Richard North, 02/05/2017  

Gradually, with excruciating slowness, we're seeing the rest of the legacy media waking up to the "train-wreck" dinner last Wednesday, first reported by Politico, when Theresa May bared her ignorance to the Barnier and Juncker duo, leaving Juncker to go running to Merkel, who promptly pressed the alarm button.

Now, four days after the event, we have the Independent, the Daily Mail and the Telegraph picking up the threads. The Guardian is revisiting its earlier report and belatedly even the Financial Times has joined the throng.

Ironically, what has triggered renewed journalistic interest is the intervention by one of their own, Berlin Bureau Chief at The Economist Jeremy Cliffe. He tweeted a partial translation of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung report, which has been picked up with an enthusiasm not afforded to a similar report in The Sunday Times. We now have our own rough translation.

Predictably, the FAS report is being dismissed as spin by the "Ultras" and their allies, with the idiot Jacob Rees-Mogg suggesting that the EU "is trying to bluff us into believing its weak position is strong". Through Monday, Downing Street distanced itself from the account, saying that it "doesn't recognise" it – phrasing which stopped short of a denial – only then for Mrs May to respond to journalists' questions and dismiss claims as "Brussels gossip".

For all that - as we have remarked earlier - the power of the FAS report rests not only on its content but from its confirmation of that which we have known or suspected for some time – that Mrs May and her "Team Brexit" are entirely dysfunctional and that Mrs May herself is seriously delusional in her expectations as to the outcome of the Brexit talks.

From both the reports of the dinner and Mrs May's public response afterwards on the Andrew Marr show, it seems that the Prime Minister genuinely believes that a full-blown free trade agreement can be concluded within the two-year Article 50 period, alongside all the other business. Furthermore, she seems to believe that this will place the UK on much the same footing as it currently enjoys as a participant in the Single Market.

It is that which had Angela Merkle denouncing the "illusions" in front of the Bundestag, and no amount of damage limitation by No 10 is going to change that.

As to the details of what transpired at a dinner which is rapidly becoming more famous than the Last Supper, to many of these have the "ring of truth". They sound entirely credible and are so in character it would hardly be necessary to invent them.

For instance, in the presence of Brexit Secretary David Davis who was also at the dinner, it is said that Mrs May – even though she was meeting the principal players in the coming Brexit negotiations - wanted to talk about anything but Brexit, loftily preferring to discuss global issues. It was left to Juncker to bring her back down to earth.

May's approach is actually quite typical of the Tory grandee treatment of politics – where they seek to dominate a conversation by focusing on generalities and avoiding detail. By sticking to les grandes lignes, they retain control and stay within their comfort zones.

Once forced to address the detail, though, it seems that May's ignorance and her almost total failure to grasp the practicalities soon became evident. The EU side were thus astonished at her suggestion that EU/UK expats issue could be sorted at a European Council meeting at the end of June.

According to the narrative, it was left to Juncker to object to this timetable as "way too optimistic", given the complexities involved. It was at this point, apparently, that he pulled two piles of paper from his bag: Croatia's accession treaty and the Canadian trade agreement, thereby making the point that Brexit would be very complex.

That Juncker should have done this is entirely credible. He was pointing out precisely what we've been saying, making the same point in the same way – that the "divorce treaty and a future treaty would be at least as extensive". How interesting it was also that Juncker should flag up an accession treaty.

But UK prime ministers don't do detail. They waft about, demanding that complex issues be reduced to one side of one sheet of paper, preferably with bullet points, and are then caught out because, outside No 10 and the Westminster bubble, the world isn't a simple place. As a way of getting this through to the prime minister, Juncker's "stunt" had much to commend it.

As an aside, it really is quite remarkable how easily the media swallow the fiction that CETA is 2,000 pages long. If Mrs May hasn't read it and is unfamiliar with its contents, that must also apply to the majority of journalists, who would otherwise know that it runs to a mere 1,598 pages. Together with the 124-page Croatian Accession Treaty, that makes 1,722 pages.

So far, protecting herself from such details has allowed Mrs May to build an elaborate but entirely unrealistic construct as to the way she thinks negotiations should go. At the dinner, she suggested that delegates should work through the agenda in monthly, four-day blocks – and that everything is kept confidential until the end of the process.

I can't see that this sort of detail could be invented. And if it was a serious suggestion from Mrs May, then its betrays the most appalling ignorance – fortified by a level arrogance that must have had Juncker and Barnier speechless.

