Richard North, 24/11/2017  

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A leaked report is dominating the Irish headlines, with RTÉ leading the way. Details are also spilling over into the UK media.

The "report" is a confidential internal memorandum circulating in the Department of Foreign Affairs. It tells us very little that we didn't know already but confirms the "negative and deeply unflattering picture" of Britain's performance in the Brexit negotiations.

However, it differs from our own deductive analyses in being based on an extensive round of meetings between 6 and 10 November, between Irish ambassadors and senior embassy officials and government and foreign ministry officials in ten EU member states and in Japan.

From this, we learn of "scorn" about the British negotiating position and alarm at the "chaos" the Conservative government, with frustration at the inability of British ministers and civil servants "to agree a coherent policy on Brexit". As a result, there are "significant concerns" across European capitals that it will be difficult to break the deadlock in the negotiations ahead of the December summit.

Of several notable events, one was a meeting in Luxembourg when, Ian Forrester - the British judge in the ECJ – criticised "the quality of politicians in Westminster" and wondered if the British public might view Brexit as "a great mistake" when they realised what it entailed.

The judge said there had been "a fair amount of contact" between him and the British government on the issue. However, he said "only one person out of all those who had been in contact had any real grasp of the complexities involved [in leaving the EU]".

Judge Forrester was then quoted as saying "this process is going to go on for some time and ... his hope was that it would gradually dawn on people what leaving actually entailed, that there might be a slow realisation that this was just a great mistake and the mood might swing back to remaining".

A minister in the Czech government saw Foreign Secretary Johnson as "unimpressive", but noted that, in the instance of his visiting the Czech Republic in September had at least "avoided any gaffes". The Czech Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs Jakub Dürr told officials "he felt sorry for British Ambassadors around the EU trying to communicate a coherent message when there is political confusion at home".

Overall, the various ministries across the EU expressed doubt that Britain would be permitted to move to the second phase of talks unless it brought forward solutions to the issue of the UK's financial liabilities on leaving the EU.

Most officials and ministers noted that the EU remained united at 27, and that Michel Barnier, the EU's chief negotiator, had appeared far from optimistic that a breakthrough would happen at the December summit.

Some senior figures warned about Britain crashing out of the EU without agreement. At a meeting in Rome, the Italian Minister for Economic Development, Carlo Calenda, said a "no deal" scenario could cost Italian businesses €4.5 billion. Several member states expressed concern about the border and sought information from Irish officials about the kinds of solutions that might be required.

Ioannis Metaxas, the Greek Ambassador for EU Affairs at the Foreign Ministry in Athens, said he was "pre-occupied with Brexit, which would cause 'big problems' for Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark". He was "keen to know what the solutions would be in terms of managing both migratory and customs flows between the north and south".

At a meeting in Japan in September between Tanáiste Frances Fitzgerald and the vice minister of economy, trade and industry, Fitzgerald "took every opportunity to make the case for Ireland as the ideal post-Brexit solution for Japanese companies considering investment or expansion in the EU".

On 7 November, Irish embassy officials in Paris met Gaël Veyssiere, the head of cabinet of the French minister for European Affairs, who was keen to learn how Irish issues would be dealt with in the coming weeks during the negotiations.

At that point, Veyssiere had "picked up" remarks by Pascal Lamy, former WTO head, that Northern Ireland could "become like Hong Kong, a special autonomous zone within the EU". Veyssiere also said that unless the UK brought forward some solutions to the financial settlement, "there could not be a positive outcome in December". Yet, he was "very negative about the possibility of this happening and about the level of engagement by the UK".

Other details include an account of a dinner on 23 October, where Davis dined with the French Minister for Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian and Nathalie Loiseau, the French Minister for European Affairs. "Despite having billed this in the media in advance," the paper states, "as a meeting to 'unblock' French resistance, Davis hardly mentioned Brexit at all during the meeting, much to French surprise, focusing instead on foreign policy issues".

In a meeting with the Cypriot Minister for Foreign Affairs Ioannis Kasoulides, the Irish ambassador was told that "the UK must do more on the financial settlement - it's a matter of trust". The Irish embassy in Slovakia reported that government ministers there were insistent that the financial settlement issue was "very important", and that EU citizens in the UK must have their rights protected, not just for four years "but for 40 years".

A similar picture emerged in Latvia, where senior government officials said UK ministers had made "a poor impression on their rounds of capitals and Latvia is pessimistic with regards to reaching an agreement in December".

The Swedish Minister for Trade Ann Linde told Irish officials that "no country, either inside or outside the EU should be worse off because of Brexit". Sweden was in "full agreement" with Mr Barnier and the EU should have "a coordinated and coherent voice". Although Ms Linde said she was "optimistic" about a good outcome in December, the UK would "have to provide clarity on the financial settlement".

All this, though, must be seen in the broader context of the scene set by Mrs May. According to a source directly in touch with her, with whom I talked earlier in the week, the decision to leave the Single Market was taken solely by the Prime Minister, after discussing the issues only with her then closest advisor, Nick Timothy.

Crucially, neither Mrs May nor Timothy had the first idea of the consequences of taking the UK out of the Single Market, nor any understanding of what the country's new "third country" status brings.

Without having consulted with other political colleagues, or more widely with business or industry – much less those of us who had done the background research – Mrs May led us blindly into a trap of her own making. She created a political environment where it is virtually impossible to devise or sustain "a coherent policy on Brexit".

Something of this is finding its way into the legacy media, where we see explored the political pressures which drove Mrs May to make her momentous decision.

But it is thus confirmed that the foundational decisions of Britain's withdrawal strategy, which is shaping the Brexit negotiations and the entire future of the UK, were taken, in essence, by two people. Not even the Cabinet had a chance to debate the issues.

On this blog, we complain – with some justice – that our arguments and research are ignored, but the truth of the matter is that, when it came to the core Brexit strategy, everyone was ignored. Rarely - even in the most rigorous of dictatorships - have we seen such a tightly-framed decision process where matters of such great importance have undergone such little debate.

The process of Brexit, therefore, is a blind march into ignorance, led by a woman with neither the capability or the knowledge to inspire, surrounded a braying, ramshackle apology for a political party which cannot even communicate with its own leader – much less the rest of the country.

For all that this country claims to be a democracy, never in history have its people been so blindly led, into territory where they don't want to be, with consequences they barely understand, yet lack the means to avoid.

For future historians, the events of the thousand days of Brexit will provide unending opportunities for discussion and evaluation. And as we ponder over the events of the First World War and try to imagine how it was that our leaders took us into a conflagration which robbed millions of their lives, they too will scratch their heads in wonderment as they try to work out quite how our government made such a mess of Brexit.

In all that, though, two names must stand out – Theresa May and Nick Timothy (pictured). And the record we see from the Irish of the "chaos" that has ensued is only a down payment.

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