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Brexit: taking no prisoners

2019-09-28 06:09:41

Over the last few days, the English media, with very small exceptions, has done what the media so often does with Brexit. It has internalised the debate, concentrating on domestic issues which have very little if anything directly to do with the issue at hand - our withdrawal from the European Union.

While the "hurty words" drama is being played out to its fullest extent, the Guardian includes in its key issues for the day: Nicola Sturgeon backing the idea of Jeremy Corbyn becoming a caretaker prime minister; Labour MP Jess Phillips saying she has received more threats; and Labour MP David Lammy criticising Brendan O'Neill for saying that the delay to Brexit should have sparked riots.

Earlier in the day, however, two dailies did stray from the domestic path, but only to display their fundamental ignorance of the ways of the EU. First into the fray was the Telegraph which ran a story headed, "Brussels thwarts Boris Johnson's hopes of last-minute deal by ruling out negotiation at crunch EU summit".

This referred to the ambassadors' briefing which we have already covered, the story telling us that Johnson had "pinned his hopes of getting a deal by going directly to EU-27 leaders at the Oct 17 summit and convincing them to back his plan". However, we were told, "EU diplomatic sources said heads of state and government would refuse to negotiate the Brexit deal at the European Council".

The paper then had a "senior EU diplomat" saying that it was a "fundamental rule" of European Councils that leaders did not negotiate on legal texts such as the Withdrawal Agreement but made political decisions. "For leaders to endorse a deal at the summit, it needs to have been pretty much wrapped up. The timetable is getting very tight", the diplomat added.

The other entrant into the field of ignorance was, predictably, the Daily Express which chose for its more lurid headline: "No deal inevitable: Brexit talks on brink as EU demands Boris hand over backstop plan NOW".

From this story, we learned that Brussels sources had "revealed" that Brexit talks were "on the brink" after EU capitals had agreed "they would block Boris Johnson from holding serious negotiations with leaders at next month's crunch European summit".

Even then, the paper managed to contradict itself by then telling us that: "Any hope of all-night negotiations at the October 17 summit have been extinguished unless Mr Johnson can present plans in the coming weeks".

Both stories, of course, illustrate the tendency of the media to rely on "sources" to tell them what they should already know, or have worked out for themselves. It is perfectly obvious that the European Council was never going to entertain last-minute talks with Johnson, as we have been pointing out for some time, without the benefit of "revelations" from EU diplomats, senior or otherwise.

But the other, more malign tendency on display is the "spin" which makes out that the EU's conformity with its own procedures is somehow a malign act directed at the UK. The media as a whole should have been pointing out since it was first raised, that the idea of Johnson "handbagging" the Council in October always was pure fantasy. But, consistently, Johnson has been given a free pass, allowed to claim something that could never happen.

When push comes to shove, therefore, one can never trust the English media when it comes to EU reporting, and in particular, with the task of keeping us abreast of the details of Brexit. Its profound ignorance of the detail, and the way it constantly seizes the wrong end of the stick with both hands, means that we must always look elsewhere for accurate information.

Ranking with the media in the unreliability stakes, however, are the politicians. The low-ranking drones tend merely to be ignorant but, as you go higher up the tree, the message tends to be complicated by self-delusion and deceit. This we have in spades with Steve Barclay who was in Brussels yesterday.

He emerged to tweet that he had been having discussions with Michel Barnier about "our serious and workable alternatives to the backstop", asserting that, "With political will on both sides, a deal is doable", later claiming that the two sides were approaching "the moment of truth".

In what could have been a response to this outcrop of delusion, the European Commission has issued a terse statement which had Michel Barnier stressing that it was "essential" that there was "a fully operational solution in the Withdrawal Agreement to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, protect the all-island economy and the integrity of the Single Market".

Adding detail that was hardly necessary, Ireland's Simon Coveney confirmed that the UK had yet to provide the EU Brexit task force with a "serious proposal" on alternatives to the backstop, adding that "significant gaps" remained between the two sides.

Coveney then declared that, "Until there is a serious proposal, which can be the basis of negotiations, then the gaps which are wide at the moment will remain". He added: "time is running out" and that "the onus is on the British prime minister and his team" to put "serious proposals on the table".

With that, it now transpires that Johnson is supposedly to hammer out a deal with the EU by 13 October. That is according to the ever-unreliable Telegraph which claims that the UK is expected to give its legally-workable proposals for a Brexit deal after the Conservative Party conference.

A UK government source is said to have told the Telegraph that: "After conference, you've got ten days to hammer out a deal. The summit is the time to push the controversial bits and get the agreement".

Still, it seems, they haven't got it. Barnier needs to be able to approve a provisional text which he must present to the General Affairs Council (Art 50) on 15 October, before it goes to the European Council on 17 October, which will then approve or reject any text presented to it. There will be no last-minute negotiations and no changes.

If the UK is relying on a timescale which ends on 13 October, it is leaving it perilously late, as the normal procedure would have a text circulated to Member States for comment before it goes to the General Affairs Council.

But then, a further indication that Johnson's team isn't on the same page comes with the response of a "UK government source" who says, "Brussels should be focused on getting a deal, not setting the ground for a political blame game".

This sense of detachment is further reinforced by an exchange of letters between Steve Barclay and Barnier, where the secretary of state asks the EU to cooperate in the event of a no-deal Brexit on improving "our mutual readiness" or putting in place "practical mitigations that work for both of us".

A dusty response from Barnier pointed out that the EU had already finalised its work as regards no-deal preparations, "as set out in the European Commission's six 'preparedness Communications' adopted between July 2018 and September 2019, as well as in the 100 'Brexit preparedness notices' published since May 2017". With a note of finality, Barnier then declared: "We will not enter into any negotiations with the United Kingdom on these matters".

In an equally unequivocal intervention, Commission president Juncker has told the Augsburger Allgemeine that the "Brits are to blame if there is no Brexit agreement".

He warns Johnson that the failure of the negotiations leading to an exit without agreement "would be a disaster for the United Kingdom and for the European continent", adding that negotiations on a free trade agreement with Britain after a Brexit "would be more complicated than in previous agreements". The last trade agreements concluded by the EU took many years, he said. "It's not clear why this could go faster with Britain".

It would not be untoward to suggest that these various strains represent a change of tone in the EU. Gone is the unremitting emollience, as a sharper note emerges. One might sense that the EU is no longer prepared to take prisoners.