The essence of EU negotiations is that they are conducted in 23 working languages, spread between 27 European capitals each involving multiple ministries and parliaments – all needing input and consultation. By the time working agendas are agreed, documents are translated and circulated, and all the relevant bodies are consulted (including the European Parliament), it is virtually impossible to arrange substantive meetings at more than three-monthly intervals.

This is one of the reasons why EU negotiations take so long, but it is also the reason why they are organised the way they are – with continuous, low-level exchanges between "sherpas", punctuated by occasional "plenaries", where heads of agreement are settled. Mrs May's proposal is entirely at odds with the Community method of working.

As to the idea of keeping the talks confidential, anything involving 28 different nations is bound to leak. Mrs May needed only to refer to the official history of the UK's accession negotiations to know that, even then, it was concluded that any attempts to keep proceedings secret would fail.

One would have thought here that the very first thing officials (and Mrs May herself) would have done in preparation for the forthcoming talks would be to read up the reports of how the last major talks were conducted. But apparently, this has not been done.

It was thus left again to the Juncker-Barnier duo to bring May back to earth, pointing out that secrecy was impossible to reconcile with the need to square off Member States and the European Parliament. Documents would have to be published.

Retreating into her fantasy, however, it seems that May resorted to comfort quotes, enjoining her guests to "make Brexit a success". Again this is quite typical. It is something the prime minister has been doing for the last ten months. Unsurprisingly, the EU side felt that Mrs May was wearing rose-tinted glasses.

If Juncker then countered that since Britain would become a third country, not even (like Turkey) in the customs union: "Brexit cannot be a success", this again is entirely credible. Nor would one be taken aback by the idea that Mrs May was surprised by this. The concept of the UK as a "third country" does not yet seem to have percolated the upper reaches of the government. It is more likely than not that she has not been "fully briefed".

For her own modus operandi for the negotiations, she is then said to have cited as a model her own Justice and Home Affairs opt-out negotiations as Home Secretary, despite the fact that this had already been discounted. As this is vintage May, it is hardly likely that it was fabricated. One can quite understand it setting off alarm signals for the Juncker-Barnier duo, telling them that Mrs May had not thought through a workable strategy.

"The more I hear, the more sceptical I become", Juncker is reported to have said – and this was only half way through the 90-minute dinner which then had Mrs May insisting that UK owes the EU no money because "there is nothing to that effect in the treaties". Davis then chipped in, asserting that the EU could not force the UK to pay, to which Juncker is said to have pointed out that there would be no trade deal.

Having informed Mrs May that the EU was not a golf club, Junker told her: "the parents had children, and the divorcees would have to recognise their obligations". As he departed, he told his host: "I leave Downing Street ten times as sceptical as I was before".

But really, does this come as such a surprise? Month after month after month, we've been suffering an information vacuum from Number 10, while our own sources (some public, some not) suggest that there has been no credible plan worked out. More and more, as Pete points out, Mrs May is out of her depth.

At the very least, one can take from this latest report that there are major communication issues to be resolved before the negotiations proper get under way, but it would be hard to conclude from the exchanges that Mrs May was fully master of her brief. More alarmingly, one could surmise that the prime minister is labouring under fundamental misconceptions about Brexit and the nature of the European Union, indulging in what Germany's Europe Minister calls fairy tales.

The point about this is that such misconceptions are to be expected – especially amongst senior Tory politicians, who have elevated ignorance about the EU to an art form. What would be really remarkable would be to find such a politician who had a proper grounding in the EU and actually understood the issues. I have yet to meet any such person.

This is, of course, why the charge of "delusion" rings true. It spreads through the political classes and into the media, where small-minded and dishonest journalists ply their wares, each claque mutually reinforcing each other's ignorance and prejudices.

To the legacy media in general, though, this is just another story. Tomorrow it will be the proverbial fish-and-chip wrapping, submerged in the constant torrent of the 24-hour news agenda. By the end of the week, if No 10 has its way, it will be buried and forgotten.

Nevertheless, it remains further confirmation that Mrs May does not have a grip on Brexit and is leading us up a blind alley. Our response to that cannot be immediate, as there is no realistic alternative to be found in any of the other political parties.

However, under the radar, an increasing number of enterprises are making decisions about whether to relocate all or part of their businesses outside the UK. This episode will doubtless have made up more minds, and not to the benefit of this country. If the trickle becomes a flood, Mrs May will be forced to revise her plans, or to make some new ones afresh – assuming it will not be too late.

For the time being, we watch and wait - our only consolation being that, with each passing day, we're better informed.

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