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Friday 8 March 2019

According to the Sun, Geoffrey Cox will not be returning to Brussels to have another crack at “alternative arrangements” for Ireland’s internal border. While Theresa May’s scheduled visit to the EU capital has been “shelved”, say the Telegraph. Downing Street is bracing itself for a thumping defeat at Tuesday’s vote on an unchanged Withdrawal Agreement.

The mood is at an all-time low. Over the past twenty-four hours, sources in Brussels have described British ideas for breaking the deadlock as “crazy” and UK negotiators as “clueless”. A “huge” gap remains between the two sides.

The Times say different. “Meaningful” concessions over the Irish backstop are forthcoming claim senior Whitehall officials. The European Commission has supposedly provided legal guarantees that the interim arrangement keeping the United Kingdom in the Customs Union for the sake of the Irish border will only be temporary. Britain will not have a right to unilateral withdrawal, however, so we shouldn’t expect guarantees of any merit.

“These things often happen at the very last minute. We have to wait for the next couple of days and weeks. We have to be very patient,” said the head of the European Commission, Martin Selmayr. But is he talking about a last-minute concession over the backstop or horse-trading over an extension to negotiations?

As far as May is concerned, extending talks is not on the table, even though she put the option there last week. The prime minister is in Grimsby today to make the entirely false assertion that “just as MPs will face a big choice next week, the EU has to make a choice too. We are both participants in this process.”

She couldn’t be further from the truth, with the House of Commons assured a vote to delay negotiations, given the chamber’s overwhelmingly pro-EU leanings, MPs will undoubtedly vote to extend negotiations Brexit in the immediate aftermath of next Tuesday’s defeat.

Choice barely comes into the equation. Indeed, acknowledging how entrenched divisions in Parliament are, the Daily Mail report a free vote will be given. Earlier this week, Tory Brexiteers demanded the government whip MPs towards No Deal. Leaving on WTO terms is a manifesto pledge. However, Downing Street knows members of Parliaments are, for the most part, too fanatically pro-Remain to listen to the whips, no matter how much pressure they apply.

In Grimsby, May will also say that “it is in the European interest for the UK to leave with a deal. We are working with them but the decisions that the European Union makes over the next few days will have a big impact on the outcome of the vote.” Here, she is on a firmer footing.

Last month, Germany’s respected think tank, the IFO institute published a report claiming the immediate near term shock of No Deal would be shared equally between the UK and mainland Europe. Ireland would suffer three times as much.

“The analysis suggests that the EU Commission should not stubbornly commit to the London Agreement, which is unacceptable to London, but constructively work out alternatives,” states the report.

The IFO’s conclusions serve to further expose the nonsense of May’s opening statement. Because the EU27 face economic consequences that they are politically far less equipped to shoulder than Britain, No Deal must be avoided at all cost. Therefore, in the event Parliament asks for a delay, Europe’s capitals will be more than happy to oblige. An extension to the talks requires unanimous approval, but they will not hesitate.

The French will make conditions so we can expect feverish negotiations to commence from March 14 – when Parliament will vote for a delay – to the 21st when EU leaders convene for their final summit before the nominal Brexit date. Is this what Martin Selmayr was referring to about last-minute talks?

What kind of bargain the French will want to strike remains open to speculation, but don’t bet against a second referendum.

The French are coyly sticking to the EU’s favourite line that Britain doesn’t know what it wants. Until the UK comes forward with its own demands – which of course it has – the EU cannot provide a response. Don’t be deceived, the French have demands of their own.

“Why would be there be an extension without a reason?” said Europe minister Nathalie Loiseau yesterday, in London to meet with Stephen Barclay and less officiously – but no less significantly – Dominic Grieve.

“We have been in discussions for quite a long time now. There needs to be something specific to justify an extension.”