“Here we are again,” said Michel Barnier, with more than a hint of resignation. “The same two people ... ” Neither of whom could quite bring themselves to look each other in the eye. Five rounds into Britain’s Brexit negotiations with the EU and Barnier and David Davis have all but given up making any pretence that the talks have made much progress. The body language is now as poor as the language itself.
After those two sentences, Barnier switched to French. Normally he makes most of his opening remarks in English, but French is the mother language of existential ennui. Time to channel his inner Jean-Paul Sartre. Theresa May’s Florence speech had given the talks some momentum. As in almost none.
There had been no great steps forward. All he could do was reiterate the three things on which they had failed to make any real progress. Citizens rights. Northern Ireland. The financial settlement. Everything was in deadlock. He wasn’t sure what more he could do. When the UK team had agreed to talk about these things before moving on to the nature of any future relationship, he had rather taken them at their word. He hadn’t realised that what the Brits had really meant by talking was actually just a couple of casual mentions in passing.
His eyes glazed over and his head began to drop. Barnier was even managing to depress himself. This was futility on a grander scale than anything he had previously encountered. He tried to bring things back a little, to offer a glimmer of hope. “Decisive progress is possible within two months,” he shrugged. It would take Davis being able to concentrate on any given subject for more than three seconds, but it was possible given the right medication. Though unlikely. The last time someone had said “It will be all over by Christmas” was in 1914.
Throughout Barnier’s opening remarks, Davis had avoided all eye contact, staring anywhere but at his opposite number with the simultaneous translation receiver pressed to his right ear. With the sound off. Then it was his turn. He put on his glasses. Took them off again. Then put them back on. Before taking them off once more. As though he wasn’t sure what made him look more intelligent. Or less dim. It was like an Eric Morecambe routine. Only not funny.
“We’ve come a long way since June,” he began. That much was true. He had been to Brussels and back at least five times. “But it’s not easy.” No one had ever said it would be. Apart from him, of course. They were making some headway on EU citizen registration cards. They had agreed that they should be printed with a dark blue surround, but they were still struggling over the font size. He ended with a plea for some help with creative solutions, because he was right out of ideas.
Neither man’s desperate insistence that progress had been made cut any ice with an audience of reporters who had sat through the four previous nihilistic press conferences. The first question was on the risk of no deal being reached. “We are aiming for a good deal for everyone,” Davis answered metronomically. “But we are also planning for a no deal.”
Barnier looked aghast. He couldn’t believe Britain could be so sanguine about such an act of gross self-harm. “No deal will be a very bad deal,” he observed. Why couldn’t the UK just get to grips with the situation? It was all very well the UK saying it would meet its financial contributions to the EU, but that was meaningless unless those commitments were quantified. We were right back where we were when the negotiations started.
“La, la, la, la,” said Davis, sticking fingers into both his ears. He wouldn’t be making any substantive financial offer and he was fed up with Barnier asking for one. In fact he was fed up with Barnier, full stop. Couldn’t the 27 EU member states tell him to back off a bit and be nicer?
By now, Davis was getting more and more tetchy and his sentences became increasingly clipped. Why were people talking everything down? Barnier had said there could be progress by Christmas, so why didn’t we all just celebrate that. After all, that would still leave at least eight months to complete the most complicated trade talks in British history. That should be plenty of time. Shouldn’t it?
This article was written by John Crace, for theguardian.com on Thursday 12th October 2017 15.54 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010