By Steven Paterson former MP for Stirling
In the end, the EU Summit was a bit of a damp squib with no real progress on Brexit to note. And this is remarkable, now that it is over two years since the referendum and with a deal if there is to be one, requiring to be agreed by October in order to allow its ratification in EU member states.
It seems the gravity of what is at stake is lost by a public long since bored to tears by the glacial rate of progress on the technicalities and intricacies of this issue.
Yet Brexit has enormous ramifications for the economy and jobs in this country, and the UK’s fantastical position is to persist with the obvious pretence that everything will be alright on its own. This is taking complacency to a staggering and unbelievably irresponsible degree. Reports from EU countries like Ireland now indicate that preparations for a no deal Brexit are being stepped up by the EU27, who despair at a UK Government which simply cannot get its act together. It seems utterly incredible that facing the biggest constitutional change in decades, the government charged with delivering a Brexit deal cannot even participate in meaningful negotiations as yet because it has still not finalised its own position a full two years into the process.
So this week, we will witness the pathetic spectacle of the Prime Minister hosting yet another ‘away day’ for her Cabinet at Chequers as she tries one more time to beg her squabbling Cabinet to agree on a position on which to negotiate EU withdrawal. There is now very little road left to kick this particular can down, so yet another fudge of this issue isn’t going to be enough, and since the Prime Minister triggered Article 50 in March 2017, and made an agreement on transitional arrangements, deadlines on this process have been fixed which are now difficult to avoid. In simple terms, it’s show time.
On the other side of the negotiating table from the enfeebled Prime Minister in the EU27 team, impatience is giving way to incredulous exasperation that having triggered the article 50 EU withdrawal mechanism, the UK still cannot even articulate so much as a realistic starting position.
Is this an exaggeration? Not really. For a flavour, consider the comments of the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, at the conclusion of the summit. He said:
“There is a great deal of work ahead, and the most difficult tasks are still unresolved. If we want to reach a deal in October we need quick progress. This is the last call to lay the cards on the table”
The sense of frustration echoed the conclusions to the summit published on Friday morning after the Prime Minister had departed Brussels. Point 2 of the 4 conclusions on Brexit discussions was fairly blunt about the major sticking point:
2. The European Council expresses its concern that no substantial progress has yet been achieved on agreeing on a backstop solution for Ireland/Northern Ireland. It recalls the commitments undertaken by the UK in this respect in December 2017 and March 2018, and insists on the need for intensified efforts so that the Withdrawal Agreement, including its provisions on transition, can be concluded as soon as possible in order to come into effect on the date of withdrawal. It recalls that negotiations can only progress as long as all commitments undertaken so far are respected in full.
The EU has already rejected the fanciful idea that the conundrum of the post-Brexit Irish border can somehow be solved through smart technology, although this doesn’t seem to stop the notion being touted as a goer again and again in the UK media. Therefore, it remains impossible to see how Northern Ireland’s border with the Irish Republic can be a soft border as presently if neither Northern Ireland nor the entire UK remains in the customs union.
And if a solution cannot be found, the prospects of a ‘no deal Brexit’ – identified by the UK Government’s own leaked analysis as the most economically damaging scenario of all – will be all the greater. No doubt this will enrapture the extreme hard Brexit brigade on the Tory backbenches, which of course includes Stirling’s current Tory MP, but this dire outcome would devastate our economy and cost thousands of jobs.
The Tory Government has brought us to the extreme hard Brexit cliff edge with no plan and no room to manoeuvre but lumbers on regardless. They’re going to find that this long hot summer is followed swiftly by a bitterly cold winter of discontent.