Brexit: Brussels just got serious

Not many people saw that coming. We all expected Brussels to be saying nice things about the Chequers proposals until after the Tory party conference at least.

They did not do that. Instead, they took Chequers down a back alley and kicked its head in. European Council president Donald Tusk said it "will not work" and even held off confirming a special summit in November if Theresa May hadn't sorted the Irish backstop solution by October - something she has said she cannot do.

French president Emmanuel Macron was particularly undiplomatic. "Those who explain that we can easily live without Europe, that everything is going to be all right, and that it's going to bring a lot of money home are liars,” he said.

The only support May seemed to have was from Hungary and Poland, the two right-wing authoritarian governments in Europe, both of whom are under disciplinary proceedings for failing to live up to European values. It is assistance she could probably do without.

In a sense none of this is surprising. Everyone knew Chequers was nonsense, a piece of blithering technical mythmaking intended to solve political problems rather than practical ones.

In reality, once you took off its make-up, it was May's attempt to pretend that she would be able to pass the Irish backstop without strapping the whole UK economy to Europe.

These were the dominoes she'd lined up: signing the Irish backstop means you guarantee there are no checks on the Irish border. The only way to guarantee that is to have Northern Ireland sit in the regulatory system as the rest of Europe. But if you did that, you'd need to have checks in the Irish Sea, which the DUP could not accept. So Chequers was designed to bring the whole of the UK into the same regulatory system as the EU for goods.

It went as far as it needed to fix the Irish problem. After all, it's only goods -actual physical things - that need to be checked on a border. Services are checked where they are delivered, for instance by checking the qualifications of the architect you want to hire.

But there was a problem. As the Europeans said over and over again - they must have literally done so at least once a day for the last two years - you cannot divide the single market. If you're in it for goods, you need to be in it for services.

May wanted to pretend this was not true. She dressed it up in terms of compromise and all the rest, but ultimate the myth was that you could separate the single market. Why? Because she knew she could not get full regulatory alignment of goods and services past her party. And she was right. The goods alignment alone made them wet themselves.

Brussels would sporadically say this out loud and then at other times, it would welcome the proposals as the basis for future discussions, which was really a euphemism for a staging post towards Britain eventually doing what they told it to do.

That's where the unspoken and unholy informal alliance between Brexiters and Brussels came into play. This was the slippery reality of the negotiation.

Chequers or Norway or Canada or whatever other models you have only need to be discussed after Brexit Day. It is part of the 'future relationship' agreement, which isn't even a legal text. It is completely distinct from the withdrawal agreement, which is like a big stone tablet of doom: a proper legal text containing the Irish backstop, citizen's rights, the budget payment and the rest.

Most Brexit observers, therefore, presumed the future relationship document would be an abject fudge, gleefully conspired by all sides.

That's because it was in everyone's interest. The Brexiters wanted to at least secure Brexit, just get the bloody thing done, and have the real fight over future regulatory alignment from outside the EU. Europe just wanted a deal, because the chaos of no-deal would be intolerable to any sane person. Putting off the reality of Chequers' impossibility seemed the best way to do that, especially given May seemed so isolated and vulnerable at home.

The expectation was that May would capitulate on Ireland, albeit with a form of words which allowed her to try and sell it back home, fudge the future relationship stuff, get Brexit done, and then the fight would start again on the other side of March.

But today's events suggest something has changed. You could see by May's expressions, which were even more strained than normal, that she had been taken by surprise. Things had fallen apart.

In reality, nothing has changed - Chequers was never going to happen this morning and tonight it remains something that is never going to happen - but it is extremely significant that Brussels has changed its attitude.

Perhaps they grew tired of Britain presenting Chequers as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. After all, May's shock suggests she might have really believed it would fly. We must pray that is not the case because it would suggest that she is so detached from reality that she cannot functionally perform the role of prime minister.

Perhaps they have decided that they will not fudge the future relationship before March. Doing so might strap them into years of wrangling over regulatory alignment with a country which is now very volatile and internally chaotic. 

Perhaps they thought that it was strategically sensible to attack May just before her party conference, although it is not clear why they would come to that conclusion. Or maybe it was just one of those moments of unscripted emotional dominos, with events swinging one way or another due to perceived idiocies or acts of disrespect. It's not clear.

What is clear is that a deal just got a lot less likely. The government needs fuzz, not clarity. Clarity is death. The deal will be hard to secure if a detailed version of the future relationship is considered a requirement. But it will be easier to secure if everything is blurred and fuzzy. Today's summit went from an old TV with a coat-hanger for an antenna to full-on 4K widescreen. That's bad.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk and the author of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

Cable's analysis is spot-on, but the Lib Dems need a jolt of energy

You couldn't get a greater difference between content and delivery. Vince Cable's speech to Liberal Democrat conference painted a picture of a world in peril, where Brexit was set to inflict terrible damage on British society and the two main parties had morphed into "intolerant cults" where "those who question the faith are unwelcome".

It was urgent, despairing, and almost completely true. But the man delivering it looked like he was moments from sleep.

Cable is a decent, humane man. He's made errors, of course, the most damaging being the decision to back the Tories on tuition fees, which shattered a generation's trust in mainstream progressive political leaders and helped create the frenzied support for Jeremy Corbyn which now horrifies him. But he also made the right choices on several occasions.

