Richard North, 13/10/2017  

It was actually on Tuesday, when Donald Tusk raised the possibility that talks on phase one of the Article 50 settlement could continue through into December, thus allowing - as we observed - for the possibility of the December European Council re-examining the decision on whether the talks could progress into phase two.

By that time it was already clear that the fifth round of the Brexit talks in Brussels wasn't going to achieve anything. It thus came as absolutely no surprise when Barnier addressed the concluding press conference and declared: "I am not in a position, as things stand at present, to propose to the European Council next week to open discussions on the future relationship".

The only mild surprise is that he was so unequivocal, not in any way hedging his bets. There had, after all, been attempts by the UK to appeal direct to the Council over his head, in the hope that the Member States would over-ride their own chief negotiator and instruct him to move to phase two.

In fact David Davis, in his own press conference address alongside M. Barnier, asserted that "substantial progress" had been made, and looked to the October European Council, hoping that the Member States would "recognise the progress we have made, and take a step forward in the spirit of the Prime Minister's Florence speech".

All the same, M. Barnier must be pretty confident that he has the full support of the Member States, and have no fears that they will break ranks. Thus, he was able to say that "with a political will, decisive advances are within our reach in the next two months", adding: "We are going with David Davis to fix several negotiation meetings by the end of the year". That leaves the way open for the December Council to make the final decision.

Inevitably, the media homed in on the money story, mostly reporting that the talks were "deadlocked", repeating with zest the very word that Barnier himself had used in respect of the final settlement.

The hang-up, according to Barnier, is that while Theresa May in her speech in Florence affirmed that the UK would honour its commitments made as a member of the Union, the negotiating team was not prepared to specify which particular commitments it was prepared to honour. Consequently, there had been no negotiations on this subject. The parties had to content themselves with "technical discussions".

Despite this, Davis remains buoyant - perhaps unrealistically so. He argued that these technical discussions were "an important step", declaring: "When the time comes, we will be able to reach a political agreement quickly and simply".

Barnier's words on the financial settlement, however, may have partly responsible for misleading the media. Always keen to miss the point, it has presented the talks as being stalled over the money, without mentioning that the other two phase one issues haven't been settled either.

For sure, the parties seem to be edging to an agreement on expat civil rights, and that movement of people across the Irish border is more or less settled, with the terms of the Common Travel Area (CTA) being carried over into the Brexit settlement.

However, even though the BBC's self-important political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, managed to offer an analysis which completely omitted any reference to Ireland, the trade issues and the Irish border are very far from being settled.

Oddly, although the Commission offers a version of the Barnier address, as delivered, when it comes to the Irish question, it omits almost a full sentence, which can actually be found in the BBC report.

The Commission version tells us that the EU negotiating team had "continued our intensive work on mapping out areas of cooperation that operate on a North South basis on the island of Ireland", but then it leaves out Barnier's observation that, "There is more work to do in order to build a full picture of the challenges to north-south cooperation", which result from the UK and therefore Northern Ireland leaving the EU legal framework.

The omission is curious, but cannot be ignored. This suggests that the parties are so far apart that they have not even got to the stage of listing the issues they are prepared to disagree about. In other words, there has been no progress at all on this vital issue.

That then leaves two more negotiating rounds (with the possibility of an extra session being thrown in) to resolve an intractable problem that has seen no movement so far in five rounds. It seems hard to accept that the border question, which is so politically sensitive to the Conservatives, should be resolved in just two months, allowing the December Council to give the go-ahead to move to phase two.

The thing is that the hacks do not understand the issues here, while the Kuenssberg's of this world regard the detail as "boring" and "nerdy". They prefer to stay in the more familiar territory of personality politics, reporting on the Brussels talks as an extension of the Westminster soap opera, but with a few foreign actors.

While they obsess about the cash settlement, though, the Irish problem will fester unresolved, ready to block the entire talks on points of detail that the media refuse to spend any time on. They, like many of the politicians, are going to be caught out simply because the EU is about detail. You cannot get away with the cavalier "biff-bam" treatment which so often dominates the reporting of UK politics.

It is this lack of attention to detail which allows pompous idiots such as Nigel Lawson to blather about the WTO option as if it was a fashion accessory, arguing that "it's a perfectly acceptable solution", because "we already do far more trade with rest of world than rest of EU" and the great bulk of that trade is on WTO terms".

Such a stupid statement should be ripped apart by even a half-sentient media commentator but, as the idiocy is trotted out, one after the other they sit there nodding gormlessly as if the jabbering idiot was actually talking sense. And therein lies the core of the problem. Unless or until the political classes and their media handmaidens come to terms with the devastating consequences of a "no deal" Brexit, they will continue to treat such stupidity as a rational alternative to a negotiated settlement.

Such is the incompetence of both commentators and media that, when the Chancellor tentatively raised the prospect of an interruption of air traffic, post-Brexit, he was screamed at by the idiot Lawson and accused of "sabotage". Yet this demented diatribe was treated by the media as a rational contribution to the Brexit debate, while some Conservative MPs demanded Hammond's sacking.

Not to be left out in the race to reach the Nobel laureate equivalent in the stupidity stakes, the Daily Telegraph then argued for the Prime Minister to be accompanied by her sociopathic Foreign Minister when she goes to Brussels next week – heedless of the offence that would cause.

Meanwhile, courtesy of Reuters we get to see a draft of the European Council statement of the 27, on Brexit. In a clear snub to UK aspirations, the Council will reject the "invitation" to over-rule their chief negotiator and instead call for continued negotiations "in order to be able to move to the second phase of the negotiations as soon as possible".

As regard the Irish question, it notes the "major challenge" that the UK's withdrawal represents. It reminds us of the need to avoid a hard border, and therefore expects the UK "to present and commit to flexible and imaginative solutions called for by the unique situation of Ireland".

With the ball firmly in the UK's court, it then confirms what we expected. At its next session in December, the European Council "will reassess the state of progress in the negotiations with a view to determining whether sufficient progress has been achieved".

If this near mythical state of "sufficient progress" has been achieved, and only then, it will it "adopt additional guidelines in relation to the framework for the future relationship and on possible transitional arrangements".

Even then, on the transitional arrangements, it adds the rider that they should be " in the interest of the Union and live up to the conditions and core principles of the guidelines of 29 April 2017". That, of course, means accepting the continued jurisdiction of the ECJ, something which is going to be politically very difficult for Mrs May to accept.

The one small concession given is that, in order to be ready for any phase two talks on transition, the Council "together with the Union negotiator" is willing to "start internal preparatory discussions". But that is going to be a two-edged sword, as it gives the EU the political initiative and puts the UK on the back foot.

Overall though, after much labour, the net outcome of all this activity is simply to delay the determination of whether the talks will continue, kicking the can down the road from October to December. Undoubtedly, then, there will be a price to pay. If agreement can't be reached by December, I am taking the view (for the moment) that the talks will be over.

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