The stalled Brexit negotiations are now serious. We used to assume that these matters would resolve into predictable compromises. There is a box of fudge under the table, a quid pro quo at the end of the road. Even in North Korea we sense that sanity will one day out.
It is hard to see a fudge over Brexit. The UK negotiator, David Davis, is clearly playing hardball, for the understandable reason that his opposite number, Michel Barnier, is doing likewise. Generations of EU deals have been done on the same basis: of more power to Brussels and more money with it. There is simply no route map for the reverse.
Cynics have long said that Barnier will settle anything, provided only that somehow Brussels does not lose a cut of some 10% of its income from the UK. Nothing matters to a bureaucracy so much as its pay. The Brussels establishment will concede transitions and frictionless borders and deals on migration and courts, if London will only come up with the money. Barnier’s team yesterday did some shroud-waving. It pleaded the “green aid” card, the environment card, the animal protection card. Britain’s trade minister, Liam Fox, is right to call it blackmail.
Barnier needs to come away in October with hard cash in his pocket. Right now that is Davis’s only real bargaining chip. His reluctance to talk money is risky, if only because the impending crash cannot be in the UK’s favour. Gates slamming shut in 2019 would be a nuisance for the EU, but chaotic for the UK. Davis is playing so tough that any eventual climb-down on the budget will mean a bigger shock to the hard Brexit lobby.
There is now an overwhelming consensus, not just among pundits but in public opinion, in favour of what is called soft Brexit. Davis must accept this. The EU and the UK both have a clear interest in the UK remaining de facto in a common European “space”. That has to be negotiable. Yes, the EU is being pig-headed in refusing even to discuss it, until it sees the colour of Britain’s money. Yes, the money may not be legally essential. But this is politics.
Bystanders can only watch as this one goes critical. Who will blink first? Of course Europe’s future should not be a game of chicken. Things should never have got to this pass. But they have. If this were a war we would be getting ready to fight. Mercifully it is not. Britain will, of course, muddle through this bizarre adventure into the unknown, but rarely has muddling seemed so impenetrable. Yes, at this stage the EU is blackmailing Britain. But Britain asked for it. Remember, sometimes blackmailers win.