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Are Europeans taking Brexit seriously enough?

There seems to be a growing suspicion among senior British politicians that the Europeans are not taking Brexit seriously enough.

These pesky continentals seem to think that, when confronted with the reality of actually jumping off the cliff, there will be a hesitation.

Maybe even pressure for a second vote, perhaps a general election before the umbilical cord is finally cut.

Which may explain, in British minds, why the EU is not negotiating.

Why they are not doing any of the things we were promised they were “bound to do, because it’s in their own best interests”.

So Theresa May will try and put the continent right this evening over dinner, when she gives the other 27 an informal account of her Government’s thinking.

Theresa May

No negotiating, of course, that’s a no-no until Article 50 is triggered, but an update.

She will tell them, we are told, that the British people have spoken, and under no circumstances will they be asked again.

In one sense those suspicious Brexit ministers are right: there is a fairly widespread view in Brussels and beyond that when reality starts to bite there will be growing nervousness in London about what lies ahead.

The travails of the Sterling since the Tory Conference only support their view.

A very senior former Commissioner told me just last night that he thinks two years of economic uncertainty and market turmoil are very likely to goad the UK Parliament into action against a ‘hard-Brexit’ Government, not least because - if the UK insists on severe restrictions on migration - there is simply no good deal to be done post-Brexit.

And, for good measure, he insisted that Article 50 is completely reversible.

That no-one in Brussels would try to block the UK if, at the last minute, it did a Fagin and suggested “we think we better think it out again”.

That thinking was behind Council President Donald Tusk’s message this week that the only two viable alternatives are “Hard Brexit or No Brexit”. In European minds “No Brexit” remains a live (though distant) option.

What is remarkable about the last few months is how little European positions have changed.

While London has been a cauldron of debate about which way to go, one minute signalling no single market and no European Court, but the next promising Nissan and US banks that nothing much is going to change, all 27 European capitals have stuck rigidly to the ‘no negotiations before Article 50’ mantra.

Angela Merkel signalled just yesterday that she was insisting on a complete ban of even the most back-channel communications with London, and every other capital has stuck to her line.

If the British are probing for weak-spots, trying to persuade friendly states to split from the herd, they are having no luck.

Angela Merkel

In one sense the last three months have been quite an eye-opener for London. If they thought dealing with the EU was tough when you are inside the club, they are now learning that it’s a great harder when you are outside.

Just look at the poor Canadians.

Remember the Canada option?

Back in the days before June 23rd, when there seemed to be a smorgasbord of alternatives for a ‘back in control’ UK to choose from, the idea of a Free Trade Agreement along the lines just negotiated by Canada seemed pretty attractive. But just ask Ottawa now.

After seven (yes seven!) tough years of talks they thought they had it all nailed down, but they had forgotten about Wallonia.

Where, you might ask? Wallonia.

The Walloon Parliament

A region of Belgium, home to 3.5 million french speaking souls, who have the right to block a trade deal on behalf of the 500 million remaining inhabitants of the continent.

Who knew, eh? Well we certainly didn’t, because, to be honest, we weren’t paying much attention.

But we are now. The Canada deal would be nothing compared to the complexities of a future UK deal.

For a start, it only covers manufactured and agricultural goods, nothing at all about services which, lest we forget, are the biggest part of the British economy.

And now we are realising that not only will each and every one of our 27 former partners, but many of the regions of our former partners, are going to have to give unanimous consent before a deal can be done.

That’s the future trading relationship with the continent that, we are regularly reassured, is going to be “pretty straightforward”.

So no wonder the leaders across the dinner table from Mrs May this evening are going to be looking pretty relaxed.

They believe they have almost all the cards, and that if some tough love is going to be required with London, they are ready to administer it.

And when the Prime Minister says that there is no chance whatsoever of the British thinking again about anything, that all minds are made up, and it’s full-steam ahead, and to hell with the consequences!

Well, they are likely to remain just a tiny bit sceptical.

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