Peter Foster @pmdfoster Europe Editor of the Daily Telegraph. Formerly based in Washington DC, Beijing and New Delhi. Opinions my own. Sep. 13, 2018 5 min read

The Salzburg summit looms, Raab plays to home crowd over the #Brexit bill, everyone 'wants' a deal ...but yet no-one can explain what it will look like.

So what is happening with #Brexit? Some thoughts after chats with both sides. 1/Thread 

The first point is that the clock is ticking, but time is standing still.

Raab talks about "good progress" but actually talks are at a standstill. He bounces around looking all perky and boxerly, but there's isn't much to say. On the tough stuff anyway. /2

Barnier says divorce deal is "80%" done, and deal can be clinched in 6-8 weeks IF the Brits are "realistic".

Markets jump for joy, but they overlook that "IF" and what Barnier means by "realistic".

So what does he mean? /3

To Mr Barnier, realism is accepting that you cannot have an ‘invisible’ border in Ireland that protects the EU single market without checks somewhere - and those will need to be in Irish Sea. How could it be otherwise? /4

The British say it cannot be “realistic” to expect a sovereign country to leave a chunk of its territory in the customs territory of a foreign power. And they will never agree to that border in the Irish Sea. How, they ask, can it be otherwise?

So we are in a dialogue of the deaf. The EU complain the British "wont engage" with the backstop text - while the British say that's code for "wont accept".

Both sides think that the threat of "no deal" will make the other more "realistic" - meaning the opposite of each other/5

As a result the sessions have been tetchy. Thick with exasperation.

One recent meeting on goods regulations was particularly bad. Barnier thinks the UK is stalling, waiting for political intervention after Salzburg Summit next week. /7 

This is the real state of the negotiation; not the murmured warm words from EU diplomats in corridors who say they want to "do what we can" to stop Theresa May getting heave-ho at the Party Conference. /8

But these words of support are generalities; on the particulars the EU shows no sign of moving.

Not on single market for goods, the four freedoms and the backstop - there must be checks, and logically they will need to be in the Irish Sea, even if de-dramatised. /9

So here's the problem. The backstop can't be fudged - it can't re-state contradictions like December's Joint Report (see Paras 49 and 50) it must be "operational"; it has to work in the event of no deal breakdown in 2020. As one official admits, the backstop is "unspinnable"./10

And both sides struggle to understand or believe the other is serious.

The Brits say the "biggest risk" is EU thinking May is not serious about no Irish Sea customs border. She's said it over and over in public and private: “We keep saying it. Do they not have ears?” /11

They recall her first speech as PM in July 2016, before she was propped up by the DUP...her unionism is not skin deep /12 

And then the Brits calculate that the EU would surely not cause a 'no deal' by refusing an all-UK customs arrangement, that keeps the UK in an effective customs union. To keep the trucks moving, the carmakers happy etc. /13

And just like the Brits can't understand why the EU can't 'get it' on the "no customs border in the Irish Sea", the EU can't understand which part of "we'll defend the integrity of the Single Market" the Brits aren't hearing. /14

"Don't they have ears?" How many times has Barnier said it?

So to the EU the "biggest risk" is the UK stakes all it's political capital demanding something (cherry-picked Chequers, or a variant thereof) they cannot agree to. /15

These are febrile times for the EU establishment - populism in Italy particularly looms large.

Tough time to be asking for Brussels to create cracks in the walls of the single market. To build off-ramps that others might one day use. /16

So this is what Sir Ivan Rogers means when he talks about “sleepwalking, into a major crisis”. Not because both sides don’t want a deal (they do, desperately) but because they “misread each other’s real incentives and political constraints”./17

So what about a 'fudge' - May swallows the backstop but is given "clouds of adjectives" in the future relationship declaration to convince everyone it will never be used?

Promise of a trade deal, with "customs facilitations" and lots of "add-ons" - security etc /18

Would that get us over the line? It would be the "deepest ever partnership" - which means sod all, since no country ever left & the EU never did a deal with a former member state on its doorstep. /19

Is it possible all this talk of "ambition", of “facilitation” will enable everyone to close one eye, to squint and - in order to avoid a ‘no deal’ - to believe that such “facilitations” might solve the Irish border issue, in the fullness of time. At least not rule it out? /20

Except they already HAVE ruled it out. Mrs May's "other solutions" - the MaxFac, the dual tariff customs partnership - are dead. Unicorns, revealed to be fantasy and slaughtered by Mr Barnier's own hand. /21

The Brexiteers might just buy this fake promise. They can point to Mr Barnier’s promise of an FTA as the true ‘death of Chequers’ and their own belief that technology can work on the border, if the EU is willing to try. But is anyone fooling the Democratic Unionist Party? /22

Remarkably, the British say they want “clarity” in the Future Framework; they want legal linkage between the two documents to give it credibility.

But in the absence of their two preferred solutions, how much clarity can British politics really bear? /23

This is not to say a deal cannot be done; only that as Salzburg looms there are apparently large gaps in how both sides see it.

And large assumptions that the other side will become more "realistic" when the heat gets on in November. /24

But personally I get a little nervous when the fuel gauge is running this low and I still can't see a safe place to land.


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