy.

Ironically, if there is now an exit deal in the offing, it is unlikely that that will be properly explained – or understood. We are doomed, it seems, to live in a fog of ignorance where no-one is capable of understanding how we are governed.