Richard North, 13/07/2017  

Having watched yesterday's exchange on Brexit in PMQs between Emily Thornberry and Damian Green, amid the baying and jeering of our mindless MPs, one cannot help but be struck by the difference in style and tone of Michel Barnier's press conference on the state of play on the Article 50 negotiations (pictured).

Now imagine having to explain to a visitor from another galaxy the difference between the two systems responsible for each of the events.

One, you could say, is the weekly event in a democratic system where elected representatives scrutinise and hold to account the leader of the government – keeping the people informed on how they are governed.

The other, you might say, is the daily ritual of a secretive, dictatorial institution, where unelected officials rule the oppressed peoples of Europe with a rod of iron – totally unrepresentative and unaccountable, hiding everything and deceiving the people about their intentions.

And how would you argue that one system was so much better than the other – democracy (of a sort) versus the Platonic guardians?

In fact, at every possible level. a case could be made that the "undemocratic" Platonic guardians came out better. In Brussels, there was M. Barnier, intelligent and forthright, delivering information and courteously, answering questions and doing his best to be open.

Back in Westminster, we had the spectacle of yah-boo boorishness, with the parties intent on obscuring the issues, while the government representative went out of his way not to answer the questions put, refusing to give us any indication of the true intentions of government.

Perversely, when Mrs May uses what has become her catch-phrase, "let me be clear", we have learnt that this is the prelude to another bout of obscurity and obfuscation. But when M. Barnier, representative of the secretive and undemocratic European Commission says, "the EU positions are clear", we can take this as a generally accurate statement of the state of play.

In fact, not only are the positions clear, they have been delivered in writing in a series of nine position papers, published between 12-29 June. So far, from the UK government, we have seen just one formal response. That was on "rights of EU citizens", published on 26 June.

The first round of negotiations was on 19 June and the next is due on the Monday coming – 17 July. Predictably, with nothing more forthcoming from London, M. Barnier is getting a little anxious.

We now need to know the UK's position on each of these issues", he says, "in order to make progress". He adds, not unreasonably, "We need to know what we can do, and [then] we can negotiate in earnest". In a statement of the obvious, he went on to say: "We cannot remain idle as the clock is ticking".

In this, the first phase of the talks, there are three elements – known to us all. The first is "rights of EU citizens" and the second is the Financial Regulation. On this, Barnier says: "It is essential for the United Kingdom to recognise the existence of financial obligations which simply stem from the period during which it is a member of the EU, and in particular from our current multiannual financial framework".

Only once the EU gets this [formal] recognition, he says, can we "begin work on the methodology and agree in this first phase of negotiations on this methodology".

Of the third - issues related to Ireland - " we want to start discussions quickly on the maintenance of the Common Travel Area between Ireland and the UK, defining precisely its various relevant aspects, and also on the protection of Good Friday commitments Agreement , in all its dimensions".

In what might be a glimpse of the iron fist in the velvet glove, Barnier then says: "On subjects of such importance, it is essential to ensure that we are on the same political line before seeking technical solutions". He adds: "I want to be clear again on these issues: these three priority subjects for the first phase of the negotiations are inseparable".

"In other words", says Barnier, "progress on one or two of these three topics will not be sufficient to move on to discuss our future relationship with the United Kingdom" From this, we get the conclusion: "The sooner we actually make progress on all these issues in phase 1 of the negotiations, the sooner we can start talking about our future relationship".

There is nothing intrinsically unreasonable in this and, in the absence of any initial proposals from the UK, or any formal response to their position papers (bar one), it is difficult to know how else the EU might respond.

Certainly, in response to the cretin Johnson, his line is retrained. Asked by the Irish Times whether he would "whistle us a tune" – a clear reference to the Johnson intervention, Barnier responded with a broad grin, only then to resume his stern façade. Officially, he had no comment, but he did add: "I'm not hearing any whistling – just the clock ticking".

This came in the question session after the statement - accessible here, where Barnier expanded the them to talk about "trust". What he wanted, he said, was to build a new relationship with the UK, but for that to work it needs trust. And trust means giving security to the four million British and European citizens, it means settling accounts".

It was, he said, a difficult problem for the UK. He knew that, but it was difficult for the 27 as well. As 28, when we were together, we entered into commitments to finance a series of forward projects. Thousands of programme, thousands of commitments have been made – a joint commitment, a mutual commitment between the UK and the 27 others.

"What happens with those programmes?" Barnier asks. What happens is the UK share, which the UK is committed to providing, is no longer there? That, he says, is a "question of trust". He does not accept Farage's description of "ransom". It's not an exit bill, he says. It's not a punishment. It's not a revenge. At no time has it been those things. It is simply settling accounts. Any separation involves settling accounts – no more, no less. We're not asking the UK for a single euro or a single pound more than they have legally undertaken to provide.

The UK, he thus declares, has to start by recognising that they've entered into commitments with us. And that's why he's saying that "we have to settle the accounts of the past before we start talking about the future".

The closing question is taken from Mark Stone from Sky News who asserts that the UK has said it would meet "its legal obligations". Some might, therefore, say that the UK has already accepted that there is a bill to pay, a commitment. What more do you need? he asked Barnier 

We listen to David Davis, Barnier responded. We've heard him say that we've noted certain financial obligations. That's the least one would expect. But they are based on agreements provided by the UK government when the financial perspectives were produced.

He (Barnier) had published a list of the financial obligations. He could not imagine that a very great country like the UK would not also be a responsible country and respect its commitments. It's a condition for trust that we need in building the next stages.

Thus, in the final part of this session, vagueness had crept in, except that Barnier again referred to the lack of any position papers from the UK. There is much rhetoric from UK politicians but nothing in writing. The EU's chief negotiator, it seems, wants something bankable – quite literally – and in writing.

This brings us back to the Westminster bear garden where, in terms of knowing what the UK government's position really is, we are totally in the dark. Thornberry was trying to establish whether the "no deal" scenario was still official policy and, if it was, whether there were any contingency plans in the event that it was invoked.

In the light of contradictory answers, Thornberry asserted that Johnson, in particular (who had stated there were no plans) was "making it up as he is going along". Damian Green, standing in for the prime minister, noted the number of different plans coming from the Labour Party – nine counted so far - which included wanting to be both in and out of the single market, in and out of the customs union.

Despite this, Labour concludes (as do we all) that the government has no idea how even to begin negotiating Brexit.

Then to accuse the government of going for the "no deal" scenario seems a little premature. At the moment, we have having to confront the "no plan" scenario, where the government doesn't even know if it wants a deal or not. If the government was able to settle on one of those options, that would be progress indeed, whence it  might take the trouble to inform M. Barnier of its intentions.

But, if "no deal" is chosen, it would be the nuclear option. For the moment, though, we seem to be veering towards the dyslexic option. Whatever we seek to ascertain the government's intentions, we find that they are "unclear".

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