How many times can we say "next week's emergency EU Brexit summit will be critical"? How many more times can we say "the events of the next few days should reveal much about the Brexit endgame"? If the past is any guide to the future, there is, quite possibly, a lot more of this to come.
The exhaustion evident on all sides is now an added risk: it’s not just the Brexiteer ultras that want this to stop. Plenty of voices, in Paris and Brussels in particular, now suggest that the European project risks great harm from a Brexit process that lingers seemingly without end.
With precious little evidence that UK politicians can ever coalesce around an agreed coherent exit strategy, all that the future holds is more of the same: missed deadlines, parliamentary pantomime and last-minute requests for more time.
It should come as no surprise that the talks between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have gone nowhere. The prime minister is a Remain voter trying to deliver Leave. The leader of the opposition detests all things European, and is in charge of a party whose official policy is to hold a second referendum. Room for manoeuvre is precisely nil. If either protagonist does compromise their respective party will implode.
It’s not impossible to imagine both parties splitting in the event of a Corbyn-May detente. That’s why it’s so difficult to see an agreement being achieved: there is no co-operative solution available to the participants in this particular game. A peculiar version of the prisoner’s dilemma.
It all flows form the underlying dynamic of Brexit: there is now no good outcome available to the British. Nasty consequences will flow from all options available to them. From hard Brexit (next Friday) to revocation of article 50, and all points in between, the second most important game in Westminster is avoiding the blame, dodging the inevitable fallout. (The most important is to win the race to become the next prime minister).
Whatever happens next, the British have entered a permanent state of negotiation with the EU.
All of the power
The opening terms of the no-deal talks have already been revealed by Brussels. They will be just like the terms set nearly three years ago. Money, citizens’ rights and the Irish Border will be first up, and nothing else will be discussed until these are dealt with.
On the other hand, should a deal be passed by the House of Commons, trade talks will begin immediately. The penny has dropped in some parts of Westminster that, just as with the last three years, all of the power in those negotiations will rest with the European side of the table.
The Swiss know what permanent negotiations with the EU feel like. Some very undiplomatic descriptive language is often used by the Swiss participants in the talks.
Switzerland is not a member of the European Economic Area (EEA) but does belong to the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). As such it is a non-EU participant in the single market but is not part of the customs union. That single market membership is important: to get it they must accept freedom of movement (and the other freedoms). They have had to negotiate over 200 trade agreements with the EU to get to where they are today – and talks are still ongoing.
The EU is often said to be unhappy with one or two things the Swiss have managed to painfully negotiate over many years. As a result, Brussels is continuously trying to wring concessions – and better behaviour – from them.
The point here, of course, is that the EU is very good – very experienced – in dealing with its neighbours. The UK has had a mere three years of what Switzerland has been going through for decades: one set of Swiss-EU negotiations began in 1994, resulted in 10 bilateral treaties, seven of which only came into effect in 2002. One of the other three, the decision to be part of the Schengen Area, took effect in 2008.
These things take time, and the EU is a patient, skilled and brutal negotiator. The only advice of the Swiss to the British about dealing with the EU on a bilateral basis is “don’t”.
While most normal people would heed this advice, we are all too aware that these are not normal times. With all of the focus on the will-they-or-won’t-they withdrawal agreement, not enough attention has focused on the longer term.
That state of permanent negotiation with the EU risks a further diminishing of the UK. It will consume precious political and civil service resources, many of which they are yet to acquire.
Permanent negotiation is now inevitable. How we get from here to there is less obvious. It is perfectly rational for the French, informed in part by de Gaulle’s doubts about the wisdom of letting the British enter in the first place, to ask for a plan. Everyone is sick and tired of the chaos. In such circumstances are poor decisions often made. Particularly when there are no good outcomes any more.