Tuesday, 20 March 2018

EU tickled pink as Brexit red lines turn green

John Crace in The Guardian


“Je suis très heureux,” Michel Barnier began. It soon became clear why he was so heureux as the text of the draft transitional agreement appeared on a screen behind him during his Brussels press conference with David Davis. Large chunks of it were highlighted in green. These were Theresa May’s red lines. Green was now the new red.

The British prime minister had been right in insisting that large sections of the Brexit deal would be non-negotiable. She just hadn’t made it clear that it would be the EU that was refusing to negotiate. So on almost every point that Britain had said it wouldn’t be giving in, it had given in.

Barnier made a token effort to sound as if he wasn’t crowing that British objections to money, trade negotiations, the European court of justice, fishing rights and the length of the transitional deal had all been casually brushed aside. But when you are as heureux as he is then it’s hard to keep a straight visage.

Not that everything was done and dusted, the EU chief negotiator continued. Mais non! There was still 25% of the draft agreement that wasn’t green. These were the bits that were in yellow and white. The yellow areas were the red lines that the British government couldn’t quite yet bring itself to turn green but would probably do so in the next couple of weeks.

The white areas were slightly more problematic. These were the red lines – principally over Northern Ireland – the British government knew it would eventually have to turn green, but as yet had no clear idea of how to do so without every Brexiter in the Tory party having a complete meltdown about being sold out.

But this wasn’t his problem, because in the absence of the white lines turning green then the backstop was to keep Northern Ireland in the customs union and the single market. In other words, business comme d’habitude.

Or no business comme d’habitude as there was next to no chance of Britain reaching any of the 750 new trade deals it needed to get done in a couple of months. Not least when the EU was committed to a go-slow on its own negotiations. Bonne chance avec that. If Britain wanted to turn itself from a rule giver to a rule taker then it was no peau off his nez. No wonder Barnier was heureux as Larry.

Davis wasn’t nearly so heureux, though he tried to look as if he was. His fixed grin looked suspiciously like rigor mortis. He too declared himself to be thrilled so many of the red lines had turned green and looked forward to making all the necessary concessions to turn the yellow and white ones green. People just had to understand that Brexit was a simple dialectic. To take back control you had to give back control. To get a transition period you needed a standstill.

The longer the Brexit secretary spoke, the more miserable he appeared. There are limits even to his self-delusion. Britain had got nearly everything it had asked for, he said unconvincingly. Take the transition period. The UK had asked for two years ending in March 2021 and the EU had argued for December 2020. So they had compromised at December 2020. As for Northern Ireland, he really didn’t have a clue. Only that in some lights at certain times of day, red could sometimes look a bit green.

Why had the EU and the UK chosen to highlight the agreed sections in green and not some other colour, a reporter asked. By now Davis was catatonically unheureux, so it was Barnier who replied. He would have been happy with bleu, blanc or rouge but every time he tried writing something in rouge the British kept turning it vert. And anyway he quite liked vert. Besides, green was the perfect description of the British negotiating team.

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