The new year of Brexit began much as the old one ended: a bloodbath in Westminster, and the EU looking on in alarm and frustration.
"It’s very hard for us to understand what is going on," says a senior EU diplomat. "When it’s politics some of it is thunder, some of it is theatre, some of it is real."
And just as in 2018, there is a clock ticking, there are circles that can’t be squared, and options running out.
This time the prospect of no deal feels all the more real. In a survey by YouGov of 1,215 Conservative Party members, 64% actually said they would prefer that outcome compared to 29% who would back the Withdrawal Agreement.
Some 76% of grassroots Tories believe reports of food and medicine shortages as a result of no deal are "exaggerated or invented".
In Westminster, the bloody combat over Brexit resumed.
Theresa May lost two key amendments, one that could hobble the Treasury’s ability to spend money for no deal - a parliamentary gambit to remind the government that the House of Commons opposes such an outcome - and another in which the Speaker John Bercow prompted howls of outrage on the Tory benches by allowing a motion to be amended with the effect that it will force the prime minister to come up with a plan B within three days when the house rejects the Withdrawal Agreement next Tuesday.
The week was barely under way when MPs had to ask the Metropolitan Police to take action against a group of far right protesters who had heckled and harangued and called pro-Remain MP Anna Soubry a Nazi as she took part in a live TV debate outside parliament.
In Brussels, officials spent the week scratching their heads over a request from London for a letter that would further clarify the Irish backstop; rumours and reports abounded - and were denied by Downing Street - that UK officials were angling for an extension to Article 50.
The gamble that the peace and goodwill of the festive season would cool heads clearly hadn’t worked.
"For a number of weeks there was a view coming from London," mused a senior Irish official just before the break, "that the [Withdrawal Agreement] vote had to take place before Christmas because the worry was that MPs would go back to the shires and have their ears filled with Brexit macho stuff. Now ironically the same argument is being used the opposite way: they’ll go back to the shires and have their ears filled with a dose of reality and people would be worried about their jobs or their businesses".
That clearly didn’t work for the Conservative grassroots, who seem to have spent Christmas filling the ears of their representatives with "Brexit macho stuff".
Dublin went into holiday mode still trying to come to terms with the EU summit on 13 December. That was when Theresa May, having just postponed the meaningful vote and then survived a bruising no confidence motion, came and made her pitch for political and "legally binding" assurances on the backstop in the hope that she could get MPs to support the deal.
She left with little to show for her efforts. The EU27 promised that the backstop was "intended as an insurance policy to prevent a hard border" and that "it would apply temporarily, unless and until it is superseded by a subsequent agreement that ensures that a hard border is avoided".
But the mood in Brussels was even harder than before she arrived.
The promise of further clarifications was dropped from the final text.
The tougher mood resulted from two things: firstly, her demands on the backstop.
These included the request that the Political Declaration would be absorbed into the Withdrawal Agreement as a legal annexe, that the trade negotiations would have to conclude by the end of 2021 (to prevent the backstop taking place), and that those negotiations would begin the moment the Commons and the European Parliament ratified the treaty (i.e., before Britain was technically out and a third country).
The second reason the mood hardened was that May was placing so much emphasis on the free trade deal as the panacea for all her backstop woes, and yet the UK was not even close to arriving at a consensus as to what that deal would look like.
"It was kind of extraordinary," recalls one senior Irish figure. "There was a general incredulity at the way they approached it and what their asks were.
"They went into the meeting asking for things that were patently not deliverable and as a consequence quite irritated people. And they couldn’t offer any credible assurance that even if they could be delivered that it would deliver [support for the Withdrawal Agreement] on the other side.
"Even though it’s a mess, we’re all trained to assume somewhere deep down there’s a plan, even if it doesn’t look obvious. But nobody can figure out what that plan is."
It was, indeed, a demoralising experience for the Irish side. Theresa May was now trash-talking the backstop so much that Dublin was beginning to wonder about her commitment to what the backstop was supposed to achieve.
In her bilateral meeting with Leo Varadkar just before the summit got under way, officials concluded that Mrs May was trying to build a wall around the backstop using every brick at hand, to the point where she was incapable of conceiving it would ever – even theoretically – be a possibility.
"What they were looking for," says one source present, "was a cast iron certainty that the backstop wouldn’t ever take effect, to the point that it was frankly quite annoying.
"This is a shared commitment. We were always willing to go along with them saying that it was temporary and the objective of this was that it was to be replaced and all of that. But we’ve always been very careful to insist that ‘unless and until’ means ‘unless and until’. They only hear half of that."
