Richard North, 19/07/2018  

If something particularly unmentionable had legs and could speak in the House of Commons, it would possibly look rather like the erstwhile foreign secretary. And, in delivering his wormtongue personal statement in the House yesterday, Johnson illustrated the great divide between himself and the prime minister.

While he harped on about the Lancaster House speech, which marked the collapse of any sentient Brexit policy, Mrs May has been progressively forced to inch closer to reality, ending up with the White Paper. But getting closer to what is needed – but by no means close enough – this has the oaf Johnson throwing his toys out of the pram, unable to cope with a world of which he has never really been a part.

One way of describing Mrs May's current approach is to picture a wide estuary up which a ship must be piloted. The prime minister imagines that the navigable channel runs up the median line – a course she has charted with the White Paper. But, in fact, the deep water skirts one bank. Anything wide of that risks running aground.

If one takes one bank to be her Lancaster House "vision", the other is Efta/EEA. Johnson would have us running aground well before the ship reached its destination. The trouble is that Mrs May isn't going to get much further.

That much is evident from a report in the Guardian which seems to have taken time out to do some real journalism.

It is telling us that the EU's team of officials, led by Michel Barnier's deputy, Sabine Weyand, has picked apart the most contentious parts of the White Paper when it was presented to them by Olly Robbins this week. Discussions, apparently, were "difficult", with the Brussels team voicing the oft-deployed accusation of "cherry picking".

An EU diplomat representing a Member State says: "What the UK has proposed is unacceptable. We have had no progress on the issue". He adds: "it is good that the UK has tabled the White Paper but that is not what we are talking about at the moment. The withdrawal agreement and Irish protocol in it comes first".

The outcome, according to another of those omnipresent but anonymous senior EU diplomats, is that: "the White Paper is not going to form the basis of the negotiations". Nevertheless, there is still a reluctance in Brussels to speak out in open criticism of the White Paper. The feeling is that a full-blooded rejection would prove an existential threat to Theresa May's premiership, and hasten the collapse of the talks.

With this in mind, Barnier is expected to pull his punches on Friday when he addresses reporters at the end of a meeting of ministers from the 27 member states, where they are expected to be presented with a dossier drawn up by the European Commission laying out how to plan for a "no deal" Brexit. Instead of anything specific, Barnier is expected offer anodyne comments about the need to make progress on the Irish "backstop".

But, with concerns being expressed at the chaotic events unfolding in Westminster, British government sources are admitting to "growing despair" over what they regard as the "intransigence" of their EU counterparts. The new Brexit secretary, Dominic Raab, is preparing to make public detailed plans on how the UK would deal with a lack of agreement by 29 March and a cliff-edge Brexit.

This means both sides are making preparations for a "no deal", although there are no indications that British officials understand the gravity of the situation. A UK source told the Guardian: "Of course both sides have to be ready for no deal and we have made extensive plans. The difference is that our plans include sensible mitigations to alleviate some of the worst imaginings that some people have".

Despite this, it seems the UK pharmaceutical industry is preparing to stockpile medicines and medical supplies against the possibility of the UK crashing out of the EU. This is one of many signs of a growing sense of urgency, which even seems to be pervading the Brexit negotiations, with the Commission about to propose that the talks continue through the usual holiday month of August.

Furthermore, both UK and Brussels sources are suggested that an informal European Council in Salzburg in September could become a "crunch moment" when EU leaders will have a chance to revise the negotiating guidelines and instruct Barnier to take a more flexible approach. Alternatively, they could send the UK back to the drawing board.

Either way, it is thought, agreement in October on the withdrawal deal and the political declaration on the future relationship is highly unlikely. An emergency Council meeting is being pencilled in for early November.

In anticipation of failure, real world measures are being taken, with the Dutch government hiring nearly 1,000 customs officials to deal with Brexit. Pieter Omtzigt, the rapporteur on Brexit for the Dutch parliament, confirmed the recruitment had taken place. 

On the basis that the Netherlands are, after Germany, the second trading partner with the UK within the EU, he declared: "That means that because of the political uncertainty within the UK, I asked my government a year ago to start hiring new customs officials. They've hired almost a thousand customs officials just in case Britain crashes out".

Warming to his theme, he said: "We're a trading nation; we cannot afford our customs system to completely get stuck because from one day to the next we also have to check all the British exports of goods and services. We also hired veterinary officials because if you crash out, you also have that problem".

Not to be left out, the Irish government is also in the thick of it, apparently gearing up for a major confrontation with the WTO over the commitment to retain a soft Border in Ireland in the event of a "no-deal" Brexit.

It is understood that among the contingency plans being considered is a resourcing of the Revenue (Customs) to deal with the increase in customs-checked transactions that will take place after Brexit. It is investing in new data storage systems, security and staff to facilitate the increase.

Now government sources are saying they are prepared for major confrontation with WTO officials, who will insist on a border with the North as part of strict trade laws. "That's just not politically deliverable; we won't be doing it," a source said. "Brussels knows we can't go back to the borders of the past; it'll be a very difficult and different conversation".

This seems a confused situation as I would not expect WTO officials to be directly involved here. This is more a matter for the Commission and the WCO, which hosts the many customs conventions. However, the very fact this this issue is being raised is a sign of the increasing tensions over Brexit plans.

Even then, this is just part of the bigger picture where Ireland is quite deliberately stepping up contingency plans for a no-deal. Heavily influenced by the instability in Westminster, Leo Varadkar, believes that even if the withdrawal agreement was agreed in Brussels, there is no guarantee that it would get passed in London.

Varadkar also warns that the UK will be restricted in flying aircraft in European airspace in the event of a no deal Brexit. "The situation at the moment", he says, "is that the United Kingdom is part of the single European sky, and if they leave the EU they are not and that does mean that if there was a no deal hard Brexit next March the planes would not fly and Britain would be an island in many ways and that is something that they need to think about".

In a rather tart comment, he observes: "You cannot have your cake and eat it. You can't take back your waters and then expect to use other people's sky", adding, "In the unlikely event that we have a hard Brexit next March, with no deal, I think every country will struggle to put in place the necessary infrastructure and customs and veterinary officials in their ports and airports. It won't be just us".

With this dawning realisation of impending chaos, we now see even in the strangest of places, signs that the rats are seeking ways of abandoning the Mrs May's stranded ship. Thus we have Paul Goodman of Conservative Home sniffing round the edges of the Efta/EEA option. But, in common with a number of latter-day quasi-coverts, he sees the EEA as a temporary safe harbour, while the UK gets its act together and looks for something better.

Notwithstanding that the complexities of adapting the EEA Agreement to the needs of the UK would probably take a couple of years to negotiate, I can think of no better way of being rejected by Efta States than for the UK to expect them to roll over and accept the disruption of its presence, just so that we can sort out our own self-inflicted problems.

This points to an almost complete lack of any appreciation of what the Efta/EEA option actually entails, typifying the general approach of so many pundits to Brexit, where knowledge of the issues is treated as a handicap.

Not even their profound ignorance, though, can subdue the impression that the walls are closing in. Any confidence in the ability of the May administration to resolve Brexit has drained away, like that ebbing tide which will most certainly ground her metaphorical ship.

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