A fair account of Coalition would include the fact that he and his colleagues fought off some deranged Conservative plans on immigration and the economy. It would make the case that damage limitation in imperfect circumstances can often be an honourable endeavour, even if it is a thankless one. But this is not a period in which fair assessments get much traction. Everyone is now a devil or an angel, and for many Cable will always be a compromised figure.

Certainly, it was a bad idea to make him the leader. He is too closely associated to the Coalition. It's no problem for someone of his age to be in the role, but they need to look like they have fight left in them and he simply doesn't. He is presumably as aghast as he says he is at the turn our politics has taken, but you don't really see the rage or indignation in the way he conducts himself.

Instead, you get the sense that he is gearing up for his last political fight, which is to open up the leadership elections for Lib Dem leader to non-MPs. It is, in effect, a self-denying ordinance. It would undermine the system which meant that he was the only viable option available during the last leadership contest. Pursuing this, therefore, takes a large degree of humility and self-awareness, of the sort one can't ever imagine Theresa May or Corbyn possessing.

It should happen fast. The Lib Dems need urgency and dynamism and they need them quickly. The daily humiliation of watching commentators talk about a new centrist party while they sit there in the corner of the room waiting for people to notice that they already exist must be hard to bear. But they can never be that party until they have a fresh face at the top. And it is possible that the brand damage from Coalition is so severe that even that might not be enough.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk and the author of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

Week in Review: Tories buckle to fascism in Europe

This week, Conservative MEPs in the European parliament defended Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban from a legal challenge by Brussels. It is a historically bleak moment in the life of the party.

Orban is a fascist. He used a group of loyalist oligarchs to buy out independent newspapers. He channelled all state advertising, including that of state-owned companies, into pro-government outlets in order to starve to death those he couldn't purchase outright. He bribed or blackmailed investigative journalists into silence. He undermined the judiciary. He launched a war against independent NGOs. He promoted an ethno-nationalist mentality, particularly among people of Hungarian descent in neighbouring states, like Ukraine, Romania and Slovakia. He changed the school curriculum to reintroduce fascist writers from the interwar period. He erected a statue in Budapest absolving Hungary of its role in deporting half a million Jews to their death during the Holocaust. He launched a sustained and virulent anti-semitic campaign against Jewish financier George Soros through a network of state-controlled media outlets. He used intimidation and opaque financing to win elections. He made it a crime to help migrants.

Whether he is genuinely a fascist in private or simply uses the trappings as an electoral strategy is unclear. The difference is academic but the end result is the same. He is part of a network of strongmen, some of them plainly fascist, like Matteo Salvini in Italy, some of them so brazenly idiotic that to even credit them with ideology is to praise their intellectual ability more than they deserve, like Donald Trump in the United States.

This is the anti-fascist struggle of our generation, the battle against that old idea that you must show absolute loyalty to the nation, to the great leader, and watch the institutions that hold them to account - the media, the judiciary, the NGOs - be dismantled, that you must treat people from outside your culture as simultaneously inferior and yet also an existential threat to your way of life, that you must give over to the group, to the tribe, and stop thinking for yourself or challenging authority. They all have different theme music, but they operate to the same tempo.

Brussels, which has been paralysed by indecision in the wake of this movement, is starting to face up to the threat. This week they triggered Article 7 proceedings, which sanction a member state, including by loss of voting rights, if they're in "serious and persistent" breach of European values. Orban plainly satisfied this benchmark, but the end of the process requires a unanimous vote in the European parliament, where he is likely to be saved by Poland, which is also facing Article 7 efforts.

British MEPs did not support it. Instead, they were whipped to oppose the move. Only one - Nosheena Mobarik - rebelled. Two - Charles Tannock and Sajjad Karim - abstained.

The whipping operation nearly proved decisive. Triggering proceedings requires a two-thirds majority and it only passed the threshold by 22 votes. The Board of Deputies of British Jews put out a statement condemning the move, alongside the Muslim Council of Great Britain.

Downing Street soon got panicky about it and demanded that MEPs tweet out some hastily scratched-together message about how the vote was not an endorsement of Orban but based on constitutional principle. It is nonsense. The reality is that it shows what the Conservatives consider important in Europe. They oppose Brussels. They will support anyone who offers an alternative, even where that alternative is Orban's: a boot stamping on a human face.

This moment has been a long time coming. David Cameron removed the Conservatives from the European People's Party grouping, where mainstream centre-right parties are collected, and set up the European Conservatives and Reformists group, which now operates as a home for all the authoritarians and nutcases of Europe, including the Law and Justice party, which rules Poland like some kind of modern-day Spanish Inquisition. This process did not start here. It is the logical end-point of years of deteriorating Conservative respectability.

For any believer in the British political process it should provide a moment of appalled reflection. The most successful political party in the world, Britain's lobby-group for pragmatism and tradition, is now finding itself in league with fascists. It's not because they have a shared worldview - although the harder fringes of Brexit rhetoric in the party certainly resemble Orban's - but because of a shared enemy.

There is time now for the party to rein itself in, regardless of Brexit, and disassociate itself from what is happening in Europe, America and parts of its own membership, both in the rank-and-file and the parliamentary party. It can still lay the claim to respectable centre-right thought and against the poison of authoritarian nationalism, but it needs to recognise the gravity of the moment it is living through and adopt a principled stance in the face of it. That is something it currently seems incapable of.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk and the author of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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