Richard North, 03/03/2019  

Not a lot has changed since yesterday, and not a lot since the day before and the day before that. In truth, not a lot has happened for a while, apart from an awful lot of noise, expanding into a whole new universe of tedium.

Newspaper journalists are reduced to quoting other newspaper stories, in particular the Barnier interview, which is only of marginal interest as it tells us very little that we didn't know before. In other times, we would have seen something more substantial before hitting the front page of The Sunday Telegraph.

There, the theme is one that has been emerging for a little time, the fear that a delay to Brexit could put the whole project at risk. So we have those vast intellects, Andrea Leadsom and Jeremy Hunt who join forces to tell their readers that "the active pursuit of a delay to Brexit, with no purpose beyond frustration, is a betrayal of referendum result".

What's on the table, of course, remains on the table. As Barnier himself says, once again, there will be no changes to the backstop. "To limit it in time or to introduce a unilateral exit clause would call into question its credibility", he says. "It cannot be 'time limited'", he adds, then offering the chance of a get-out.

The backstop, Mr Barnier confirms, "it can be 'event limited'. It will stop when we have either a global agreement on the future relationship, or a specific agreement on Ireland. This is what is planned".

As for that cunning plan, the EU is "working on clarifications and guarantees that can be made to the backstop". He addresses the fear that it will be used to keep the UK indefinitely in a common customs territory but, he says, "This is not and has never been our will. Europeans are committed to working as quickly as possible on solutions to avoid having to use it, or not too long".

The objective then is to "find guarantees to confirm, clarify, guarantee the goodwill and good faith of Europeans, with commitments that will have a real legal force because they will be joint". Assurances can then be given in an "interpretive document", although the form "remains to be defined". This would come "in addition to the treaty of exit and the political declaration".

And that's where we were yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before. Barnier and his team have been working "night and day", to that end, but it is in the lap of the Gods. If enough MPs decide to go with the "interpretive document" then we will have ourselves a Withdrawal Agreement next week. If not, the soap opera continues.

Much will supposedly rest on Mrs May meeting conditions set by Rees-Mogg and his ERG pals, a mere three tests, possibly representing their numeracy limit. They want a legally binding clause that "unambiguously overrides" the text of the withdrawal agreement, stronger language that the so-called Irish border backstop will be temporary and a "clear and unconditional route out of the backstop if trade talks fail".

If that is what they actually want, then the resolution is out of their hands. The vote will depend on Labour MPs and other strays backing the agreement. And, whether that happens is anyone's guess.

Meanwhile, Sir Ivan Rogers has been talking to Spiegel. He acknowledges that the Brexit process would be a long, tortuous and potentially conflictual process, but what has surprised him is the extent of the mess.

Four weeks before the Brexit deadline, he says, "the political class is unable to come to any serious conclusion about what kind of Brexit they want". Of course, he adds, Brexit is a revolutionary moment, but he admits to never having seen a political crisis like this in his entire professional career.

Dismissing the idea that a no-deal is "off the table", he thinks there is still a serious possibility that we will be paralysed after March, with no resolution. There will then be a risk that we end up with a no-deal exit in June or July. Sir Ivan does not think that there is an appetite in lots of European capitals to simply roll forward extensions while we are still working out where to go.

He complains that Mrs May indicated to the Europeans that we would be going much further out of the EU than Norway and Switzerland, or even Turkey, which has a customs union agreement with the EU. But he doesn't think she fully understood what a dramatic rupture that would have been. Since then, she has tried to edge things back. But, having started with a hard line position, every time she's moved a little bit back, the right wing of her party cries betrayal.

Furthermore, Mrs May was not by any means the only one who didn't understand the implications of what she was doing. That lack of understanding is "an endemic problem".

Says Sir Ivan, "I am one of the few who has worked for the bulk of my career on European issues. British politicians don't understand what the single market or the customs union is or how the EU really works". He admits that this is a problem in many member states, but it is worse here.

He has worked with several prime ministers very closely. "Although all of them have been very able people", he says, "none of them have had a deep understanding how the European Union works. They don't have an emotional attachment to the EU, because we've always had a rather mercantile relationship with our neighbours".

Then, putting a perspective on our future relationship with the EU, he says that making a deal will take much longer than many people think. The planned trade deal is not "the easiest in human history," as Liam Fox has claimed. It's not easy to solve for one simple reason: this is the first trade deal in history where partners are seeking to get further apart. He thus states:
All trade deals I've ever worked on were about getting closer together and dismantling barriers to trade. We are now deliberately re-erecting barriers, seeking a thinner relationship than the one we have. We like the free trade with Europe, but not the European institutions. Well, that's not on offer. That's why the next step of the negotiations will be conflictual again. The Europeans will say: There must be a reason why you wanted to leave and diverge from our model, please tell us what degree of divergency you want and why. You only need to say it that way to realise that this will not take months, but years.
And there is a cause for considerable gloom. Just sorting what should have been the relatively simple process of agreeing the mechanical processes of leaving has all but torn the political system apart, with issues unresolved 32 months after the referendum. And now, even if at the eleventh hour, we do reach an agreement, the hardest part is yet to come, and this supposedly can be done in 21 months, perhaps with a short extension.

Thus, it is all very well for 1922 Committee chairman Graham Brady to write in the Mail on Sunday that, "the whole country is tired of vacillation and delay". When the right compromise is offered, he says, we should pull together behind the Prime Minister and help her to deliver our exit from the European Union on 29 March.

For the backstop to be consigned to history, any new trade agreement has to offer frictionless trade and a whole lot more, the like of which has never been secured between states outside the EU. Not even the Efta states can claim such a status, and especially not Switzerland, which may prove to be the closest model for the UK-EU relationship.

And this is something which is simply being skated over. It is all very well saying that the backstop will not be used if there is and alternative agreement which will secure the absence of a hard border, but there is nothing on the horizon which could get close to replicating the conditions necessary to maintain the status quo.

The worrying thing, therefore, is that we are dealing with political classes who go far beyond the failure to understand the EU, as averred by Sir Ivan. We have a level of self-deception amounting to delusion amongst our MPs that there is any possibility of reaching a sensible working arrangement with the EU. The best the ratification can achieve is to kick the can down the road those additional 21 months, before we're in exactly the same situation that we are now.

Not for nothing are those who are blocking the current deal being described as "death cult Tories", but if the truth were known, parliament as a whole has become a death cult, filled with brain-dead zombies who have long ago departed from the ranks of humanity. And, if we let them, their cult will destroy this nation. The process of destruction is only just beginning.

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