Thursday, 31 August 2017

Brexit: last chance saloon

If Brexit has taught me one thing it is that one can dislike a person and everything they stand for and still find cause to agree with them. Today we see Stephen Kinnock picking up on the possibilities of the EEA. Meanwhile I am finding myself ever more tolerant of Chuka Umunna and Keir Starmer. Compared with the Tories, there is the makings of a semi-competent Brexit cabinet there. What I did not expect, though, was to find myself in full agreement with Guy Verhofstadt writing in the Telegraph. Says Verhofstad;
UK ministers seem to want to devise a new customs union and seek to recreate all of the EU’s structures, in order to continue to benefit from the best elements of the EU, without it being called the EU. This is not serious, fair or even possible given the negotiating time remaining – now significantly limited by the UK’s own decision to call a general election after the triggering of Article 50. The UK has informed us it is leaving, which we regret – but all we have ever asked for is that this disruptive decision is implemented in an orderly fashion and that we first agree to the divorce before planning a new future together.

The EU can be bureaucratic but, from day one, the EU-27, the European Commission and the Parliament have been fully transparent about their negotiating positions and mandates. It is as if we are now told we are too efficient. It is in the interests of the EU for us to secure a close relationship, but we must first agree a methodology for the settling of accounts, secure the rights of EU citizens in the UK, and have a frank discussion about the Irish border. This is not a ploy to derail talks, but an inevitable consequence of the Brexit decision. It’s time for UK politicians to be more honest about the complexities Brexit creates and for them to recognise that other governments also have obligations to their own taxpayers.

The discussion papers rolled out by the UK over the summer are helpful and welcome, but only a more serious engagement with the financial consequences of Brexit and the other divorce issues will unlock discussions about the future relationship, which I hope will be a close one. Given the current pace of talks there is a real danger that sufficient progress will not be made by October. It would be a very risky strategy to burn negotiating time now in the hope that individual EU leaders will ride to the rescue; it was EU governments who defined Michel Barnier’s negotiating mandate.
As the costs of Brexit become clearer, I have no doubt the hardliners who promised the British people utopia will once again seek to blame Brussels for a lack of progress in the talks. But is a further poisoning of the atmosphere really in Britain’s interest? Our continued relationship is too important for our citizens and our firms to be jeopardised by dramatic political gestures. A divorce is never easy, but a strong future partnership is in the best interest of us all.
Foaming europhile and federalist though Verhofstad may be, there is nothing especially controversial written here. It is the consistent message we have heard from the EU from the beginning. The one message that is not getting through to our government. David Davis seems singularly incapable of recognising that no new relationship can be contemplated without addressing the administrative matters to hand. Verhofstad's closing remarks differ little from my own observations.

There is, however, a question of sincerity hanging over David Davis. Though incompetence cannot be ruled out, this could just as easily be the Brexiteers giving the EU the runaround to give the outward appearance that a serious negotiation is under way, all the while the right wing press build on the narrative that the EU is refusing to cooperate. Looking at the Brexiter sentiment in the Telegraph comments and on Twitter, as a strategy, it appears to be working. Davis does not need to fool you or I. He only has to convince the Brexit faithful that no deal is possible so as to justify walking away.

I sense we're on the cusp. The next few weeks will be decisive. Either the UK will decide to change tack and take a more emollient line at the next negotiating session, and we start to make progress, or we will go under. As things stand we are in the last chance saloon, and still haven't even decided whether to order any drinks. We need greater events to take a hand - something that precipitates the collapse of the May government. Short of that, we are royally screwed. 

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