Richard North, 05/05/2017  

Puzzling through the May versus EU contretemps, there may be an dynamic here that has largely been overlooked - ignorance.

The scenario starts with the idea that Mrs May is so profoundly ignorant of the consequences of her version of "free trade Brexit" that she actually believes that she can negotiate a trade agreement with the EU will give the UK equivalence with the status it currently enjoys as a full participant in the Single Market.

On the other hand, we have Barnier (pictured) commenting on Wednesday about those who had "created the illusion" that Brexit would have no material impact on our lives or that negotiations can be concluded quickly and painlessly. "This is not the case", he said.

This scenario was made perfectly clear in the Annex to the Recommendation for a Council Decision authorising the opening of negotiations on an agreement with the United Kingdom.

The Agreement, the Annex says, should set a withdrawal date which is at the latest 30 March 2019 at 00:00 (Brussels time), unless the European Council, in agreement with the United Kingdom, unanimously decides to extend this period in accordance with Article 50(3) of the Treaty on European Union.

Then comes the crucial sentence: "The United Kingdom will become a third country from the withdrawal date", the term setting in stone the second class status of a nation that no longer benefits from the privileges of Single Market participation.

That, by all accounts, was one of the triggers which had Mrs May rushing to her lectern in No 10 to denounce the Commission for interfering in the general election – effectively accusing the prime minister of not being as good as her word in delivering a "bold and comprehensive" trade agreement.

The point here is that, as late as 29 March, Mrs May was telling the likes of Andrew Neil that we will enjoy exactly the same trade benefits after Brexit than we are getting now. The exchange went as follows:
TM: … what we can do, I believe, is to get a really good trade agreement with the European Union in terms of access for our businesses to their single market and of course for their businesses to our market.

AN: But do you accept that no matter how good a free trade deal you’re going to get, and I accept you're going to try and get the best you can, no matter how good, it can’t be as good as the unrestricted access we currently enjoy as members of the single market?

TM: Well I believe that we – what we’ll be working for and what I believe we can get is a comprehensive free trade agreement. We are looking, we would like to see as frictionless and free trade as possible, tariff free across borders so that we can continue that trade with the European Union.

AN: But it can't be as good, can it?

TM: Well it will be a different relationship. That's the point. It will be a different relationship because it won't be a relationship based on membership of the single market and based on accepting all the other things that voters rejected. What it will be is saying that we want that new partnership with the EU. We still want to work with you, we want to cooperate with you and actually getting a trade agreement isn't just about the UK. It's not just about our businesses, it’s about businesses in other countries being able to trade with us. So I think it's in the interests of both sides to agree a really good deal.

AN: I understand that, but your Brexit Minister, David Davis he said that there will be a free deal which will quote: "deliver the exact same benefits we enjoy now". You and I know that cannot be true. The European Union will never agree to the exact same benefits.

TM: What we're both looking for is that comprehensive free trade agreement which gives that ability to trade freely into the European single market – and for them …

AN: But it can't be the exact same benefits, can it?

TM: – and for them to trade with us. It will be a different relationship, but I think it can have the same benefits in terms of that free access to trade.
A month later, though, David Davis was backpedalling on this claim, admitting that it was "little more than an ambition". He made "no apology" for being ambitious, but accepted what Britain achieved in talks would be a matter for negotiation with the EU.

"The classical approach for a politician during a negotiation", he said, "is to reduce expectations …that's what people think is the 'sophisticated' way. We are playing for the national interest here I'm going to aim as high as conceivably possible". 

However, whatever David Davis and Mrs May say in public, all the indications are that, in private, they still believe they can broker an equivalent deal. Surrounded by sycophants and those who share the same belief system, there is no one close to them who would be prepared to tell them anything different. And those who would are rigorously excluded.

And there we have the makings of the impasse. Against all the evidence, and everything she has been told by EU officials and politicians, the prime minister is convinced she can get a free trade deal that is equivalent to Single Market participation. She does not have the knowledge and understanding to realise it is impossible.

On the other hand, the EU side, knowing that it is not on offer and is unattainable, will reject Mrs May's certainty - as they already have done, branding her "delusional" and accusing her of living on another galaxy. 

No matter how many times she is told, though, Mrs May simply doesn't believe the "colleagues". She is convinced they are bluffing and, at the eleventh hour will cave in and give her the deal she wants. And it is that certainty which is most likely driving the current situation.

Meanwhile, European Council President Donald Tusk is calling for "discretion" and "mutual respect" between Britain and the EU ahead of the general election, saying that deep disagreements could make Bexit talks "impossible". One can surmise that the EU will do its best to calm the situation and avoid doing anything that will further inflame sentiment. 

But all this can do is delay the inevitable. Sooner, rather than later, there will have to be a confrontation and there can only be one outcome. Whatever her beliefs might be, Mrs May will find that the "colleagues" have no room for manoeuvre. They will not yield because they cannot. The UK is destined to take on its new role as a "third country" and there is nothing Mrs May can do about that.

Then the sparks will really begin to fly, making the last few days look like a rehearsal.

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