Richard North, 09/03/2018  

We know today that the UK government rejects: "a customs and regulatory border down the Irish Sea" said European Council president Donald Tusk. He was speaking in Dublin after meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to discuss Ireland's concerns on several important issues ahead of the European Council in two weeks.

And it wasn't only the "wet border" that the UK rejects. That takes in the EU's Single Market and the customs union – a position Tusk says must be respected. On the other hand, the EU expects the UK to propose "a specific and realistic solution to avoid a hard border". And as long as the UK doesn't present such a solution, said Mr Tusk, "it is very difficult to imagine substantive progress in Brexit negotiations".

Then we got the bombshell: "If in London someone assumes that the negotiations will deal with other issues first, before moving to the Irish issue, my response would be: Ireland first".

If that represents the official policy of the European Union, then we have to take it that the negotiations are frozen. They will remain so until the UK comes up with a solution that will avoid a hard border in Ireland. That is how the Independent sees it, reporting that the EU "has thrown down an ultimatum to Theresa May".

Oddly enough, The Times - once the "paper of record" – hadn't picked this up at the time of writing. But the Daily Mail had managed to tear itself away from poisoned Russians long enough to notice. This paper had it that Donald Tusk had warned that all 27 EU nations "are united in their determination to secure a deal for Ireland before trade talks".

As one might expect, the BBC has also picked it up, with its website headlining: "Brexit: 'Ireland first,' says Tusk after Varadkar meeting". It also quotes Tusk elaborating the EU's position. "Since my last visit here in Dublin", Tusk said, "I have spoken to virtually every EU leader, and every one of them – without exception – declared, just like Prime Minister Bettel did yesterday, that among their priorities are: protecting the peace process, and avoiding a hard border".

He then uttered what could be taken as a battle-cry: "The EU stands by Ireland. This is a matter between the EU27 and UK, not Ireland and the UK".

This is both unequivocal and damning. And it wasn't even the full extent of what Tusk had to say, in what was actually quite a short statement. On his way to declaring solidarity with Ireland, Tusk referred to Hammond's speech from yesterday.

Then, Hammond had noted that Mrs May had set out "why it is in the interest of both the UK and the EU27 to ensure that EU businesses and citizens can continue to access the UK Financial Services hub". The Chancellor also referred to the UK and the EU acting in the "mutual interests".

In what was an unmistakable, and almost brutal snub, Tusk told his audience: "I fully respect the Chancellor's competence in defining what's in the UK's interest. I would, however, ask to allow us to define what's in the EU's interest".

He then went on to say: "Services are about common rules, common supervision and common enforcement to ensure a level playing field, to ensure the integrity of the single market and ultimately to ensure financial stability. This is why we cannot offer the same in services as we can offer in goods. It's also why FTAs don't have detailed rules for financial services". Hammond, for all his hubris, has been put firmly in his place.

As for the Telegraph, if you look hard enough you can find the story, but pride of place is given to the fool Johnson claiming that "no deal Brexit should not hold any 'terrors' for Britain because UK would 'do very well' under WTO rules".

This is the measure of a newspaper that has completely lost its way, one which no longer makes any pretence at reporting news objectively. The Johnson story was an "exclusive", arising out of an event organised by the paper at which the foreign secretary spoke. And that is given preference to Tusk telling us that the Brexit negotiations have, effectively, been shut down.

What we get from Tusk is a clear sense of irritation – part of which must surely stem from the legacy media treatment of his statement yesterday. What should have been front page news in every national was relegated to inside pages after the media chose to obsess about the poisoning of the Russian spy.

No one will argue that that incident was not important but here again we have media incontinence, displaying its inability to deal with more than one subject at a time. And even today, none of the nationals give any coverage at all to EU issues on their front pages.

It is not only the UK politicians but the media which is being fundamentally unserious on this issue. We have to go across to the Irish Times to get front-page treatment. That much is predictable but it also says a great deal about the importance with which the subject is being treated.

Taking account of the comments of the fool Johnson on the WTO option, one wonders whether the UK government is at all serious about pursing the Brexit negotiations, or whether it has secretly given up and is just going through the motions.

For what it is worth, the Express tells us that Ministers are gearing up for a walkout from Brexit talks "if Brussels continues to play hardball". Relying on one of those "senior cabinet sources", we are led to believe that plans for scenarios including "no deal" and the EU refusing to let Britain rejoin its agencies are more advanced than many people realise.

Certainly, by no stretch of the imagination can one accept that the UK government is putting maximum effort into these talks. Looking back over its performance, it has been giving the EU what one might term the "right royal run-around". Right up to the Mansion House speech, every time the EU pushes for a clear answer, Mrs May resorts to generalities and evades the issue.

Right now, it looks very much as if the "colleagues" are running out of patience. And, if the Independent is right, and Mr Tusk has just delivered an ultimatum, then things are taking a turn for the worse. The UK needs to start taking the talks far more seriously than it has done to date.

There is no way the EU is going to buy into the UK's current ideas for managing the border and, as longs as Mrs May maintains her stance that the EU's guideline proposals are unacceptable, we simply have nowhere to go. 

If, on the other hand, Mrs May is content to allow the likes of the fool Johnson free rein to peddle his stupidity, then she can hardly be surprised if the EU draws its own conclusions. And it gets worse when we see Liam Fox condemning "EU chiefs" as "acting like gang leaders", who are "throwing threats of violence around" to get what they want on Brexit.

This is not the language of diplomacy, especially when Fox criticises the argument of Donald Tusk and others that British trade access must be worse than the status quo after leaving the EU. "The idea of punishing Britain is not the language of a club, it's the language of a gang", he says.

With that, it really doesn't look as if there can be a meeting of minds any time soon. With the March European Council only two weeks away, we could be coming to the end of the line - much faster than anyone anticipated.

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