Mrs May explained to the Taoiseach that she needed something to get the DUP back on board on the calculation that if the DUP could back the deal, they could drag a significant chunk of recalcitrant Tories back with them.
This was on the basis that Conservative backbenchers were worried that if they supported something the DUP wouldn’t back then when they pulled the plug, those Tories would be punished by their constituents for supporting something that could not be delivered and that went against their political instincts.
"It was a flimsy enough presentation of how she might get the deal over the line," says the source. "It didn’t reassure people around the table."
Having been given a less than bountiful Christmas gift by the EU27, Mrs May went back to the House of Commons on 17 December and appeared to oversell what she had got, again to the amazement of Dublin.
The prime minister read out each of paragraph from the summit conclusions into the record of the Commons, declaring that "as formal conclusions from a European Council, these commitments have legal status and should be welcomed".
However, having suggested that these reassurances were exactly what Britain wanted, and that they had legal weight, Mrs May told the DUP’s Nigel Dodds: "I am seeking further political and legal assurances in relation to those issues, which can be achieved in a number of ways."
In the early days of 2019, the machinery chugged into motion again with phone calls to Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, Council President Donald Tusk and to Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
Contacts at official level resumed.
There were no bilateral contacts between Dublin and London, except for a phone call between Tánaiste Simon Coveney, and Mrs May’s de facto deputy prime minister David Lidington.
Ahead of his trip to Bavaria, the Taoiseach held a 40-minute call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. According to a senior source briefed on the call, Mrs Merkel maintained her support for the backstop.
"Merkel made the view that, let’s be clear, the backstop is not some kind of strange EU demand. It’s a logical consequence of the peace process and the UK’s own red lines," said the source.
The new term kicked off for real this week in Brussels with two developments: talk of further reassurances on the backstop coming from the EU in the form of a letter, and a report in the Daily Telegraph that London had put out "feelers" to Brussels about applying for an extension to Article 50 should the Withdrawal Agreement go down.
On the letter, the European Council’s general secretary Jeppe Tranholm-Mikkelsen did indeed confirm to EU ambassadors at a meeting on Wednesday that London had made a formal request for further reassurances on the backstop and that officials were working on it.
However, the form and content have remained in a fluid state and probably will continue like that until the very last minute.
In other words, the reassurances could come in a letter, or they could come via a meeting; EU officials acknowledge that something that is sent to London prematurely would be trashed by Brexiteers so something done at the 11th hour might have more impact.
"The exact form could change at the last second," says one official briefed on preparations. "The text and draft could also change at last second. It’s extremely fluid. A letter is the most likely form, but it’s not guaranteed."
However, Tranholm-Mikkelsen insisted that the content of any reassurances would abide by the "existing mandate." In other words, there would be no reopening of the Withdrawal Agreement or the Irish Protocol (in fact, the UK has not formally asked for a reopening of the negotiations).
"It will be in the category of clarifying and reassuring that what we have agreed is actually what we had agreed," says another diplomat who attended the meeting. "The key word in this is that we have not negotiated this backstop with the intention of using it. It is a safety net."
The Telegraph report that the UK would seek an extension of Article 50 was greeted with surprise and suspicion by EU officials and diplomats.
"It seems like a ghost," says one senior official. "Everybody sees it, but no one has seen it when you ask them. It’s a funny, elusive thing. It keeps reappearing. But I’ve not heard anyone discuss it. I’ve asked around. Everyone says no."
One theory is that the idea has been deliberately floated by Downing Street to wrong-foot both no-dealers and those seeking a second referendum.
Raising the spectre of an Article 50 extension allows the government to spook hard Brexiteers into fearing that Brexit might not happen at all.
On the other hand, it can spook the second referendum camp into realising that another plebiscite would require an extension, but that such an extension would be fraught with difficulty if it went beyond the European Elections in May.
"Someone putting out the extension idea would in effect be warning the second referendum people that having an extension that goes beyond the European elections would be very, very complicated," says one Brussels official.
In general, the mood in Brussels remains similar to that which prevailed throughout 2018. Officials view the UK as a twin-headed beast: one a rabid, convulsed parliament, the other a beleaguered government that has lost control.
That perception has informed and complicated the EU’s own ratification process (the House of Commons is not the only ratifier in town).
Since finalising the Withdrawal Agreement on 25 November, the EU has had to view its own next steps through a political lens.
There is a rather ornate set of procedures in which the EU has to adopt two decisions regarding the treaty: one on "signing", and one on "concluding".
In parallel, the European Parliament gives its own consent to the Withdrawal Agreement.
These steps appear arcane, but they reflect the fact that the EU is (potentially) entering an international legally-binding treaty on behalf of 27 countries.
