20/10/2017 14:02 BST | Updated 20/10/2017 14:02 BST

Friendly Noises From This European Council Summit Shouldn't Disguise Lack Of Brexit Progress

POOL New / Reuters

This week's European Council summit in Brussels brought a degree of welcome relief for our beleaguered Prime Minister. Compared to dealing with her own Cabinet, where constant sniping, back-stabbing and regular attempts to depose her as Prime Minister have become the norm, it must have been nice to spend some time abroad with foreign leaders who don't treat her with barely-disguised contempt. On the contrary, many of the noises from European leaders at this Council summit have been rather friendly.

But we shouldn't mistake these friendly noises for any desire amongst EU leaders to let the UK 'have their cake and eat it'. The kind words and talk of progress have a strategic element to them that must be acknowledged: EU leaders know the Prime Minister is negotiating with them from a position of weakness. They know this weakness increases the chances of the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal. And whilst a no-deal Brexit would be a catastrophe for the UK, it wouldn't be good for the EU either. No-one other than the most fanatical Eurosceptic head-bangers wants a no-deal outcome. So, EU leaders knew how important it was to offer some encouragement to Theresa May at this summit in order to shore up her ability to negotiate with them, and that's exactly what they've given her.

Before we get too carried away with these positive noises, however, it is important to take a step back and assess where we are and what progress has actually been made on Brexit. Repeatedly, we have been told by Brexit supporters that getting a deal with the EU would be simple. Liam Fox said it would be the "easiest deal in human history". David Davis said the UK could negotiate a free-trade area "massively greater than the size of the EU" before we even leave the bloc in March 2019. And yet here we are, 6 months and counting since the negotiations started, with concrete progress on the three initial divorce issues (citizens' rights, the Irish border and the financial settlement) seemingly as far away as ever. For all the warm words, the Council has refused to sign off on sufficient progress on any of these issues at this summit, meaning December is now looking like the earliest point at which we can move on to trade talks. And this was supposed to be the easy bit! As Angela Merkel pointed out today, negotiating the UK's future relationship with the EU is set to be much more complicated.

Even if the EU does agree to talking trade from December, that leaves less than a year before a deal has to be in place, in order to leave enough time for full ratification by the European Parliament and the 27 member states. That's not much time to sort out a full trading relationship, new customs arrangements, security cooperation, mutual standards of recognition, financial services, aviation, arrangements for the transfer of nuclear waste...along with hundreds, possibly thousands of other issues, both large and small, that no-one has even thought of yet.

The looming risk is, of course, the possibility of a disastrous no-deal Brexit. This risk grows greater with every day that passes without progress, as at some point a dispute over seemingly minor issues could snowball into something larger, and the UK could end up crashing out of the EU without a deal. As has been repeatedly highlighted by businesses, trade unions, industry groups, most politicians and campaign groups like Open Britain, this would be a nightmare scenario for our country. It would mean huge economic damage, the immediate imposition of punishing tariffs, massive tailbacks at ports and border entry points, legal limbo for millions of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU and probably the grounding of flights between the UK and the EU, at least temporarily. Leave supporters often like to use the analogy of buying a house as a way of explaining why threatening no deal is necessary. You wouldn't start negotiations with an estate agent over buying a new house, they say, by admitting you're not willing to walk away. Well, perhaps not, but the problem with Brexit is that we've already sold our house, so if we do walk away we'd be left homeless.

But there is a way to avoid this outcome. Open Britain is campaigning for the Government to avoid a no-deal Brexit by setting clear, achievable goals that would prevent economic catastrophe: that means taking the threat of no deal off the table and instead negotiating for continued membership of both the Single Market and the Customs Union in the long term. This would mean continued free trade for British companies exporting to the EU without tariff or non-tariff barriers, no need to introduce burdensome and time-consuming customs checks as well as no need for a hard border on the island of Ireland. It's the right approach for the UK and the best way to kick these stalled negotiations into gear.