National Suicide: A Brexit Catch-Up

A quick primer on everything that's been going on with the worst thing to happen to Britain this century.
September 15, 2017, 11:51am
President of the EU Commission Jean-Claude Junker (Suzanne Plunkett/PA Wire/PA Images)

The story so far: plucky West European dimwits Britain have declared their independence from the evil European Union, run by the poison dwarf, Jean-Claude Juncker, and the baddie from The Goonies, Angela Merkel.

But things haven't been going to plan…

As we stagger, suddenly awake, into the chill winds of autumn, tears rolling silently down our cheeks every time we see a picture of a beach on a pack of Vita Coco, it's time to start catching up on Brexit. The muesli of news: it may not be nice or easy, but it is indefinably good for you.

So what's changed?

Not much.

Talks are about where most observers were predicting they'd be by now. Which is to say: pretty much nowhere. The five-minutes-to-midnight principle of negotiation still holds – a deal can't be reached until everyone is panicking about a deal and then arrives at the raw hypnotic terror that lies at the other side of that panic.

The tedium is made more tedious by the fact that this is only part one: The Divorce. The Re-Marriage is yet to come – the trade negotiations that have been the media's focus. Like any good divorce, the negotiations are chiefly about money: how much should Britain pay for the things it has already signed up to?

Back in June, the UK caved to Brussels' demand to hold the divorce side of the negotiations first. Depending on how this goes, trade talks will only start a good six months from now. Tick tick tick.

As the summer has progressed, David Davis has been clocking in, and waiting – taking his single ballpoint pen out of his satchel, then packing it back up at the end of every day, while nothing much happens.

The EU would like Britain to pay €50 billion in funds for various projects it already committed to when it was a member. Britain doesn't recognise that sum, claiming the amount to be closer to €20 billion. The truth: both sides are right – the EU are high-balling, but when it comes to complex commitments to open-ended infrastructure spending, putting a number on it is pretty subjective.

As they stare down a potential funding black hole as the second-biggest net contributor departs, EU chiefs are determined to grab all the financial cushion they can out of the divorce.

In the absence of real negotiation, psyops have taken over.

At the start of this month, Michel Barnier, the EU's chief negotiator, got personal, putting it about through unofficial channels that they were worried about David Davis' performance – suggesting he was flaky, dim and ill-prepared. He told him to his face: the minutes of one fraught negotiating session reveal that Barnier "expressed concern about the stability and accountability of the UK negotiator, and his apparent lack of involvement".

For his part, Davis called Barnier's theatrics "silly": "They've set this up to try and create pressure on us on money. That's what this is about – they're trying to play time against money."

Northern Ireland is the only other big issue already in play. There, progress has been just as abstract. Both sides are committed in theory to the idea of a frictionless border – the UK's position paper states that there will be "no physical infrastructure" at a future EU-UK land border. The EU's is even more vague: "flexible and imaginative solutions will be required, including with the aim of avoiding a hard border" (thanks, guys!).

The problem is that the EU don't want to talk about customs arrangements in Ulster because they think the UK are using this as a trojan horse to start hammering out EU-wide customs arrangements (which would probably look quite similar – frictionless entry and exit of goods, driven by technology, underpinned by an airport-customs style random search threat). Which is exactly what the UK would love to do.

While very little gets done, mouths are being shot off all over, as epitomised by an extraordinary intervention by EU Commission boss Jean-Claude Juncker.

In a speech to the European Parliament last week, he claimed Britain will "soon regret" Brexit, insisted that, after ten years of anaemic growth, "the wind is back in Europe's sails", and with the federalising leg-irons of the UK cast off, now is the time to go full-bore towards the deeply federal EU he craves.

Juncker admitted he wants to get all of the Eastern European states onto the Euro, to continue EU expansion into the Balkans, and he nodded again to his dream of an EU army. He then went on to try to eat Britain's lunch, claiming the EU would try to gain a free trade deal with Australia and New Zealand "within two years". Exactly the deal Britain was hoping to make.

That race is driven as much by mutual fear. The doomsday of "no deal" is being talked up by both sides – one as a threat, the other as a way of defusing the same threat. But with consensus in British politics over the need for "transitional arrangements", the threat seems dulled at least.

Within the Cabinet, a summertime rebellion by Remainers has been quelled. Phil Hammond's attempts to bust out of the official "no customs union, no single market" were crushed in the end. He has, however, become the unofficial flag-bearer for "transitional arrangements".

Transitions or no, there is a point when dusty ring-binders of negotiation start to meet actual physical stuff that needs to be built in advance of March, 2019. Lorry parks will have to be constructed outside of British ports to serve all of these customs checks, for instance. We know this. But that work hasn't been started yet – because until a deal takes shape, no one knows how large they will have to be. Ditto all the bureaucracy of registering EU nationals for future visa controls.

For his part, Jeremy Corbyn and his shadow cabinet colleagues have kept Kremlinologists entertained with 26 different shades of position on the customs union, single market and migration. He's become a trendy creche teacher letting his kids paint whatever's in their ickle hearts.

Last week, a big speech at the TUC by Corbyn was designed to sort of the muddle; headlined by a bold new pledge to "seek full access to the single market" – a decent weasel-phrase that still means being outside of the single market while expressing a misty-eyed sympathy with the single market.

He also reaffirmed commitment to immigration controls, a fact that, if Angela Merkel's view is important (which it very much is), means ending up nowhere near the single market, with its indivisible "four freedoms" of the movement of goods, services, capital and – crucially – people.

Still, nothing moves. In an apparent attempt to break the deadlock, Theresa May goes to Florence next Friday to give a speech, trailed as "important". So important that Florence has been deliberately chosen as a backdrop because of its Renaissance connotations.

But it's difficult to know what a PM with diminished authority and no majority could say that could be as important as the now out-of-control hype suggests. She's nuking Cologne? She's mad as hell and not going to take it any more?

Talks resume on 25th September.