So, the sequence is as follows: the member states, via the meeting of EU ambassadors on Wednesday, have already agreed the decision on "signing" the treaty, effectively paving the way for Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker to sign.
That decision on signing then formally puts things over to the European Parliament, who, as it happens, can solemnly acknowledge the "signing" decision of member states at their plenary session next week in Strasbourg ahead of the parliament’s own ratification.
However, the parliament cannot ratify until the treaty is signed by Tusk, Juncker and Theresa May. When it is signed, it is completely locked, and nothing in the treaty can be changed. In other words, the European Parliament needs to know that what it is ratifying cannot ever change.
Once the parliament does ratify, then it goes back to the member states in the form of the General Affairs Council (i.e., the foreign and European affairs ministers from the 27).
It is only then that the EU concludes the treaty on Britain’s withdrawal. A formal notice is simultaneously sent to all third countries informing them that Britain is no longer part of any EU trade or other agreements.
All of this obviously sounds fabulously academic, given that there appears for the moment no remote possibility that Theresa May can get the House of Commons to ratify the treaty.
But the EU has had to take a political decision to press ahead anyway. That signal was sent in the conclusions of the European Council in December. But there have been mixed views.
"Some member states are quite keen that we proceed with our own ratification," explains a senior official close to the procedure, "and getting the parliament to start working on its consent. It’s a sign of goodwill on our side that we’re committed and we want to get the deal over the line, but also so that it doesn’t get reopened. So we want to get it locked down."
Germany, in particular, has been keen to press ahead with ratification for that very reason – that the text cannot legally be reopened. But some capitals were anxious that if the EU pursued its own ratification quickly and loudly back in November it could make life difficult for Theresa May.
"That was a school of thought back in November," says one diplomat. "Then it changed to say we shouldn’t not do it, because then would look like the treaty was not for real and we weren’t doing our part."
The real angst for the EU is to steer clear as far as possible from the Westminster chaos. "We’re walking on eggshells vis-á-vis the British debate," says one official, "and we don’t want to get in the way of it. We want to be as low on the radar screen as possible so they can have their debate."
No member state quite feels this angst as much as Ireland.
"We’re getting badgered to come on and talk about a second referendum," says one Irish official. "Trying to keep control across the Irish system is unbelievable, because it’s really none of our business. We wouldn’t like it if British politicians had started interfering in the repeal the eighth referendum. Let them get through the next week and see what comes out in the wash."
Another senior Irish figure puts it more graphically.
"I don’t think Ireland or the EU should poke our toes into a murky, bloodstained pool," says the source. "It is shark-infested. We’re not going to get involved in this domestic turmoil."
But since the Irish backstop remains the chum that the sharks are thrashing over, it is impossible for Ireland to stay aloof. The first point of any discussion in the UK media about what happens when the Withdrawal Agreement is voted down, is whether Ireland will "come under pressure" from the EU to give Theresa May more concessions so she can bring another motion before the House.
Yet, it is inconceivable at this juncture that the EU will reopen the Irish Protocol. Indeed, at the EU ambassadors meeting on Wednesday it was agreed by member states that Ireland, Spain and Cyprus would all be guaranteed a "place in the room" when the specialised committee under the overall Joint Committee between the UK and EU, envisaged under the Withdrawal Agreement, and which pertain to each of those countries’ protocols, were to take effect.
In other words, if there are any issues as to the operation of the Irish backstop that required joint management between the UK and EU, then Irish officials would have a role to play.
"It was the point where the council was in solidarity with those three countries," says an official briefed on the meeting. "Making sure they could be confident that they would be present whenever it was needed."
For now such arrangements are drowned out by the machinations of Westminster.
Tuesday's vote is certain to go down. The scale of the defeat will have some bearing on the subsequent permutations, but it is hard to say how much.
The options are roughly as follows: Theresa May will seek further assurances so she can put the deal before the Commons again; there will be a no confidence motion in the government and a general election; there will be a cross-party push for some kind of softer Brexit (either a Norway arrangement or a permanent customs union); a push for a second referendum (most likely following a general election); an extension to Article 50 (but facilitating what exactly?); and a no deal crash out.
One thing where 2018 actually does differ from 2019 is as follows. Last year the landscape was littered with likely outcomes and unlikely outcomes.
Now a scan of the horizon in 2019 reveals only unlikely outcomes. And one of those outcomes will come to pass - even if it is unlikely.
"There's a feeling that there’s a whole universe of possibilities," says one bewildered EU official, "and that every single outcome looks very, or moderately, unlikely. No outcome looks very likely. But it has to be one of those outcomes."