Not wading but drowning. (Photo: Getty)
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If David Cameron can't bully the broadcasters, how's his EU renegotiation going to work out?

David Cameron has muffed his strategy as far as the debates are concerned. Even if he gets away with it, it's a bad sign if he ends up having to renegotiate Britain's relationship with the EU.

If David Cameron is returned to Downing Street this May, his jubilation will be short lived. As Ed Miliband's head rolls and Labour becomes a circular firing squad of recriminations, a nagging internal voice will be ruining the Tory leader's moment: “Hey Dave, how's that EU renegotiation going?” He'll try and push it aside, but the voice will get louder and louder: “Lovely day to repatriate some powers from Brussels, wouldn't y'say?” Worse, this voice will be less persistent and more polite than his backbenchers and previously friendly media allies.

If he has any self-awareness, Cameron should be beginning to question whether he's the right man for the job. One thing the TV debate furore has taught us is that Cameron's negotiating skills are pretty limited. If he can't influence Sky, ITV, Channel 4 and the BBC, what hope has he got persuading 27 other EU members to make terms noticeably more favourable to Britain by 2017?

The TV broadcasters were supposed to be a pushover. Bound by strict election impartiality laws, all that was required was for the Tories to make some positive but non-committal noises, play down the clock, shrug and say “we tried.” They just needed to avoid anything too provocative, like, oh, I don't know... writing an antagonistic open letter blaming their addressee for “a deeply unsatisfactory process”, while simultaneously ducking meetings. And they absolutely shouldn't send a insufferably chummy Grant Shapps on TV to repeat the inplausible accusation over and over again while heroically ignoring the interviewers' logical counter-points. 

Bullying the Beeb should be a cake-walk when you're holding a giant novelty cheque over its collective head, yet Cameron's team has somehow managed to be so obnoxious and inept that even they've summoned enough courage to bite the hand that feeds. Well, nibbled it. They're considering empty chairing the PM, but giving him his own one-man show for balance - a bit like slapping someone in the face, then driving them to A&E and demanding 24 hour care. But hey, maybe they'll surprise everyone and dress the Prime Minister's podium up as a giant pram, with a series of toys scattered around it. This not-so-subtle symbolism would neatly back up what the polls say everyone's thinking.

Even if the debates don't happen thanks to a legal logjam, Cameron has overplayed his hand. He'll be blamed, and seen as cowardly, calculating, conniving and a pick of other choice 'C' words. This sorry spectacle doesn't bode well for Europe. It seems our Prime Minister has just the one negotiating gear: 'agree to my terms, or I'm not playing'.

If he can't intimidate four broadcasters - one of whom is so timid that it's contemplating giving him An Evening with David Cameron as a peace offering - how on Earth is he going to get his way with 27 highly skilled politicians? Despite the higher stakes, his tactics have been eerily similar to date: complain loudly to alienate the people you need to ingratiate yourself too, and then threaten to leave if you don't get your way. Cameron won great respect from a supportively jingoistic press for using his EU veto in 2011, but far less column inches were devoted to the subsequent U turn when Europe collectively decided to ignore Brave Dave and push on regardless.

How does Cameron think this petulance plays out with the people he ultimately wants on his side? Thomas Matussek, a former German ambassador to Britain once told The Guardian, “The 'my way or the highway' strategy that Margaret Thatcher pioneered is certainly getting on a lot of Germans' nerves, because they feel Cameron is constantly setting ultimatums rather than trying seek compromises”. Cameron's unique take on the diplomatic charm offensive seems to hinge overwhelmingly on the offence part.

Sir John Major – much lampooned for being weak on Europe by his party – understood that Britain couldn't just demand to get everything its own way. He managed to achieve a couple of major concessions with the Mastricht Treaty, even though – as Andrew Rawnsley points out - none of our European partners wanted to give way. While Major built bridges, Cameron seems determined to jump up and down on them until they crumble.

Maybe I'm completely wrong, and Cameron is a stronger negotiator than I thought, but all the signs point to someone who never lost at Risk, because he used his 'veto' to pack up the board and go home. Ironically, his stubbornness with the broadcasters might make it moot: an empty chair in front of 22 million Britain's could remind them why they don't want him practicing his petulant poker face in Brussels.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”