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Brexit: a strategy to fail?

2019-09-21 07:17:50

We can all read the press reports, and it takes little to appreciate that things are not going too well on the Brexit front.

EU officials are saying that the proposals in the UK's latest "non-papers" fail to meet any of its basic tests for avoiding a hard border in Ireland and protecting the island’s economy. As it stands, this heightens the risk of a no-deal Brexit and makes a hard border a racing certainty.

But what nobody is able to explain is why the UK team is taking such a crass approach to this endeavour. The way our supposed "negotiators" are going about things, it is almost as if they were deliberately trying to throw the game.

For almost as long as we can remember – with what amounts to a very short memory span – the Commission has been asking for "legally operational solutions" to the Irish border question, in order to meet the requirement of removing the backstop.

And yet, following yesterday's face-to-face meeting between Michel Barnier and Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay – lasting more than an hour – the outcome is very far from satisfactory. One of the diplomats present at a debriefing session with the Commission said: "We are far from anything that could work".

The Financial Times has much of the story, including sight of a diplomatic note which says that current UK proposals, delivered in the one-page length "non-papers", "fall short of satisfying all the objectives" the backstop was designed to achieve. 

If the UK was to get its way, it would amount to our firms benefiting from "huge carve-outs" from the EU's Single Market rules, allowing for customs checks away from the border and on the site of companies. These are ideas, the Commission says, that "are not compatible with the EU custom codes".

But Barclay wants to go even further, apparently wanting the UK to be given until the end of 2020 to come up with a replacement for the policy – instead of the end-of-September deadline set by EU leaders. This would amount to a free pass, where the EU dropped its requirement for the backstop on the promise of an unspecified replacement which may or may not be ready by the end of next year.

And it gets worse. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is said to have told colleagues that he did not expect to find a "legally operable" solution before the crunch talks with the EU on 17 October, the date when a deal is supposed to be put to bed.

Johnson is thus suggesting that both sides will need to flesh out details after the European Council, leaving the EU having to agree in principle a deal without knowing the details. One can see that going down about as well as a bucket of cold sick.

To add further insult to injury, when the UK team finally submitted its "non-papers" to Brussels, it demanded that Barnier's task force should keep them secret, treating them as "confidential" documents which must not be shared with the 27 Member States.

The cache of documents was said to be "Her Majesty’s government property" which could go no further than Barnier's team. Sources in Brussels said that the point was made forcefully to the UK negotiating team that all proposals would need to be made available for the EU's capitals to analyse for talks to progress.

Even with what they've got, there is no enthusiasm amongst Brussels officials. They are apparently in despair at the state of the talks, with the latest ideas seen as "more of the same" from Downing Street.

One EU official said the UK plans would effectively force the EU to change its own rules and legislation. "If ever we would be crazy enough to accept that" the proposals still "fall short" of the backstop, he said. Even then, many of the ideas have been previously rejected at various points in the last two years of talks. "They confirmed there would be a customs border on the island of Ireland – it is a horrible mess", said a source.

And with the Guardian on the case, we get EU diplomats saying the UK's proposals left them more pessimistic about the chances of striking a deal than at the beginning of the week. "Things are going backwards" says one senior EU diplomat.

All of this, of course, comes within 36 hours of the Telegraph trilling that a deal was on the cards, despite there being no evidence of any movement. But now it is transparently clear that any chance we might have had for a deal (which was never very good) has regressed.

One again though, this begs the question: what is the UK team playing at? Even at its most incompetent, it seems hard to believe that we could be making such a mess of things – unless there was an unstated determination to fail. Johnson would certainly get his no-deal Brexit if he could piss off the "colleagues" so badly that they refuse to have anything more to do with him after the October Council, and refuse to consider an extension.

This would also nicely line up the EU in the blame game, if the refusal to play actually came from the EU side rather than having the UK make the final moves. And, with the initiative coming from Brussels, that would make Johnson Westminster-proof.

Altogether, therefore, it really does begin to look as if the UK government is adopting a strategy which is deliberately intended to fail. Obviously, the very last thing it would do would be to admit it, but having the Brexit secretary being threatening and uncompromising in his recent speech, and then submitting totally unacceptable proposals, with the ludicrous "secrecy" caveat, would seem to fit in with such a strategy.

At the same time, one might expect the UK side to be constantly talking up the "progress" in the talks, claiming that a resolution is close, leaving the EU to the downbeat denials. And that is also what seems to be happening. While all we're getting is chirpy statements from London, it is left to EU officials to criticise British proposals, making the EU out to be the obstacle to any deal.

Thus, predictably, UK government officials are denying that they have not put forward serious proposals. "The ideas that we've put forward to avoid a hard border are serious and workable", one official said, adding that "leaks from Brussels on Twitter are par for the course. You can set your watch by them".

The officials can keep this up for ever, while Johnson can talk up the mythical "progress", right to the point where any talks collapse and the UK comes crashing out of the EU without a deal – precisely the outcome that is being sought by his administration.

Along the way there are plenty of opportunities for upbeat commentary, not least talks between Mr Johnson, European Council president Donald Tusk and German chancellor Angela Merkel at the UN General Assembly next week. With the British media willing and able to predict imminent deals at a drop of a hat – or dump the blame on Brussels - they can doubtless make much of this meeting, even if the prognosis is gloomy.

We will then have the Conservative party conference at the end of this month, whence Johnson can wow the adoring faithful, who will suck up just about any tosh he feeds them, while the media – as always – give him a free pass. By the time the conference is over, there should be no problem lodging the narrative of an obstructive EU blocking the UK's "flexible" approach for no good reason.

That leaves Simon Coveney, Ireland’s deputy prime minister, as a voice in the wilderness, demanding a "dose of reality", from the Brits. But reality is the one thing Johnson doesn't do, which means that the Irish are going to be left hanging if they want anything constructive out of London.

Ruefully, Coveney says: "What we are being asked to do by Stephen Barclay and others is replace a guarantee around the border question with a promise that we will somehow do our best to try to solve this issue in the future but we don't know how yet". He says the gap between the two negotiating positions is wide and there is "no basis for an agreement".

One wonders though whether the EU will wise up to the UK's game, if indeed we are dealing with a formed strategy rather than an almost unbelievable level of incompetence – it is so hard to know the difference.

All the "colleagues" can do for the moment is to keep on issuing dead-pan press releases, as with their latest effort which, in the wake of the Barclay-Barnier meet, once again stresses the need for a fully workable and legally operational solution to the Irish border to be included in the Withdrawal Agreement.

There may come a time though, when patience might snap. Barnier talks of Brexit being a "school of patience", but there has to be a limit to the Commission's tolerance and it can't be very far away.