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This is not the European Council you’re looking for

So next Thursday is the crunch day for the Brexit negotiations, apparently. To listen to much of the media and many government ministers, Boris Johnson will roll up to Brussels to bang heads together and get a deal over the line.

Unless, of course, he decides not to go at all.

To say that the line to take has been inconsistent would be a mild formulation: even by the standards of recent weeks the willingness and ability of Number 10 to spin a narrative on the European Council has been weak.

Firstly, let’s note the extent to which last week’s proposals (‘fair and reasonable’ let’s not forget) failed to build anything more than a minimal toe-hold for Downing Street, and then mainly because they weren’t as bad as had been feared.

Yes, there was not an out-of-hand rejection, but the inability/incapacity to respond to the queries posed by the EU – the customs arrangements, the role of Stormont, the contingency should talks not succeed – points to the absence of a position in-depth on the UK side.

Yes, too, the EU is in a difficult position of potentially rejecting a bad deal for one that means no-deal at all (indeed, that seems to have been part of the calculation by Johnson: expediency over principles).

And yes, yet again, that the lack of potential movement means that the EU27 might have to make a decision about extending Article 50 with one fewer fig-leaves for a formal justification: no real negotiations means there’s only UK-centric activity (a general election or a referendum) on the list, and neither of those is for the EU to press for (certainly not officially).

But the history of Brexit is one of things not being even close to optimal.

Seen in the round, the EU will consider that there’s little incentive to move, given the likelihood of a general election, especially one where the Conservatives might take a hit in the polls if there is an extension.

And that’s even before we get to the continual placing principle over expediency in the process. The EU has not got much more than its rules, so it has to live by them in a way that the UK does not. Hence the inflexibility over customs checks, free movement and the rest.

But this message is one that never seems to have sunk in among British politicians.

I’ve just finished reading David Cameron’s memoirs – I’ll write more about that one day – and I was struck by the lack of appreciation of the logic of the EU’s operation, which could have served his agenda much more than it did.

And Johnson seems to be more of the same.

The European Council will not be the site of a negotiation, an all-nighter with the promise of a hot meal to try and rally everyone to get together on a compromise text, maybe a cheeky trip to Place Jourdan for chips (with patriotic ketchup) at 3am.

All the Brexit European Councils to date have been simply reporting points, noting (non-)progress on technical negotiations between the UK government and the Commission. When decisions have been needed, the UK has been out of the room: the only time that’s taken any time has been when discussing extensions, and Number 10 has been clear it’ll not do the asking until it has to (and maybe not even then).

The technical detail of the original Withdrawal Agreement was largely beyond Heads of State and Government; so too, any discussion of the UK proposals. So where’s the likelihood of hours of arguing the toss about commas?

As ever, I think Johnson and his team know this – hence the non-attendance threat/promise – but perhaps the rest of us also need to get on-board with the high chance that we’ll get to Friday morning with little more than another communiqué expressing regret and hopes.


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