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Brexit: a sense of deadlocked resignation

2017-11-11 06:02:17

It's got to the stage where even the groundhogs are having groundhogs. We've not so much been there before, as been there before we've been there before, if you get my drift.

This time, though, Barnier was quick to deflate any expectations (not that we really had any. "Do not expect from us today, at this stage, announcements or decisions", he said in the press conference closing the sixth round of negotiations.

"The discussions over the past days", he added, "are a moment of deepening, clarification and technical work". And with that, we learned that: "We are determined to reach a deal on the orderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, in view of the UK's decision to leave".

In case there was any doubt, Barnier then declared: "This is our absolute priority - as well as mine and my team's - in view of the European Council on 14 and 15 December".

But, from then on, it was super-groundhog day. The three "key areas", like a bowl of cold sick, remained there to be dealt with: the financial settlement, expatriate rights and the Irish question. Only these could unlock the door to phase two. And, said Barnier: "These three subjects are I repeat inseparable".

In what might have been a Delphic statement, the EU's chief negotiator went on to "repeat" that "in this extraordinary negotiation, which is extraordinarily complex, that we are not demanding concessions from the United Kingdom, and we do not intend on issuing concessions either".

This was taken by some clever-dick commentators as being meaningless (or unfathomable), except that it has to be read with the following paragraph. "We work on the basis of fact, and law, and on precise, reciprocal commitments", Barnier said, "And we should - and we wish to - create certainty, especially legal certainty, where Brexit has created uncertainty and a lot of worry".

In other words, the issues were as stated. For the UK to accept them was not to make concessions to the EU. It would simply acknowledge their obligations. And when the UK delivered, the EU would deliver. Simples.

On the financial settlement, Barnier was still insisting as he always has that the commitments made by Prime Minister May in her Florence speech must now be translated into firm proposals. The, he said (repeated), was "an essential condition to reach sufficient progress in December".

The United Kingdom decided to leave the European Union over 500 days ago, he concluded. And it will leave the Union on 29 March 2019 at midnight, Brussels time. "To reach our common goal that of organising an orderly withdrawal with an agreement", he said, "we are going to have to work intensively over the coming weeks, before the next European Council".

But it was after that, during the press questioning, that Barnier dropped his bombshell. Insisting that the decision on the financial settlement would be made by the member states in December, and that it would be "absolutely vital" to hear soon from Britain on its intentions, he was asked by a German reporter whether it was necessary for the British to provide clarity on their intentions within a fortnight. Barnier responded with three little words: "I think so".

Before that, Davis had pledged the UK to continued engagement, and a willingness to negotiate constructively, "as we have done since the start". We needed to see, he said, "flexibility, imagination and willingness to make progress on both sides if these negotiations are to succeed and we are able to realise our new deep and special partnership".

I suppose that, if we wanted to be imaginative, we could always nuke Brussels. But where that scores on imagination, it might lose points on constructiveness. However, one could be more or less assured that flexibility would no longer be a requirement.

Beyond that, though, I don't see much chance of movement. Davis was still harping on about Mrs May's Florence speech, ignoring the words he's got back from Juncker and Barnier that a speech does not constitute a formal negotiating position. Even though Barnier had again asked for the speech to be translated into formal proposals, Davis still ignored him.

Spraying platitudes like a hyperactive dog marking his boundaries, Davis told us that the two sides were "consolidating the progress we've made since June and exploring options for reaching agreement". It was "time for both sides to move together to seek solutions", this was "a serious business" and, as well as the aforementioned "flexibility, imagination and willingness", we also needed "flexibility and pragmatism" - from both sides.

For all that, it seems the parties were intent on discussion that were only willing to be "flexible and constructive" somewhere along the line, the "pragmatism" got lost.

Sadly, that was not all that had been lost. On Northern Ireland, there had been "frank discussions about some of the big challenges around the border" but, while Barnier had restated that "the unique situation on the island of Ireland requires specific solutions", Davis was still arguing that the issue must be concluded "in the context of the future relationship".

In other words, he hasn't changed his position from wanting the border solution bundled in with the general trade agreement something Brussels has already said cannot happen.

But now it was Davis's turn to ramp up the pressure. "We respect the European Union desire to protect the legal order of the Single Market and Customs Union", he said, "But that cannot come at cost to the constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom". Any solution, he declared, "cannot amount to creating a new border inside our United Kingdom".

That, unequivocally, rules out the "wet border" between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, which effectively means that we are looking at a hard border with the Republic. And, even if the money is settled, that could be the deal breaker. It could certainly give rise to Ireland blocking in December any approval to move to phase two.

By now, the platitudes had been ramped up - in inverse proportion to the degree of agreement. We were no longer after "flexibility and pragmatism" or even "flexible and constructive". What was necessary now was: "a spirit of pragmatism, creativity and with a high degree of political sensitivity". We are doomed.

On the "citizen's rights", the Barnier had made it clear that the EU had not changed in demanding a role for the European Court of justice "in guaranteeing consistent application of case law in the UK and in the EU" - only to have Davis declare that, "it remains a key priority for the United Kingdom, as we leave the European Union, to preserve the sovereignty of its courts".

With no movement on this front either, John Crace of the Guardian wrote of a "sense of deadlocked resignation" which had "spilled out into the room" as Barnier went on to say they had barely scratched the surface of the negotiations.

From this distance, we can watch the videos and read the speeches. The impression is the same. These negotiations are not going anywhere. It is going to take a miracle for the Council to give the go-ahead in December for the move to phase two. And beyond that is only darkness, where groundhogs go to die.