Richard North, 14/10/2017  

On multiple occasions, from her Lancaster House speech on 17 January to the present day, Prime Minister Theresa May has made it very clear that she would prefer "no deal" to a "bad deal", in terms of an Article 50 withdrawal agreement.

Despite that, Mrs May has never been specific in defining what constitutes a "bad deal". One must assume, therefore, that any assessment will be made on a case-by-case basis, reacting to whatever is on the table at the time a decision must be made.

As to what constitutes "no deal", this might be taken at face value to mean no agreement of any kind. The outcome wold be that the UK would allow the Article 50 two-year period to expire, whence the EU treaties would cease to apply. This is often called the WTO option, whereby post-exit relations are determined by reference to the GATT/WTO agreements.

Yet it is also the case where Mrs May has been no more specific about what she takes "no deal" to mean than she has in defining a "bad deal". There is some possibility that she could see it as a way of discontinuing the current negotiations and starting an entirely new round, seeking only to secure a very basic trade agreement. Others argue that the "no deal" is "no deal on trade" but a deal on other points, making it a "no-deal deal".

Another possibility is that the "no deal" option is not real. Merely, it is a negotiating ploy, used as leverage to secure a progression to the so-called "phase two", where the EU can be brought to discuss transitional (or implementation) arrangements, and the "deep and special partnership" that will serve as the long-term basis for future relations with the EU.

Through all this, though, we have the general reassurance from Mrs May that the UK is seeking a "good deal" – what is now her "deep and special partnership". But, as with her "no deal" and her "bad deal", she is no more specific about what her "good deal" might be.

Nearly sixteen months after the referendum, therefore, we have an aura of uncertainty. And that uncertainty spreads further. Mrs May talks of her "implementation period" while the Commission talks of the "transition period" while, in fact, the term "interim" might be better applied.

Even (or especially), the Finanical Times can't keep up with the Prime Minister, having her urging fellow EU leaders to open talks on a Brexit transition deal, despite her preference for "implementation". Not only are words given new meanings, dissimilar words become synonyms.

Before we even get there, the UK is being required to show that there has been "sufficient progress" in the talks before moving to phase two but complains that the level of sufficiency required has never been defined.

Yet we have a situation where the outcome of Brexit may be a "deal", although we don't know what it will be, or we might end up with a "no deal", or a "no-deal deal" and no one knows what that means either. And certainly, no one knows what must be done to achieve either.

Even the timeline is uncertain. Mrs May thinks we can secure her "deep and special partnership", while the Commission is merely talking about "scoping" – making it quite clear that there is no chance of securing an agreement before we leave.

Standing back from this, we are entrapped in the debate of the insane. The one thing we're not short of is commentary. From the lowest to the highest, everybody has an opinion. And everybody seems content to accept the terminology at face value, without seeking clarification or further depth.

In short, no-one actually knows what they're talking about or, to be more precise, people are talking about the same things using different vocabulary and meaning different things, or even the same things described with different words.

This is no way to conduct one of the most important political debates since the war. There is no clarity, no comprehension, no continuity – and no progress, however that is defined.

But now we hear that Hammond has turned this into a "war of words" and described Brussels as the "enemy", while M. Juncker has told a group of students at Luxembourg University that any gratitude for the UK's military defence of the continent did not exempt it from paying its dues, insisting: "Now they have to pay".

This makes a bizarre situation even more bizarre, where personal enmities and prejudices overlay the discussions, blurring the issues even further and making clarity even more elusive.

And, for all that, there is some clarity in that, next week, we confidently expect the European Council to refuse to move to phase two, putting in train further rounds of meetings where the English language will be brutally tortured.

Where we go from there, I honestly don't know. If we can't even agree on what words to use and what words mean, and can't even rely on the various factions to apply honesty in their dealings, it does not seem possible to have meaningful negotiations. Mrs May is asking for something that cannot exist, while the EU is demanding some things that the UK cannot deliver – and neither side will offer any clarity as to what they really want.

Such would suggest that, in time, the negotiations must collapse – and one wonders whether the current manoeuvres are simply blame transference, each party seeking to ensure that they are not left standing when the music stops.

If we are going to progress, we are going to need a sudden outbreak of honesty. Those who argue for "no deal" need to start telling people exactly what it involved, and not hiding behind empty fictions. Mrs May needs to come to terms with the fact that she is not going to get her "deep and special partnership" by March 2019, and the EU will need to realise that the political constraints which are handicapping the UK government must be factored into the negotiations.

At this late stage, though, I'm moving towards the idea that there is nothing salvageable from the current negotiations. If our people cannot even agree on common words and common meanings – and agree on the basic facts - our team would be better employed riding round Trafalgar Square on tricycles bedecked with flags, rather than talking to their counterparts in Brussels.

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