Richard North, 12/01/2018  

It is given, one would have thought, that a massive trade bloc such as the European Union (or the EEA) would not be too concerned with deciding what sort of relationships it wants with its smaller trading partners.

In the general scheme of things, the more pressing need is for the smaller partner to define the sort of relationship it is seeking, and then to prevail on the larger bloc to give it what it needs.

To a very great extent, that seems to have been the view taken by the EU in relation to the Brexit negotiations. The UK is the party that has decided to leave the EU – and also the Single Market. It is therefore, up to the UK to set out what new relationship it wants with the EU, at least as the basis for discussions from which a scheme could emerge.

This, though, it not the current view being taken by Chancellor Philip Hammond. He now seems to be of a mind that it is up to the EU to produce its own ideas of how Brexit should look, instead of "obsessing" over how to "punish" British voters for their temerity in voting (by a majority) to leave the EU.

It was, he has been saying, up to European leaders and "Eurocrats" to specify what they want from a post-Brexit trade deal instead of (supposedly) sitting back and waiting for Britain to do all the legwork.

One may take one's own view as to how appropriate Mr Hammond's stance might be on this, but it takes very little to imagine how this might go down in the couloirs of Brussels. Simply by reference to the Joint Report and the latest set of European Council guidelines, one can readily see that there is not exactly a meeting of minds.

Then, even if there was some merit in Mr Hammond's view, it is more or less a matter of certainty that the EU (whether the Council or Mr Barnier's negotiation team) is not going to take much notice of it. The intervention of the Chancellor thus does nothing more than demonstrate yet again that our politicians are completely out of touch with reality.

Yet another of those is our revered (not) prime minister, who has been roundly condemning the EU for creating new barriers to trade, oblivious to the fact that such barriers that we (the UK) will have to confront are already in existence. The problem is not that new barriers have been erected, but that Mrs May, through her rash decision to quit the Single Market, has placed us on the wrong side of them.

This is something that our political masters seem to have extraordinary difficulty understanding, which really confirms that they have a limited grasp of the realities of the Single Market and how the EU's trading systems actually work.

Once again, therefore, we have to confront our own reality – that those in charge of our Brexit negotiations simply don't have sufficient knowledge and understanding to enable them to function effectively. Nor is the opposition any better. As a result, these people are expecting outcomes which simply can't be realised.

What makes this surreal is that, as we move towards the next round of the negotiations, issues raised previously and as yet unresolved will be re-presented. If not on this round, the scope for ambiguity will be reduced and eventually we will get to the point where reality and expectations collide. From that wreckage, one presumes, an agreement of sorts will have to emerge.

However, no amount of false expectations or wishful thinking is going to make that agreement better than the EU is prepared to give, or can be allowed by Union law. The limitations which affect the process are real.

What is truly delicious about the situation – if you're minded to look at it in such a fashion – is that reality is already making a guest appearance. German government officials, it appears, have made it clear – via the Bloomberg news agency – that the UK is likely to secure a deal with the EU which covers the all-important financial sector only if the government continues to contribute to the EU budget and ensures full conformity with the acquis.

Still more writing on the wall comes with news that fishing quotas available to fishing vessels from other Member States are likely to be set by Brussels, with the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) remaining in force for the duration of the transition period (and perhaps beyond).

This, of course, will mean that EU Member States will have a say in how the UK fisheries resource is apportioned, although the UK government will no longer be represented on the fisheries council and will not be involved in setting fishing quotas in non-UK waters.

Where Michael Gove will go with this remains to be seen but last year he was puffing himself up as the saviour of the fishing industry, claiming that the UK would "take back control" of its waters immediately after Brexit. Like so many promises made by Ministers, this is looking somewhat premature - to say nothing of forlorn.

In many senses, this sets the scene for the whole Brexit experience. When I prepared a draft fisheries policy with Owen Paterson those many years ago, we concluded that it could easily take five years fully to develop a policy to the point of implementation.

The technical aspects are difficult enough, and there are different views about how UK fisheries should be managed, but a huge complicating factor is the need to consult with and reconcile the multiple stakeholders, many with conflicting priorities and expectations. And, in view of the authoritarian approach of the EU, we could hardly impose something on the different stakeholders and ignore their interests.

So it is with whole areas of policy where, currently, the EU has the easier part of it, having established its parameters within the Treaty frameworks and no longer having to take account of the different needs – not that it ever did. Policy is so much easier when you can avoid the democratic process and retreat behind the excuse of treaty obligations.

But, while the implications of sticking with the hated CFP are absorbed, the EU is piling on the agony by setting out its preferences for post-Brexit dispute resolution. The idea of  a joint committee has been raised but, of the several options canvassed, most ensure that the ECJ takes a lead role.

Gradually, but with almost inexorable certainty, UK options are being closed down as we confront the unpleasant reality that, in the absence of a credible exit plan, the EU is making the running.

Meanwhile, Nigel Farage – the man who never troubled to have a plan and has had no serious ideas about how to make Brexit work - has belatedly pitched into the debate, supporting the idea of another referendum.

He claims another vote would end the "whingeing and whining and moaning" of remainers, a stance which has gained the backing of the ineffable lightweight Arron Banks, another one who could never bring himself to support a decent exit plan.

So it is that, following a collective failure of the Eurosceptic aristocracy to come up with anything better, all the lamentable Mr Farage can do is admit failure and call for another referendum as his idea for silencing the growing volume of concern about the way Brexit is being managed.

I suppose it is possible that he could have offered something even more fatuous, but that might have taken a bit of effort. It is much easier to go with the flow and settle on something that requires almost no imagination and nothing in the way of commitment.

But then, when just about everybody else is being forced, kicking and screaming, to confront the reality of Brexit and the consequences of being almost completely unprepared for the exit negotiations, it is entirely fitting that Farage should retreat so completely from reality and take refuge in an option than could well destroy everything he has supposedly worked for.

Rarely has a so-called "leader" been so bereft of ideas of what to do with his "victory" that he has had to hand the initiative to the enemy to exploit it. And how ironic it will be that the only opportunity we will have to "take back control" is when the EU has finished telling us what to do with our new-found freedom.

We are all aware that freedom doesn't come cheap but neither, it seems, does reality.

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