I think this story in this morning’s Guardian (front page in the printed edition as well – but with a different title – more about that below) about Brexit is overblown. I tweeted as much late last night, but got a load of critique back this morning, so let’s take it apart piece by piece. This is a critique of the piece as a whole. I am not privy to the information as to whom at The Guardian is responsible for what part of it.

The Title
“Germany scraps plans for Brexit talks at EU ambassadors summit”
The first bit of this is tricky – Germany has an impact here because it holds the 6 month rotating Presidency of the Council of the EU, so it is only now that Germany has this power. “Brexit talks” would normally be the term for talks between the UK and the EU about Brexit, and that is not what this was to be. And the last bit is plain wrong – the story concerns a meeting of Coreper – a weekly meeting of countries’ Permanent Representatives (i.e. ambassadors) to the EU. That is categorically not a summit (see this for what a summit is for example). But “Germany removes Brexit from the agenda of a weekly ambassadors meeting” doesn’t have the same clickbait potential.

Byline
“Exclusive: Brussels laments ‘completely wasted’ summer as Berlin takes Brexit off agenda due to lack of ‘tangible progress’”
The Guardian was the first to report the item was dropped from the agenda, so I suppose this is an exclusive. Putting in “Brussels” is rule 1 in Kosmopolit’s guide to lazy EU journalism – it is not as if this is the universal view, because there are some who think the EU should not budge towards the UK anyway. “Off the agenda” implies Brexit is off the agenda generally, not just for one meeting of Ambassadors. Lack of tangible progress is correct.

Photo
It’s of Angela Merkel. Who will not have made this call on what is on the agenda. They should have put up a picture of the German Permanent Representative to the EU Michael Clauss. This is what he looks like. But that does not have the same clickbait potential.

Text
Germany has scrapped plans to discuss Brexit at a high-level diplomatic meeting next week because there has not been “any tangible progress” in talks, the Guardian has learned, as Brussels laments a “completely wasted” summer.
This is strictly speaking correct, but ignores the fact that these meetings take place every week. It is not as if this is a one shot game! That there is no tangible progress is correct, but Brussels lamenting a wasted summer is borderline – as explained when looking at the byline above.

EU officials now believe the UK government is prepared to risk a no-deal exit when the transition period comes to an end on 31 December, and will try to pin the blame on Brussels if talks fail.
Errr, is that news?

The German government, which holds the rotating presidency of the EU council, had intended to discuss Brexit during a meeting of EU ambassadors on 2 September but has now dropped the issue. “Since there hasn’t been any tangible progress in EU-UK negotiations, the Brexit item was taken off the agenda,” an EU diplomat said. The decision matters because Angela Merkel was billed as a potential dealmaker when talks on the UK-EU future relationship reach a crucial stage this autumn.
If you know what’s going on, this sort of makes sense. Coreper – the meeting that the article is about but is not mentioned by name – is important for the preparation of meetings of the European Council. The next European Council is 15-16 October, and Coreper is weekly, so that gives at least 4 more opportunities for Coreper to examine the issue before the European Council.

Then there is some things about pessimism in Paris and Berlin – that is all very well.

Then we get to the crux of it:

Dropping Brexit from next week’s diplomatic agenda is a sign of deepening pessimism in Brussels. “People underestimate how bleak the mood is in the EU negotiation team,” said an EU official who added that time was running out to negotiate a complex legal treaty expected to exceed 400 pages.

We have had the whole summer completely wasted, a cabinet that doesn’t understand how the negotiations work, a prime minister who, I think, doesn’t understand how the negotiations work – because he is under the wrong impression that he can pull off negotiating at the 11th hour.”

So it is actually 1 EU official who is saying the summer has been wasted, and we do not even know which institution this person works for, or how close they are to the negotiation team. The person is later described as “the diplomat” – does that mean he or she works for a Member State in Brussels? The person is called an “EU diplomat” in the printed Guardian, which muddies it further – is the person a diplomat to the EU, or a diplomat working for the EU? We do not know.

The latter part of the story is then background about who has said what, or leaked what, in the past few weeks with regard to the non-progress with negotiations.

Also a general point: the terminology used about this “summit” mentioned in the headline caused me such confusion that I initially did not know this concerned a meeting of Coreper. I know getting terminology into news stories is hard, and is often not appealing to readers, but if someone who knows how the EU works cannot understand what is going on based on the story… then that story has a problem. Even if Coreper is not mentioned by name, a line saying “the weekly meeting of countries’ ambassadors to the EU” would have covered it.

A word about the version of the story in the printed newspaper

The title here is in one way better – lamenting the lack of progress – although we do not actually know if it was a German diplomat who was the one lamenting a lack of progress. However here too “Germany scraps Brexit talks” is rather misleading – because Brexit talks implies talks between the UK and the EU, and those are continuing. The only thing that has been scrapped is an agenda point for one weekly meeting of Permanent Representatives. So while this is perhaps better than the headline in the online edition, it too is not without its problems.

2 Comments

  1. Gail Pretty

    Boris Johnson was asked at a Parliamentary Select Committee meeting yesterday (16/09/2020) whether the EU was negotiating in good faith and said, “No. They’re not”.

  2. Martin Keegan

    copy edit:

    “as to who […] is responsible” not “as to whom […] is responsible” in the opening para

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