Week in Review: A shambles to which the Brexiters have no answer

"Their press conference yesterday was tetchy in the extreme"
"Their press conference yesterday was tetchy in the extreme"
Ian Dunt By

In the end, the recriminations started sooner than even the most pessimistic observers had predicted. After just the third round of negotiation, with five of the 18 months of viable negotiating time used up, Michel Barnier and David Davis looked as if they were already at a stalemate.

Their press conference yesterday was tetchy in the extreme, with Barnier expressing his exasperation and Davis pretending desperately that things were better than they seemed. It was a very far cry from the Brexit secretary's prediction during the referendum that a (legally impossible) bilateral Anglo-German trade deal would exchange industrial access for "everything else".

It was an even further cry from his promise in the months after the referendum that Britain would currently be in the advanced stages of a deal opening up a trade area "massively larger than the EU".


Instead, the British government was unable to even discuss trade with the EU, because it could not satisfy them that it had made progress on the divorce payment. There is a good reason for that, which is that it still does not have a position on the divorce payment.

One of the only things Davis turned out to be right about was that the sequencing of talks would be the "row of the summer". He originally capitulated on this within an hour of starting negotiations, but has now belatedly decided to fight it. It has finally become exactly what he predicted, albeit with him neutralising his position on it in advance of opposing it.

The speed with which critics' concerns have been vindicated have surprised even them. Most Remainers expected more basic competency from the government, even after the shambles of the last year, but it has not been on offer. For an idea of why, you only have to look at the state of Brexit commentary on the talks. There has been no intellectual engagement with the issues and as a consequence there are no answers to how you would solve them.

In the wake of yesterday's press conference, Liam Fox accused the EU of trying to "blackmail" Britain. This is the standard vilification technique designed to make hard-headed assessments of self-interest look like cruelty. In fact, self-interest is the standard operating procedure of international relations, as any Brexiter should well know, given it is the only language they have used for the last year and a half.

Blackmail, on the other hand, is the standard accusation of the weaker partner, as Nick Macpherson, former head of the civil servant at the Treasury, pointed out.

Backbencher John Redwood insisted once again that the British government should pay no money at all.

This argument, which is made quite frequently by Brexiters, is morally, legally and politically unsound. Morally, it suggests that decisions reached on the basis of a set financial contribution from members place no behavioural demands on those members - a principle which goes against any fair assessment of what is required for trust or cooperation. Legally, it goes against a contract Britain signed off on. And politically, it creates animosity and resentment among the very people Britain needs to sign a trade deal with.

The panic in the Brexit ranks was best represented by a leader in the Spectator, which dredged up all the old Leave arguments as if they still held currency now they had been so visibly disproven. The Spectator is an excellent magazine which has maintained an admirable collection of opposing views on the issue, but the article served to show how little original thinking was taking place among even the highest intellectual levels of the Leave camp.

First, it tacitly accused Remainers of having insufficient loyalty to Britain, by attacking "the strange dynamic of British public debate" for repeating "EU spin" uncritically. Then it insisted there were "no practical obstacles" to a UK-EU trade deal, failing to recognise that the basis for regulatory equivalency is trust in the future maintenance of standards - a trust which, given Britain's current behaviour, one would have to be very foolish to maintain. Then it repeated the vilification of the Brussels team, insisting that "progress could already be well under way were it not for the obstructive approach being taken by Barnier", failing to realise that Barnier's negotiating mandate comes from the Council, which is made up of elected governments representing the other member states, and that he was merely following the sequencing rules which Britain had itself previously accepted. Then it insisted that "it is Europe which stands to suffer more if trade barriers are erected across the Channel", failing to realise that it at least has the regulatory infrastructure in place to avoid a cliff edge in the event of a no-deal outcome.

And then came the oldest, most foolish Brexit delusion of all - that the UK should prepare to walk away from the talks.

No-one who proposes this ever mentions how they plan to maintain flights from or to UK airports without an agreement on Open Skies, or transport nuclear materials without an agreement on Euratom, or get goods into and out of Britain without customs infrastructure in place on the Channel, or allow people to leave and enter the UK without an immigration system designed for them. The notion that the Europeans could be bluffed into capitulation by us threatening to blow our own face off would be laughable if it were not leading us so relentlessly towards the very real possibility that we might actually do it.

And yet this is the current state of thinking by those intent on forcing through this project. After the referendum, Brexiters enjoyed mocking Remainers about their 'stages of grief'. But just over a year later, it is the other way round. The dreams they told have dissolved in the daylight. They have gone through denial. They have gone through anger. When will they reach acceptance of reality? Until they do, Britain remains on a conveyor belt towards disaster.

Ian Dunt is the editor of Politics.co.uk. His book - Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now? - is available now.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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