Richard North, 24/08/2017  

I am getting really bored by the media obsession with the ECJ. We are a million miles from defining a credible withdrawal agreement, much less settling one. This leaves us standing on the edge of a precipice in a Force 9 wind. And all the media wants to do is prattle endlessly about jurisdiction over the dispute procedures to enforce that agreement which does not as yet exist.

The spate of interest is, of course, a response to the latest "partnership paper" produced by HM Government, this one entitled Enforcement and dispute resolution", produced as part of a package in anticipation (or so we are told) of the next round of talks in Brussels next week.

At the very least, this is hopelessly premature, as the talks are currently stalled over discussions on phase one. And, as Barnier has repeatedly said, there is not the slightest chance of moving on to deal with other matters until "sufficient progress" has been demonstrated on the three issues comprising phase one.

But the main discontinuity is precisely that which I have already pointed out. The Government has yet to set out in detail (or at all) what it expects from a withdrawal agreement. Specifically, we have not had it confirmed whether the negotiators are to go for broke, and push for a fully-fledged free trade agreement, or whether we are looking for a halfway house transitional deal.

Fairly obviously, any dispute resolution procedures may vary as between a transitional deal and the final settlement, and the precise nature of the procedures adopted for the longer term will depend on the shape of the final settlement. Since in all respects we lack any detail, further discussion beyond an exploration of general principles is largely a waste of time.

Whether this is consciously recognised, or not, it is certainly recognised in the Government's paper. In a mere twelve pages of text it does little more that rehearse general principles in a very general way. It then concludes: "The UK will … engage constructively to negotiate an approach to enforcement and dispute resolution which meets the key objectives of both the UK and the EU in underpinning the effective operation of a new, deep and special partnership".

All one can say is "wow!", or perhaps "double-wow!". We will all sleep easier in our beds knowing that our wise and beneficent government is prepared to "engage constructively to negotiate an approach … which meets the key objectives of both the UK and the EU". The soporific value of extruded verbal material should never be underestimated.

Had this material been directed at Brussels, one might have felt some embarrassment, not wanting to be associated with the superficial, almost patronising tone of this latest document. However, it is pretty clear by now that the papers pouring out of MinBrex are for domestic consumption, mainly to counter the charge of indolence directed at David Davis.

Apart from the Irish question, none of the subjects raised in the papers are going to be on the agenda next week but they serve not only to give the impression of frenetic activity, but also to distract the media from the lack of progress on the key issues. But the EU negotiating team are hardly going to be seduced by such a transparent ploy.

In fact, according to the Independent, the European Commission has indeed seen through the smokescreen and is dismissing London's burst of activity as an extension of the "intra-UK debate". More to the point, I would aver, this is still an internal debate within the Conservative Party.

Even the Telegraph, which has degenerated of late into the Ultras' comic, seems to be conscious of this dynamic, declaring in its leader that "we are no clearer whether the Cabinet is united around an agreed direction of travel than we were a few weeks ago".

The intention of the position papers, it says, "is to provide clarity for those who are uncertain about what the future holds". Unfortunately, it concludes, "they are unlikely to be any the wiser. The Government papers have not so much established a firm negotiating position based around a coherent set of goals, as set out a range of options – few of which yet represent settled policy".

In particular, said Irish Examiner, the paper on Ireland was full of well-meaning statements of intent, particularly around not wanting the return of any border, but gave nothing by way of detail as to how such a pipe dream is to be delivered.

The Poltico website is even more forthright, citing EU diplomatic officials on diverse issues, one of them telling us that the papers have been produced "to distract attention from issues around the financial settlement".

Another senior EU diplomat damned the papers with faint praise, welcoming the fact London has begun clarifying its position, but complaining that they lacked detail. "The UK papers have strong words, but with no substance. They've not really given real answers", he said.

The sentiment from the group of diplomats is that the UK needs to stop evading the core issues. It "must come forward with a proposal for how to calculate its EU exit bill" or next week's talks will come to a "grinding halt", they say.

For all that, this is not exactly news, although I'd always understood that it was Brussels that was going to work on the modalities – which I don't think it's done yet. It was then for London to come up with an alternative, if it disagreed. The other items on the agenda will be a demand for more detail on how the UK intends permanently to guarantee rights for EU citizens living in Britain (and vice versa) and the Irish question.

The essence of this is that Barnier is not giving any ground. Despite Davis's bid to have the Irish settlement tied in with the broader trade agreement, when he arrives in Brussels next week, he will find the same dish of uneaten gruel that was left over from last time. It will stay there until he deals with it, although time (and patience) may be running out.

Despite that, the Guardian is predicting that Davis will refuse to put anything on the table next week, "a choice certain to inflame tensions with Brussels", it says. Instead, British officials will subject their EU counterparts to a barrage of legal arguments, to contest the reputed extent of the bill.

Looking at the forward timeline, if next week's talks remain stalled, there is little prospect of the European Council in October accepting that "sufficient progress" has been made to allow Barnier to move on to the next phase. Thus, does time dribble away, with substantive talks deferred until the new year.

Going back to the domestic agenda, no one is mentioning the elephant in the room – the party conference season and especially the Conservative Party conference. This will be the first major gathering of the party faithful since the election, where the knives will be out and would-be leaders will be sizing up the opposition.

Here, it stands to reason that party managers (and Mrs May herself) will want to put up a strong showing on the Brussels negotiations. Parading contentious concessions – such as giving way on the "divorce" bill – would not go down well, so the papers we're seeing may be more than just a smokescreen. They may be preparation for the leader's pitch in Manchester, couched so as to avoid giving anything for the other party conferences to pick over.

With the Tory conference in the first week of October, and the European Council not scheduled until two weeks later, Mrs May's speech to the faithful is also an opportunity to deliver a message to Brussels, and set the tone for future talks.

So much is at stake though that one might have expected – just for once – that the Tories would put country before party. But that is clearly not to be. But then, there is absolutely no guarantee that Mrs May will survive in office to conclude the negotiations, so she will be fighting on several fronts simultaneously.

In the febrile politics that we are currently experiencing, we cannot even be sure that there will not be a general election within the next year, leading to a change of government. As did Attlee suddenly replace Churchill at the Potsdam talks in 1945, so the unthinkable could transpire, with Corbyn taking over from Mrs May to conclude the Brexit negotiations.

Such is the mismanagement of the Government (as Pete points out), that this could even be preferable in one very specific context. If the talks have stalled and are set to deliver no result at all, then it may take a change of government to break the logjam.

That this is even possible, much less thinkable, is an illustration of how far we've come since the referendum – and how far we have yet to go.

There was nothing preordained about Brexit being permanently harmful, Pete writes. What we are seeing here is Conservative maladministration that may cost the UK its future. Parliament, he says, urgently needs to assert itself and up its game. Unchecked, this Government will ruin us.

Sadly, the die has probably already been cast. If we come to thinking Corbyn has anything to offer, then the situation will be close to irrecoverable – if we are not already there.

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