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Friday 21 September 2018

Theresa May was sent scrambling for a new post-Brexit blueprint last night as her fellow EU leaders told her Chequers would not do.

The first to plunge the knife was mild-mannered European Council President Donald Tusk, who the day before had struck an optimistic note, saying Chequers had potential, it only needed to be “reworked”, twenty-four hours later, that sentiment had turned to “will not work”.

“While there are positive elements in the Chequers proposal, the suggested framework for economic cooperation will not work. Not least because it will risk undermining the single market,” Tusk told reporters at a press conference after the session of EU leaders minus May had been adjourned.

The EU anointed its single market (in name only) “indivisible” decades ago, a point reaffirmed at the beginning of this these fraught exit negotiations. From the EU’s perspective, whatever plan May concocted, it could not comprise of access to some “freedoms” such as goods and services, but not others, namely persons.

The PM ditched services even though they account for a larger part of the British economy – we also export more of them to the EU than they sell to us – settling just for goods to favour the EU side, particularly Germany, and to limit disruption at British roll-on roll-off ports that May’s administration has scandalously not bothered to bulk up with additional customs facilities. A cowardly move, but one carrying some potential, which was why Chequers was so horrifying: in spite of their firm words, the Europeans might go for it.

It appears not. “[Chequers] is not acceptable because it doesn’t respect the integrity of the single market,” said Emmanual Macron, a statement echoed by his counterpart at the German chancellery.

“Today we were all agreed that there can be no compromises on the single market,” said Frau Merkel.

Meanwhile, May was visibly ruffled. Her team had clearly prepared for a massive breakthrough at Salzburg. Bringing the BBC’s Panorama programme into Downing Street and (rather unfortunately) Chequers for a broadcast at the beginning of the week. The plan was childishly simple, make Chequers look like a massive success, brought about by the diligence and shrewdness of May and her team, and the public might buy it as a triumph. This was always fanciful thinking.

From the outset, it was obvious, whatever would be achieved at this informal European Council gathering in Salzburg, it would not amount to much. The only thing universally expected was a date to be set for another informal meeting in November to wrap up the political declaration to sail through Parliament. In the end, May didn’t even get that. Nevertheless, this crisis-ridden leader has vowed to go on.

“I believe there is a willingness to do a deal, said May at her press conference in Salzburg.

“If we get to the position where it is not possible to reach a deal, then the British people can be confident that we will have done what is necessary to ensure we make a success of leaving the European Union, regardless of the terms on which we do so.

“I am negotiating hard in the interests of the British people.”

Where do we go from here? Under any other leader, even David Cameron dare we say it, it would be all steam ahead towards a no deal delivering on all fronts: free trade, controlled borders, no budget transfers and no Brexit bill, judicial and legislative independence, no military commitment, the lot.

But the May is an extraordinarily weak leader and she’s got herself into a right awful mess with Ireland.

Michel Barnier’s bizarre proposal to insert a border in the Irish Sea – an option already placed on the table and hastily removed – at the beginning of the week now begins to make sense. Chequers was always going to get ditched, only London didn’t know it. The Europeans, who do not understand our country and our history, see keeping Northern Ireland in the Single Market and the rest of Britain out as a viable option. To think, we used to be eternally bound to political union and eventual federalization with these people.

Remainers take note, the UK and the EU are very much unique and divisible from one another. While we Brexiteers rejoice over Chequers’ very fortunate death, or as Jacob Rees-Mogg put it in a tweet, as it “goes pop”, it is worth reflecting on our relationship with the Continent. The fact that Downing Street and Whitehall ever thought the Europeans would buy Chequers speaks volumes of how little we understand these “allies” of ours. This is a mighty wake-up call for the establishment. Sadly, there is little hope they will come to the right conclusions.