Richard North, 17/12/2017  

In 2004, I set up this blog with the late Helen Szamuely mainly to deal with the poor coverage by the legacy media of the European Union and the superficiality of their analyses.

At any time we would have been prepared to have wound up the blog had media performance improved and, after nearly fourteen years, my ideal scenario remains that. Nothing would please me better than to hang up my spurs in the knowledge that the media was doing its job properly.

After this weekend's performance, though, there is absolutely no chance of my early departure from the field. The media coverage of the European Council and its negotiating guidelines has been beyond dire, completely failing in its basic duty to inform.

Looking at Saturday's coverage in the print media, only the Financial Times and the Daily Telegraph even thought to run stories on their front pages and not anywhere did we see an adequate report explaining the content of the Council guidelines and their potential effect if the transition proposals are accepted.

When it comes to the factual reportage of the contents of an EU document, it seems that simple task is beyond the capability of both print and broadcast media.

It has thus taken more than a day for something of the story to emerge, the delay allowing it to be framed in terms of statements by Chancellor Philip Hammond and some of the more notorious "Ultra" politicians. The responses demonstrate yet again the inability of the media to process EU news unless it can be pinned to UK personalities, and expressed as a "biff-bam" conflict.

Looking at the broader context of this document, no sensible person will deny that a transition period is needed. It was this blog, after all, which argued – long before the referendum was announced – for the Efta/EEA option as a means of bridging the gap between full membership and the status we seek as a fully independent nation.

But for the EU to insist that we continue to be bound by the entirety of EU law in order that we should be able to continue trading with EU Member States, when the Single Market acquis extends only to about a quarter of the law in force, is neither necessary nor logical.

As such, extending the UK membership of the EU, but without representation, hardly qualifies as "transition". This is not a "bridge" from the UK's current situation to another, but an extension of it, delaying the point at which it must move from one status to the other. There is no gradual process. The leap at the end is just as severe as if there had been no extension.

That the EU's demands might even have to be considered, though, reflects Mrs May's basic error of going too early with her Article 50 notification, before an adequate (or any) exit plan had been devised. Had she followed the tempo of the Flexcit plan (without necessarily adopting the plan itself), she would have held off making the notification until alternatives had been devised.

The great advantage of the Efta/EEA option, of course, is that the technical adjustments necessary for us to continue trading with the EU could have been negotiated through the EEA institutions (and in particular the Joint Committee), leaving us only to negotiate the withdrawal (phase one) issues with the EU.

We could also have invoked Art 112, with almost immediate effect, thus taking full control of our borders and putting the EU on notice that we intended to manage the flow of migrants from EU Member States in the interests of the UK.

Now that we are in the position we are, though, we are left with very limited options. But again, this is a reflection of the same error, repeated. Mrs May had nothing constructive to offer for the overall exit plan, when she made her Article 50 notification, thus handing the political initiative to the EU.

Having then broached the idea of a transitional period in her Florence speech, she then failed to propose any detail, leaving it again for the EU to make the running.

But here, there error is even more profound, as Mrs May is not looking for a "transition", as such. In Florence – as she had previously – she referred to an "implementation period", working on the basis that we would have concluded an EU-UK trade agreement by March 2019.

What has been scarcely recognised is that, to this day, Mrs May sticks to her delusion, referring to "the implementation period that I proposed in Florence" in an authored piece in the Sunday Telegraph. This, she asserts, "will give businesses and families the time they need to implement the changes required for our future partnership with the European Union", notwithstanding that she has already been told that the "future partnership" will not be agreed by the time we leave the EU.

Mrs May writes of welcoming "the desire of the European Union to agree the precise terms of this period as soon as possible", seemingly oblivious to the fact that the EU has just spelled out its terms, with more detail to come in January. These make no provision for "implementation", as there will be nothing to implement.

Mrs May's delusional state, however, brings us to the Booker column, where he ponders over the "sudden positivity about our progress on Brexit", and argues that "there is still so much to be explained".

Twice in a week, he writes, we have been treated to euphoric claims about how well Theresa May's approach to Brexit is now going down with her EU colleagues.

But one must wonder, he says, whether our own politicians have all decided to take to heart that recent comment on his job from David Davis: "I don't have to be very clever. I don’t have to know very much". Behind all the fluff and wishful thinking, do any of them have any real idea even of where we have got to so far, let alone where we may be heading for?

For a start, Booker adds, none of the three "Phase One" issues has yet been fully resolved. The EU has made clear that by March it expects a legally binding agreement on all three, including that of the Northern Irish border, on which Mrs May has not yet given the faintest clue as to how she thinks in practice this could be done.

The only other two issues yet on the table are that Mrs May must explain, first, what she means by that "deep and special relationship" she keeps going on about; and, second, the nature of those “transition” arrangements allowing us to remain in the single market for two or more years even after we leave the EU in March 2019.

The EU has made clear that this will require a very complex agreement, which could take up to October to complete, requiring the UK to meet all the legal and financial commitments it would entail, justiciable by the European Court of Justice.

Although they are currently slow on the uptake, Booker observes that, "When our politicians finally grasp that, during this 'transition', we will still in effect be in the EU for two or more years after we have left it, without any power to influence its rules, all hell will break loose".

Even greater mayhem, he suggests, will erupt when they realise that the EU's rules cannot allow us to begin negotiating that even more complex "trade deal" until we have left, possibly condemning us to spin on in that "half-in, half-out" transition stage for five years or more after we voted to do so.

Like David "I don't have to know very much" Davis, not a single politician seems yet to have woken up to just what a minefield all this is heading for.

To conclude, Booker addresses directly the many of his readers who rage on his comments yet who seem to understand as little of the facts as our MPs. "I can only repeat", he says, "that if only Mrs May had not been reckless enough to decide that we should leave the European Economic Area, 95 percent of all these tortuous problems need never have arisen".

Whether this is too late to correct, I cannot be sure. But since the EU is determined that we should retain the greater part of our membership for the two years following what would be a notional Brexit, we may as well go the whole hog and apply for an extension of the two-year Article 50 negotiating period.

However, as long as our prime minister remains in a state of delusion about our status and the nature of our Brexit talks, no amount of extra time is going to make any difference. Until Mrs May is forced to confront reality, we will go blundering on in this twilight world of hers where, in her mind, everything can be fixed by a pre-dawn flight to Brussels.

This is a world where she can confidently assert that: "We have proven the doubters wrong and are making progress towards a successful exit from the EU", and believe everything she says.

Handmaidens to her delusion, though, are the legacy media, sustained by the many pundits and fellow travellers who cannot see the wood for the trees. Between them, they continue to skew the Brexit debate to the extent that misinformation is the standard fare.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, an ICM poll has 61 percent of voters supporting Mrs May's Brexit stance. With the media doing such an abysmal job – in the face of Corbyn as the only alternative – how could it be any different?

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