Wednesday, 13 February 2019

No cause for optimism

So yesterday there was a big kerfuffle over something that Olly Robbins had supposedly said. Something along the lines that the deal would have to go back to parliament unchanged or we will need to extend Article 50 talks. This leaked "secret" (known only to the entire universe) was lead item on Radio 4 news this morning.

This came only a day after Michel Barnier, filmed leaving the UK ambassador’s residence after dinner with Steve Barclay, yet again telling us ”We aren’t going to reopen the withdrawal agreement”. Which is not news as pointed out at the time. Bizarrely though, it's taken The Guardian two days to catch up.
The British government is “pretending to negotiate” with the European Union and has not presented any new proposals to break the Brexit deadlock, according to EU officials. Theresa May’s de-facto deputy, David Lidington, and the Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, met senior EU officials and MEPs in Brussels and Strasbourg this week, but the talks yielded no obvious results. The British side thinks a crucial process has begun and hopes progress will have been made by 27 February when MPs are expected to have another crunch Brexit vote.
However, the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has said the talks do not even qualify as negotiations. In a call on Tuesday morning with Guy Verhofstadt, chief Brexit representative for the European parliament, Barnier said there were “no negotiations” with the British. “These are courtesy calls at best and we have nothing new to say,” Barnier was reported to have said, by a source familiar with the conversation.
If the Guardian has it right this drives a horse and cart through speculation from the Sun's Nick Gutteridge. What I can't work out, though, is whether the UK government are stupid enough to believe they are actually negotiating, or believe that we are stupid enough to believe that they are negotiating. 

If it's the latter, it is certainly is working if Twitter is anything to go by. Television media needs there to be high drama in order for any of this to be newsworthy so they will go along with the pretence, entrenching themselves deeper in their own alternate universe. Typically, anything said by the Brussels side does not register with British media and even though Twitterers see the primary source material before it even hits the television, they still bizarrely retail the TV media narrative. 

Whether or not Brussels will cooperate with a last minute piece of Phantom Veto theatre to help the deal get past parliament remains to be seen but this does look very much like an exercise in running down the clock and Robbins is smack on the money. 

Whether it will get through Parliament is another matter. Parliament lost the plot a while ago. There is a remote possibility that some Labour MPs support the deal, sufficient to make up for the Tories who oppose it, with some Tories coming back into the fold. But it's a gamble, where she will go into the vote with no certainty as to the outcome. Some parliamentarians may not take kindly to being railroaded into a last minute ultimatum.

The only certainty here is that the EU is not going to back down on the backstop. There is no chance of the UK producing anything that would tempt them to reopen the agreement, not least because even if there were alternate arrangements, there is nothing that comes to mind that would be functionally preferable and certainly nothing that doesn't add a tier of complexity and red tape for Irish businesses. I don't even see Brussels seeking to firm up the review mechanism.

One way or another it's all down to what parliament now decides to do. There is still scope for them to invent a new and interesting way of misunderstanding the process, but certainly nothing that we might consider useful or productive. If they haven't got to grips with reality by now then they are never going to - which puts us odds on for no deal. There is no cause for optimism. 

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