Tuesday, 17 September 2019

The sound of pennies dropping

Though the Guardian is more famous for its madcap social justice editorials and its wonderfully out of touch middle class forelock tugging, as far as Brexit coverage goes, it's the last remotely credible news outlet. There isn't much to add to this latest piece in respect of events in Luxembourg yesterday.
Johnson has talked, repeatedly, of “real signs of movement” in Berlin, Paris and Dublin on getting rid of the backstop, the perennial obstacle to a Brexit agreement. “A huge amount of progress is being made” in the negotiations, he insists.
For EU officials, the regular meetings with Johnson’s special envoy do not even qualify as “negotiations”. There are grave doubts, after his suspension of parliament and failure to advance any concrete proposals, that the prime minister wants a deal at all – and, should one be achieved, that he could get it through parliament.
Ideas for an all-Ireland regulatory regime for food and agriculture, which No 10 thinks would go a long way to replacing the backstop, fall far short of the requirement to protect EU markets from dangerous goods, fraud or unfair competition.
And as Bettel’s exasperation made clear, officials in Brussels, and leaders in national capitals, are running out of patience. Hopes that Britain might eventually give Brexit up as a bad job and remain in the EU are giving way to prayers that it won’t.
Many now dread the prospect, remote as it may seem, of a second referendum. “Why on earth would you want a country so bitterly and hopelessly divided to stay?” asked one diplomat. “The wounds are going to last generations. How damaging would that be to Europe? Come back, maybe – but leave and sort things out first.” 
The EU27 members do not trust Johnson, but many have little confidence in Jeremy Corbyn or in the quarrelsome tribes of remainers either. Certainly, they would rather have a deal: no one wants the chaos and economic pain of no deal, or to be seen to be giving Britain a helping hand over the cliff.
But that deal clearly cannot come at any cost. Twenty-six member states will, first, never abandon Ireland when it insists on the need for an operable backstop because, despite the clout of Germany and France, the EU remains a club of small countries, most with populations smaller than 10 million. 
Equally important, the European priority remains – as it has since June 2016 – the integrity of the EU single market. EU businesses are lobbying their governments, but not in order to persuade them to offer the UK a favourable deal so that sales of BMW cars and prosecco are not hit too hard. 
No, European businesses want their governments to avoid any risk of British companies retaining privileged access to the single market while undercutting them by disobeying its rules: a weakened single market is a far more damaging prospect than even a no-deal Brexit. 
For all those reasons, the EU would, on the whole, prefer Britain to leave now, if possible quite soon. And as Bettel’s irritation showed, it is fast tiring of a psychodrama that is costing it time, money and anxiety, and that is none of its making.
With the Tory press buying the notion that we are "edging closer toward a deal" the Guardian is right to point out that no such negotiations are underway. The situation has not changed. The EU has always said ti will consider legally operable alternatives to the backstop but at no time has the UK submitted anything to meet that criteria.

There is, though, good reason for that. There isn't a viable alternative to the backstop and Number Ten knows it. The backstop represents the bare minimum required for the EU to relax its frontier controls. Though conceivably there are ways of cracking the nut through a mixture of instruments, nothing presents itself as immediately operable and not without cumbersome bureaucracy and complex overlapping systems that would not be ready to deploy in time. Certainly the UK is unable to present a more practical solution.

But the main thrust here is that the EU has all but run out of patience. Brexit is absorbing more of their runtime than they would prefer, proving to be a major and unwelcome distraction to which there is no satisfactory outcome on the horizon. As much as they do not welcome Brexit, they're now doing the thinking that the ultra-remain Lib Dems have not in asking whether the UK could any longer be a viable member of the EU. There is no way the EU agenda can progress when the UK is in a state of perpetual deadlock of the issue. Calling off Article 50 does not make Brexit go away.

The BBC report on events, though, is telling when it remarks that "it's important to remember that Mr Juncker and European Commission negotiators don't have the legal power to change the Brexit deal, even if they wanted to. That power lies with the EU national leaders".

Were we charitable we could say that the Guardian is dumbing it down for the benefit of their readers, but the power lies with the European Council, an institution of the EU. There is an essential failure to understand the nature of the EU. They think of the European Council as a "summit" of Member State leaders. They do not understand that it is a formal institution of the EU, subject to its laws and bound by its objectives.

If there has been one constant throughout Brexit it is a deep rooted failure to understand the functioning of it on the British side. It starts with our media extending all the way into the executive. We saw this with repeated attempts by Theresa May to subvert the already agreed sequencing of talks - particularly with her Florence proposal, believing the EU capable of abandoning its process and procedure.

This flaw seems to be presenting in Boris Johnson who is seemingly operating under the illusion that the EU can throw process under the bus to conclude a deal a the last minute - believing no deal to be a credible instrument of leverage. With that assumption baked in there is no possibility of successfully concluding the Article 50 process. "German carmakers" are not clamouring for a deal and will not ride to the rescue. 

This has been a conceptual misapprehension throughout starting from the man in the street going all the way up to the prime minister. The British political mind simply does not grasp what we are dealing with. The EU is not a nation state capable of agreeing an outcome and instructing its civil service to implement it. The EU fundamentally is an operating system of rules and processes where compromising that system of rules raises an existential question. For that reason it will place the principle before the commercial pragmatism that Britain expects of it.

It is perhaps that one fundamental clash of approaches that alone makes British membership of the EU untenable. As "part time Europeans", not at all on board with the underlying destination of the project, we have hit a roadblock where neither the UK nor the EU can progress until there is a final resolution to it.

The only remaining question is how we get there. It would seem that with a PM who doesn't have the first clue what he is doing, and an opposition incapable of arriving at a coherent direction, promising to be equally problematic should we remain, the penny has dropped that Britain is not psychologically equipped to be an EU member. The blame for this mess, therefore, is not those who conspired to get us out. Rather it rests with those who attempted to push the British square peg through the EU round hole. 

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