Richard North, 07/11/2018  

As we work our way wearily into the week, the single theme with which we started the week has solidified: there is no deal in the offing, no breakthrough – no magic wand.

But as the hours and days pass, not even the agenda is clear any more (if it ever was). Media chatter has clustered around the question of a review clause - in much the same way bluebottles are drawn to a fresh dropping – while Mrs May's cabinet has woken to a new-found determination that a deal must be found by the end of the week.

In yesterday's piece, though, there emerged not one key issue but two. The longevity of the backstop is one – which the review clause is supposed to resolve – but the other is the nature of the regulatory checks on goods passing between Britain and Northern Ireland.

Clearly, this is highly contentious. Following yesterday's cabinet meeting No 10 said the main sticking point remained how to guarantee no new checks on goods at the Irish border. Talks on how to guarantee this, it is said, have been "constructive".

That there is an ongoing discussion about the checks pre-supposes that the border issue is halfway settled. We assume that there will be some form of regulatory alignment between Northern Ireland and the EU, allowing for frictionless trade, while the Single Market is protected by those regulatory checks, the nature of which has yet to be agreed.

Quite where the customs union comes in is difficult to discern, especially when we get sundry politicians talking about its role in ensuring frictionless trade – which, as Turkish experience illustrates, is hardly complete.

Given the level of confusion, it is not even clear whether we expect to be dealing with the or a customs union or even whether we're dealing with a totally different animal called a "temporary customs arrangement" (TCA), the nature of which has yet to be defined, much less agreed.

Beset by a lack of coherence, it is very easy to fall into the trap of over-analysing such data as are available, simply because some sort of narrative is expected. But the danger is that you come up with conclusions which are not supportable. On the other hand, to declare that one doesn't have the first idea what is going on – in common with just about everybody else – is not very satisfactory.

One thing that does seem to be clear, though, is that Mrs May seems to be on the way to repeating the error she made with the notorious Chequers plan, drawing up a new proposal which will satisfy (she hopes) her domestic critics, without reference to Brussels.

You would have though that Mrs May might have learnt her lesson by now, and sought agreement (in principle at least) from Brussels before putting it to her cabinet colleagues – instead of the other way round. That she has not is illustrated by the proverbial tale of two cities.

In the Brussels corner, we have Barnier speaking to the Belgian broadcaster RTBF. He then declared: "I am not able to tell you that we are close to an agreement because there is a real point of divergence".

Later, in Bratislava, he tweeted that we need an "all-weather backstop" and an "ambitious future relationship", followed by the almost plaintive lament: "We are not there yet". In a fuller version delivered to reporters, he also cautioned against believing everything you read, adding: "We have more work to do".

This is counterbalanced by London, where the mood seems entirely different. From there we are told that: "Hopes for Brexit deal grow with 'major step' over border issue", with Mrs May's aides believing that Brexiters might accept a plan to replace Northern Ireland-only backstop with UK-wide one.

On that basis, despite the lament from Barnier, we are supposed to accept that Mrs May's hopes of securing a Brexit withdrawal agreement took "a step forward" after it emerged that ministers were working up proposals for a "review mechanism" for the Irish backstop - a "major step" in removing the final major sticking point in the Brexit negotiations.

Such is the level of optimism that Mrs May has told senior ministers to clear their diaries for an emergency cabinet meeting "within days" after she won partial backing for a compromise proposal on Ireland. She has promised to give ministers a chance to sign-off any further concessions before they are offered to Brussels.

Notwithstanding that there is more than one "major sticking point", it is very clear that M. Barnier is not in the loop, but neither does London seem to be listening to the EU's chief negotiator. Instead, we get meaningless jargon leavened by a glorious alphabet soup serving up yet more three-letter acronyms to play with, over which there is absolutely no agreement as to their meaning.

This, of course, allows knowing commentators to talk from an apparently elevated level of consciousness, to dispense their wisdom on events yet to happen, of which no one can possibly have a grasp.

In this context, we have discussion on the more-or-less new phrasing describing a "temporary customs arrangement" when, in truth, there is hardly a man (or woman) alive who can confidently assert they know what it means, while no two people could actually accept a single definition, much less define its scope.

Yet somehow, with the deadline for a November European Council closing in, we are supposed to accept that complex and as-yet undefined issues can be resolved in a matter of moments, all so the parties can gleefully assemble to rubber stamp another great victory for common sense.

The reality is though, that when parties start throwing vague concepts into the ring at this late stage of a negotiation, we are not looking at answers but at the diplomatic equivalent of a smokescreen, all to conceal the lack of progress and to deflect blame for the consequences.

With that, there is no need for, or value in, hair-splitting analyses – especially those based on Secret Squirrel sources. Sometimes the big picture can tell you all you need to know – that which we've known for some time: the Brexit talks are going nowhere.

This, of course, has been the case since Mrs May's Lancaster House speech in January 2017. Only now are we beginning to confront the consequences, but the die was cast all that time ago.

Despite that, Simon Coveney thinks that a "no deal" scenario is unlikely. "No one wants a no deal endgame. Everyone loses", he said last night. This, however, was not the view of DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson. He has said that we appear to be heading for a "no-deal", and warns that such an outcome "will have serious consequences for economy of Irish Republic".

However, those (on both sides of the Irish Sea) who are resting their hopes on the UK government revoking its Article 50 notice may be disappointed.

With a test case due to be heard before the ECJ at the end of this month, as to whether the UK is entitled to take unilateral action, the government has released its observations which it intends to place before the court.

In short, the government intends to contest the admissibility of these questions put to the court, on the grounds that they amount to a request for an "advisory opinion", on the basis that the ECJ has long refused to answer hypothetical questions or to provide advisory opinions.

The questions are regarded as hypothetical for two reasons. First – and damningly - the UK does not intend to revoke the notice, so any such revocation is not in any sense meaningfully in prospect. Secondly, even if the EU-27 did take the view that their consent was required, they might agree to it. Thus, says the government, the terms of any "dispute" are theoretical without the full facts and context.

With Mrs May equally adamant that she is not going to allow a referendum on any deal reached – and there cannot be a referendum (or a parliamentary vote) on a "no deal", it looks as if the opt-outs could be on their way to being shut down.

There may even come a point when the continuity remainers realise the futility of trying to reverse the vote and start concentrating – far too late – on options for a managed Brexit.

The one thing in our favour is that the consequences of a "no deal" are so awful that when, faced with the prospect of it actually happening, the parties might find the compromises necessary to agree a deal. As long as it is not then sabotaged by either the European or the Westminster parliaments, there would be a chance of avoiding the worst.

But, as M. Barnier says, "we are not there yet".

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