Theatre of the absurd in ritual dance between EU and British press
Lack of progress in Brexit talks turns press briefings into a farce
Brexit secretary David Davis with Michel Barnier, chief negotiator for the EU. Bereft of developments, creative colleagues in the British press have latched on to supposedly significant “angles”. Photograph: Bloomberg
The news machine, like nature, abhors a vacuum. In the absence of serious news, trivia, old news and rumour acquire status and currency they could never normally dream of – we have a name for it in the summer, “the silly season”.
The trouble is that dross also drives out hard news, or overwhelms or drowns it, as insatiable editors demand that every twist and turn in the Brexit story, however minor, gets a full airing.
The weeks in between Brexit negotiating rounds – we are coming to the end of the fifth round – are a case in point. Bereft of developments in the negotiations or in the postures of either side, my creative colleagues in the British press corps this week latched on to three or four supposedly significant “angles” at the daily European Commission press briefing that would provide endless copy.
Theresa May lobbed in the first easy bouncer with her Monday announcement – as meaningless as “no deal is better than a bad deal” – that the negotiating ball is now “back in the EU court”. Advantage May.
Not so, asserted Margaritas Schinas, the usually Brexit-shy spokesman for the commission, it is definitely now in the British court. Deuce.
And what about Brexit secretary David Davis’s non-attendance on Monday? Was the commission worried about the effect his absence would have on the talks?
As it happened Davis was sitting on the front bench in the Commons beside May for her Brexit speech as she told MPs that UK officialdom was also preparing for a “no deal”. Davis would be in Brussels on Tuesday for lunch with chief negotiator Michel Barnier.
Fatally bogged down
Or the fact that the negotiators would not even be meeting on Wednesday. Was that a sign that the talks were fatally bogged down or had insufficient matter to discuss?
Not at all, an increasingly weary Schinas insisted. The commission teams were “available 24/7”, he said, clearly implying that it was the UK which had downed pens.
Not so, a very defensive UK spokesman for the department for exiting the EU retorted, breaking his silence with the momentous: “The talks this week were a mutually agreed programme designed to give both sides the best chance to make progress.We have always been clear that we are ready to negotiate at any time.”
And, in fact, there were to be what they called “technical talks” on Wednesday. More column inches. More trees pulped.
The standard Monday fare at this ritual dance that is the commission briefing is the demand that Schinas respond to the latest Sunday newspaper fulmination by a British minister, often Boris. And his standard, endlessly repeated, reply is that “the commission does not respond to comment pieces or engage in domestic politics”. All Brexit-related questions should be saved, he pleads, for Barnier’s Thursday press conference.
But, to little avail. Within seconds the indomitable and arch-sceptic “Daily Telegraph” is back with another variation on the same theme. To elicit the same reply.
We’ve had weeks of this theatre of the absurd, interrupted just occasionally by real stories. But to add to the fun our Spanish/Catalan colleagues have joined in daily with their own version of this dialogue of the deaf and repeat time and again perfectly valid questions in multiple guises.
What does the commission think of Catalonian independence and of the vote? Will it recognise an independent Catalonia? What does it think of police brutality? Has commission president Jean Claude Juncker spoken to prime minister Mariano Rajoy? What did he say? Why will it not offer to negotiate or broker a deal?
And each day, solemnly, Schinas or his deputy have intoned the same reply, in the same words, ad nauseam: that they will not elaborate on the commission position, that the vote was illegal, that they will not engage in domestic debates, that violence is no way to resolve issues (whose violence is not specified), and that everyone should just talk.
Above all, no suggestion that the commission might even have the slightest criticism of Madrid.
As for the Brexit talks, I can confidently predict that on Thursday we will be told that there continues to be progress on the detail of the three “divorce” issues, but that there is overall insufficient progress to move to phase-two discussions on the future relationship.
What the British press will make of it I can’t imagine.