Foolish, costly and probably ruinous as Brexit will turn out to be, there are at least some points where the British side in the negotiations have the better of the argument (which is not the same as getting their way).
One is the need, urgently, to pick up the leisurely pace of the Brexit negotiations. Whoever’s fault it has been, more than a year after the EU referendum vote precisely nothing of substance has been settled. When the Brexit Secretary David Davis said over the weekend that the European Commission had downplayed the real achievements so far it was difficult to think of what he might be referring to. As Nick Clegg colourfully put it, it is as if Mr Davis and his team were surveying a messy building site but congratulating themselves because they’d managed to brew a pot of tea successfully.
The Irish border issue? Still no resolution. The “divorce bill”? If anything, the European end seems to be pushing its luck even harder – €100bn at the last count, while the British simply wave such figures away. The rights of EU and UK citizens? Probably some movement, because it is one of the less complex areas, and one where there is much goodwill, but, again, no concrete policy.
So, one week per month devoted to arguing these issues through is plainly not enough. For the sake of all concerned, the balance of time spent in this process has to move dramatically towards engagement. A monthly press conference were Mr Davis and the Chief EU Negotiator Michel Barnier politely abuse each other is not the answer to this crisis.
For once, at any rate, Mr David and the Prime Minister are right. The only pity is that even if the talks were run like some sort of 24/7 marathon diplomatic version of They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, it would not be possible to reconcile the irreconcilable – access to the single market without free movement of labour, for example. It would make some difference to the dynamic, true, because it would in effect reduce the EU’s advantage over the tight timetable; yet the fundamental imbalance in economic power still leaves the British in the position of supplicants. That is where they will remain.
In Britain, the chances of reversing Brexit seem to be receding, at least in the short term. Some of the most principled of pro-European Conservatives, such as the doughty Anna Soubry, have declared that they will vote for the so-called Great Repeal Bill and the other Brexit legislation.
Just as Article 50…