EU Referendum

Brexit: in the land of soundbites


According to Joseph Muscat, the Maltese prime minister, it took less than 60 seconds for the European Council, constituted as 27, to agree the joint communiqué on Brexit.

This was after it had taken nine hours to stitch up a working agreement on migration, with the leaders not getting away until five in the morning. But then, the swift accord on Brexit hardly came as a surprise. The text had been finalised at the General Affairs Council last Tuesday and there was nothing more to add that hadn't already been said.

It thus took Donald Tusk precisely 23 seconds to dispense with the subject in the post-Council press conference. "The EU-27", he said, "has taken note of what has been achieved so far. However, there's are great deal of work ahead and the most difficult task are still unresolved. If [the UK] wants to reach a deal in October we need quick progress".

Then, in a neat, headline-catching soundbite, he concluded that: "This is the last call to lay the cards on the table", something of a mixed metaphor even if we all understood what he was getting at. We're in "last chance saloon" territory.

By contrast, Michel Barnier was positively prolix, expending nearly 90 seconds talking to reporters as they "doorstepped" him on his arrival at the meeting. Actually, they didn't doorstep him – that's the EU description. They lock the hacks up in an enclosure and then feed them nuggets to keep them tearing each other apart. Barnier was contributing to the EU's equivalent of feeding time at the zoo.

"We have made progress", Barnier told the reporters and TV crew, "but huge and serious divergence remains, particularly on Ireland and Northern Ireland". That was the soundbite that was going to go straight into the headlines, although one has to say that Tusk got the better line with his "last call".

"After Brexit", Barnier continued: "we want an EU-UK ambitious partnership on trade as well as security. But we have to base this partnership on our values and principles, respecting also the UK red lines".

He then trotted out the familiar litany, intoning that this meant the "integrity of the single market, indivisibility of the four freedoms, autonomy of the decision-making of the EU, and protection and respect of the fundamental rights of EU citizens". This, he added, "is key for our future co-operation and security".

Concluding his little homily, Barnier observed that "we are waiting for the UK White Paper", hoping that "it will contain workable and realistic proposals". And obviously concerned at how long it was all taking, he asked leave to "mention once again that the time is very short". Stressing that, "we want a deal and [are] working for a deal", he went on to repeat himself, saying yet again, "but time is short".

Wrapping up, the chief negotiator said that he was "ready to invite the UK delegation to come back and present next Monday", although we learn that he had already put that offer to the UK delegation and had it turned down. But since everything seems to rest on the pyjama party (or not), that doesn't seem to be much of a surprise either.

There's no surprises on the Irish government website either, but there is more detail for those gagging for it. EU leaders, we are told, "expressed concern that no substantial progress has yet been achieved on agreeing a backstop solution to avoid a hard border". And, repeating that which has already been repeated so many times, "they warned that there can be no Withdrawal Agreement, and therefore no transition, without an agreement on the backstop".

This has the Irish crowing that the European Council "has again demonstrated that Ireland has the full backing of the EU". What is needed now, the government says, "is for the negotiations to be intensified. It is important that the UK delivers on the clear commitments and guarantees it provided in December and again in March".

Everything, the government says, "including all elements of the Withdrawal Agreement and the framework for the future relationship, should be wrapped up by October".

That may prove to be more wishful thinking than the reality. We have, potentially, a long hot summer of inactivity followed by the party conferences. The Tories will be baying for blood at theirs. She will have to throw them hunks of raw meat and a conciliatory tone will have her eaten alive. If there is a pre-Brexit deal to be had, we may have to wait until January for it.

As for the White Paper, I doubt whether any serious commentator believes that it is going to deliver. The government might just as well might arrange to have it printed on tissue, delivered to Brussels, gift-wrapped in neat souvenir rolls for the Berlaymont toilets.

Already, Leo Varadkar has ripped a hole in Mrs May's latest fantasy of a "single market for goods", but diverging from the single market services. Even so, Varadkar is not really on the ball as he dismisses this on the grounds that, "for an economy the size of the UK, that's not a realistic proposal".

For an economy of any size, this is not a realistic proposition. There can be no easy distinction between goods and services, not in reality and not within the framework of the Single Market. The idea of separating is absurd.

However, Varadkar has a point when he says that the principle, if it were to be conceded, "that would be the beginning of the end of the single market". While we really regret the UK has decided to leave the European Union, he says, "we're not going to let them destroy the European Union".

"The optimist in me would love to see the UK coming forward with a White Paper which allows the EU and UK to have a relationship that is so close that would make the whole issue of the Irish border almost irrelevant", he says, "but I'm not so naïve to think that that's likely".

Yet, this man who tells us that he is "not so naïve" also says he believes there will be progress over the coming weeks "because there has to be". His view matches the generality of his colleague's perspective, that "time is running out", observing that "it is in absolutely nobody's interest that we end up in a no-deal scenario". Britain and Ireland, he says, "would have the most to lose from that, but all of Europe would lose as well".

Nevertheless, the Irish prime minister is not leaving things entirely to chance. He is developing what he calls "desktop-based contingency planning for a no-deal scenario". This is to be on an "east-west" rather than a "north-south" basis. Some of it, he says, "would be placed in the public domain in the coming weeks".

This will make for an interesting time, but there is no clarity from this quarter either. What a no-deal scenario would mean for the border in Ireland was "just something we're not contemplating", he says.

"Everyone understands here in Brussels, in European capitals, in London, that that's something that's [not happening]", Varadkar says. "It's not being planned for, and we won't agree to anything which gives rise to a hard border on our island, and if we do end up in a no-deal scenario we'll have to talk to our EU partners about that".

"Bear in mind", he adds, "that that would only arise if the United Kingdom started to diverge in terms of regulations and customs arrangements, so they would be the ones who would be causing it".

The thing is, though, that not only is the "no deal" scenario not an option – it does not even exist. There are no circumstances, short of war, where the UK can cut off relations with its European neighbours. Brexit is not about "leaving" Europe. It is about redefining our relationship with the EU and its Member States.

In practical terms, we need to make arrangements for the movement of goods and people, to maintain our electronic and communications, to ensure our mutual security and the myriad of other linkages that make modern society a reality.

The point here is that there can be no such thing as "no deal". We have to deal. The question is whether we negotiate before or after we leave the EU – whether we do it in a controlled fashion or in crisis conditions after things have stopped working and chaos has descended. Either way, we end up with deals. Made in a crisis atmosphere post-Brexit, they can hardly be more favourable than anything we agree before we leave.

The "no deal" scenario, then, is just another soundbite – another of those meaningless clichés that have so poisoned the Brexit debate. A bad deal cannot be better that no deal. The way Mrs May has handled this, there can only be bad deals or even worse deals – and we're heading for the worst of all possible deals.

Still, though, it seems that some ministers want Mrs May to wait for an "inevitable" last minute climb-down by EU leaders themselves in October, when panic about "no deal" sets in. And if that is what is driving current strategy, we are beyond the reach of soundbites. There is not a cliché in the world that can save us now.