Second time unlucky. Theresa May heads to Brussels today knowing she is headed for another disappointing rendezvous with her European colleagues. For the second time in a row, a summit will end in frustration, with no withdrawal deal being agreed. Yet it is time itself that might come to be her best ally in the fraught negotiations – both in Brussels and at home – that lie ahead.
We now know that the Withdrawal Agreement will not be completed this week, and that the most the Prime Minister can reasonably hope for in Brussels are warm words. The best-case scenario would see the heads of state and government recognising the significant progress that has been made in resolving the outstanding withdrawal issues.
They could then declare that these justify proceeding to a special summit in November, at which the withdrawal deal and a declaration on the future relationship can be signed off.
In all probability, however, the EU will not be this fulsome. Partly out of frustration, partly out of a calculated desire to turn the screw on our embattled Prime Minister, they may instead keep their options open. The EU leaders might confirm their intention to hold the special summit, but to leave open the option to use it, not to sign off Brexit and, rather, to fine tune their preparations for no deal.
So Brexit will not be resolved this week. And, indeed, it may not be resolved in November either. For now, the priority must be to avoid another Salzburg-style debacle. There, a combination of ‘accident and miscommunication’ undermined a summit specifically meant to create positive mood music around Brexit ahead of the Conservative Party conference.
And with little of substance to celebrate, mood is important. The Prime Minister has accepted the invitation to meet EU leaders before they have dinner (without her) to hear Michel Barnier’s progress report.
But in pleading for something resembling a time limit on the UK’s participation in some form of customs union, she must not make the mistakes she made in Austria, presenting her colleagues with a ‘my way or the highway’ choice, which ultimately did little but raise European hackles. The signs are encouraging. She has already shown that she has learned the lesson of that ill-fated meeting via the emollient tone she took in parliament on Monday.
So fingers crossed for a fair hearing and a positive tone. Yet when negotiations resume, there will be substantive issues to resolve. First, the Northern Ireland backstop must be agreed. Second, real progress will need to be made on the political declaration about future relations.
The problem is that the two are linked. David Davis embarrassingly conceded the ‘fight of the summer’ in 2017 over the sequencing of talks before summer had even begun. And the EU has subsequently reiterated ad nauseam that withdrawal must be agreed before the future could be properly discussed.
Yet the past is only sellable to the British parliament on condition that the future holds the promise of something different. That is to say, parliament is more likely to accept the Withdrawal Agreement and its infamous backstop if there is something in the political declaration implying that the Northern Ireland border question will be solved without using it.
And so time becomes key in several senses. First, the EU claims it is legally unable to make provisions for a future customs arrangement with the UK in the Withdrawal Agreement.
The future will be dealt with after the past (as the EU always insisted it would) and the customs arrangement will be negotiated only once the Withdrawal Agreement is finalised.
At that point, it is crucial that the latter is locked away in a dark room and revealed to no one. The backstop will look a whole lot less appealing in isolation, and the last thing the Government needs is for it to be out in the public domain for several weeks being forensically picked apart before the political declaration joins it.
Second, that political declaration has to indicate something about time that will convince MPs that the backstop, if ever deployed, need only be temporary. The EU is patently not going to accept a clear time limit.
But ideas are being discussed around a review at a defined moment in future, or a set of criteria that might let the backstop lapse. And, of course, this assumes that the Government can get at least some acknowledgement of its proposals for a common rule book, which is far from a foregone conclusion.
Third, time matters if and when the whole shebang gets to parliament. Simply put, as far as the Government is concerned, the less time MPs have to mull over what they are being asked to approve, and the closer the vote is to the end of the Article 50 process and hence the ‘no deal’ cliff edge, the better.
The calculation seems to be that a quick vote late in the day carries the greatest chance of success.
But let’s bear in mind what all this means in the grand scheme of things. We may manage to avoid a no deal. But that’s about it. We will still have a trade deal to negotiate.
And this is where time becomes our enemy. It is, after all, the trade deal that really matters for the future of the UK. And everyone who knows anything about trade deals knows that we will not have one negotiated and ratified by the time the transition period is due to end in December 2020.
Yet, the Government stubbornly refuses to acknowledge this fact. And so Ministers won’t countenance asking the European Union for a clause in the Withdrawal Agreement that allows for the extension of transition.
However well things go this month or even this year, the second Brexit time bomb is already ticking. Not towards exit day itself in March, but towards what will be the new cliff edge – the end of transition and the possibility of the UK ending up with no trade deal.
Leaving this to chance without addressing the need for an extension is irresponsible in the extreme. But in Brexit Britain, politics ultimately triumphs over pragmatism.