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Rocks, hard places, cherries and unsquared circles

Posted by Mad Mitch on UTC 2017-12-16 09:41.

The commentators in the Swiss media should be a good source for a dispassionate view of the Brexit process so far. Switzerland, which is outside the EU (but only just), doesn't have a dog in this fight. Furthermore, it has been on the losing end of most of its negotiations with the Moloch that surrounds it on every side, so it, too, knows the opponent with which the UK has to deal.

The current opinion? Bafflement.

Two pieces in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung today sum up the state of play from a Swiss point of view: 'The EU wants to keep the upper hand in the Brexit negotiations' and 'Great Britain has a lot to lose'. The spectacle of the oh-so-rational Swiss trying to make any sense of these proceedings makes for painful reading. Summarising:

The border between Ireland and Northern Ireland has become a such a key issue in the negotiations that the Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar is now batting well above his league in the Brexit negotiations. The shambles of the May government's handling of this entirely foreseeable problem has left a wound in the UK position that will continue to be scratched by the newly important Varadkar with his EU colleagues chortling in the background.

The problem is, according to the NZZ, a 'squaring of the circle': enforce the border, which will be instrumentalised by the IRA to restart the Troubles, or open the border, in which case the UK will have to stay in the Single Market and the Customs Union with all its rules, which is a solution that does not deserve the name Brexit.

The NZZ finds Nigel Farage's assertion that May so far has 'danced to the EU's tune' completely justified. So far the agenda and timetables have all been set by the EU. The UK is clearly the junior partner in the negotiations.

We would add that by rushing off to Brussels at every opportunity and being photographed smilingly shaking hands with her opponents or sitting forlornly waiting for someone to turn up, Mrs May has delivered the visual icons for the factual position.

David Davis and the Brexiteers in the UK may make much of the fact that the document that was signed a few days ago was not a binding legal agreement. The NZZ notes, however, that this allegedly meaningless document did set out guidelines which, if not held to in later negotiations, can always be invoked as examples of the UK's bad faith and lead to the rejection of all other deals. It lays the groundwork for that negotiating position that has served the EU so well down the years against weaker opponents (including Switzerland): 'all or nothing'.

The NZZ is also sceptical of the formula repeated by David Davis: 'Canada plus plus plus'. This is another pious wish that will not survive the 'all or nothing' tactic:

The EU has no reason to offer Britain any opportunity for cherry picking, which it has always clearly excluded. The dilemma remains: Great Britain is heading for two alternatives that neither of them wants.

Some readers will remember the days of the Brexit 'phony war', that period between the announcement of the result of the referendum on 24 June 2016 and the date when Article 50 was finally invoked nearly nine months later on 28 March 2017. During this period the curious were told that the silence was a sign that Theresa May was playing her cards close to her chest, as a good tactician should. We now know what we then only suspected: the hand was empty and it still is.