Richard North, 01/05/2017  

Although we covered this subject in our Saturday post, it was intriguing to see the Sunday Times elevate it to front-page status the following day – alongside Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, which also put it on its front page.

Some of the details also emerged under an unrelated heading in The Observer, repeating elements of the story which had appeared earlier in the Guardian.

Updating and expanding on those elements, The Sunday Times has it that the Brexit negotiations have begun "with a blazing row" as Brussels flatly rejected Theresa May's negotiating position and accused the prime minister of living in a "parallel reality".

This refers back to Saturday's European Council meeting which took four minutes to agree what the paper calls a "a hardline stance" on the EU's negotiating guidelines, following which Juncker and Barnier apparently rounded on the prime minister.

According to their narrative, Mrs May had used a meeting with them on Wednesday night to demand that a "detailed outline" of a future free trade deal be in place before the UK agrees to pay any money to Brussels as part of the Brexit divorce deal.

An unnamed "EU diplomat" is then reported as saying that: "This was a rather incredible demand. It seemed as if it came from a parallel reality", leading Juncker to tell the European Council that such an approach would lead to an "early crash", with Britain leaving the EU without a deal.

The Wednesday dinner at 10 Downing Street had also revealed huge differences over plans to recognise the rights of British citizens and EU nationals in each other's countries, provoking an observation from Tusk that a "serious offer" was needed on migrant rights from the UK before trade talks could begin.

Here, we get another interjection from an EU diplomat. We're not told whether he is the same as the other one, or just another of those general purpose diplomats that seem to be kept around for the purpose of illustrating legacy media stories.

Anyhow, he told The Sunday Times: "The UK's position is miles apart, both on their financial obligations and on the EU citizens' rights. The UK government simply wants to create a new category of 'former EU citizens' in their migration law, but our position is that we must go much further than that".

The plot thickens as we then learn that the prime minister's stance that trade must come first was met with incredulity by EU officials, who said her chief EU sherpa, Oliver Robbins, had already agreed that the methodology for agreeing the Brexit bill would be ironed out first - along with the rights of EU citizens in Britain and the issue of the Irish border.

"She took a firm position against something we thought we had agreed", a diplomatic source said. "It was completely unreal". The source said the prime minister's views on the financial settlement "border on the delusional".

We then learn of an entertaining vignette from the Wednesday dinner, when Juncker "slapped down May" by pulling out a copy of the EU-Canada trade deal, and recommended that the prime minister study its complexity.

This is retailed by a number of other papers, all of which refer to a 2,000-page document. But, if it was 2,000 pages, it wasn't the EU Canada deal. That is only about 1,500 pages. They must be confusing it with the Ukraine agreement.

After the meeting, there were contacts with Merkel. We already know that, but The Sunday Times adds detail. One of Juncker's aides called Merkel and complained that May appeared unaware of issues communicated to her staff. He told the German Chancellor: "It went very badly. She is in a different galaxy. Based on the meeting, no deal is much more likely than finding agreement".

It was that, as we also know, that prompted Merkel to lambast British "illusions" about Brexit in a speech to her parliament on Thursday, with Mrs May responding that EU countries were "ganging up" on Britain.

Now that the story was broken into the open, it has been picked up by Andrew Marr who put it to Mrs May on his programme yesterday, referring to her "private conversation" with Mr Juncker and the rest of the team. Said Marr: "it doesn't seem to have gone terribly well".

Mrs May, in response, denied that she was in a "different galaxy", arguing that the disagreement shows "that there are going to be times when these negotiations are going to be tough". And that's why, she says – wait for it - "you need strong and stable leadership in order to conduct those negotiations and get the best deal for Britain".

Beyond that, I think it is fair to say that Marr didn't get anything of substance. He asked whether she was prepared to agree on the money before she agreed on everything else, only for Mrs May to tell him that she wanted "to agree on a trade deal and our withdrawal arrangements so that we know what both of those are when we leave the European Union".

When Marr asserted that the "colleagues" were demanding that she agreed the money first, Mrs May simply evaded the point. "Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed", she said, omitting to mention that any settlement will not include a free trade agreement.

So it goes on - Merkel is rejecting May's complaints about the EU's stance being "hardline". She sees it as entirely natural that the other Member States should stick together, saying: "We are not ganging up on Britain, but we are rather making things easier for Britain. We want a strong union of 27 and that is in British interests", she says.

Juncker is more scathing, declaring: "I have the impression sometimes that our British friends do underestimate the technical difficulties we have to face. The British want to leave the European Union and it's not feasible for this do be done quickly".

With the rhetoric from London hardening, though, it is very easy to lose sight of that point. For Juncker to point Mrs May in the direction of a real free trade treaty was highly apposite in this context. British politicians do have a habit of speaking in generalities, without reference to the detail and it would do the prime minister no harm to acquaint herself with the specifics or what she is asking for.

Until she understands that treaty negotiations are nothing if not about detail, then she will be unable to progress, seeing in the EU's insistence on structured procedures as mere obstructionism.

That apart, what we can take home from the wider exchanges is confirmation that the prime minister and her close team are not thinking rationally. In any attempt to analyse a confrontation, there is a tendency to assume that the parties are acting rationally, and have a good grasp of the facts.

Mrs May, however, is showing an alarming degree of detachment from the real world, to the extent that the comments made about her seem entirely justified.

The problem is that there is no natural limit to irrationally, so there is no means of predicting where the prime minister will go next. You simply cannot debate (or negotiate) with irrational people, much less second-guess their actions. This looks like being harder than we ever imagined.

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