Brexit breakthrough enabled by an almost complete British retreat

Boris Johnson boshed his way into the summit chamber, bowing theatrically

The rain was back in Brussels yesterday, as EU leaders departed yet another summit dominated by Brexit. A burst of sunshine and satisfaction had greeted the conclusion of the new Brexit agreement with the UK on Thursday morning, but by Friday it had fermented into something more familiar: a growing worry that the House of Commons would say no again.

Over in Westminster there were clouds gathering too. Conservative whips were bribing, threatening, badgering and begging. The British press corps in Brussels estimated that Boris Johnson was a few votes short. EU leaders shrugged about Johnson’s chances of getting the deal passed in Westminster.

“He certainly seemed very confident,” Arturs Krisjanis Karins, the Latvian prime minister, said of Johnson’s assessment to EU leaders of his own chances of passing the treaty.

“I don’t know,” said prime minister of Luxembourg Xavier Bettel, stopping on his way past the Sky News crew. “Fingers crossed.”

Intense behind-the-scenes negotiations had continued until the early hours of Thursday morning, as officials wrestled with the last-minute details. They agreed a text, but final sign-off was needed from the political leaders if it was to be put before the European Council later that day for approval. And Johnson still had a problem with the DUP, who weren’t for turning. Before 7am the DUP issued a short statement. They wouldn’t sign up, although they held the door open for more talks. But in Brussels, time was up.

At 9.30am European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker phoned Johnson. There was no more time; Johnson had about an hour to decide whether to go for the deal, otherwise it would be too late to put the deal to the leaders for approval. EU countries would not agree to a deal that was sprung on them around the summit table. A bit more than an hour later, Johnson phoned back. The deal was on.

It was a political coup for Johnson, certainly. The EU had said it wouldn’t change the agreement, wouldn’t renegotiate, wouldn’t budge. But Johnson said he could get a new deal and he did.

However, the breakthrough was enabled by an almost complete British retreat. It had always been suspected in Dublin that if Johnson did not need the DUP, he would be happy to “throw them under a bus”. But even Dublin was surprised by the alacrity with which he performed the manoeuvre over recent days.

Varadkar’s gamble

The EU moved too, of course. Varadkar had long mulled a compromise on the backstop that could break the Brexit logjam. He knew that the reality of keeping the North in an arrangement under the backstop that it opposed was shaky in the long term. That underpinned the concession on consent that he had indicated in recent weeks to Johnson. The time limit was just a function of that. Varadkar was willing to bet that the North would never vote for a hard border. If it was a gamble, it was a calculated one, with the odds heavily stacked in his favour.

By 2pm on Thursday the leaders were performing the ritual saunter in along the red carpet of the Europa building, most stopping for a few words with journalists from their home countries, jammed together behind the barriers. All welcomed the deal – good for the UK, good for Ireland, good for the EU. Few were willing to speculate about what happened if the deal was rejected by MPs.

But there were flashes of the behind-the-scenes tension that had been ever-present in recent days. “I’m speaking!” Juncker shouted at a British journalist who interrupted mid-answer. Juncker – attending what may be his last summit – seemed tired and resigned throughout the two days. His expression and demeanour seemed to say: will this ever end?

Boris Johnson, by contrast, seemed to be having the time of his life. He joshed with Junker at a photocall, and later boshed his way into the summit chamber, bowing theatrically to new European Parliament president David Sassoli, hugging Xavier Bettel, the ebullient Luxembourg premier and mock-saluting French president Emmanuel Macron. The contrast with the pictures of Theresa May at previous summits – stiff, stoic, solitary – couldn’t have been greater.

Power brokers

Around 7pm, the meeting broke and the Taoiseach, flanked by Junker, Donald Tusk and Michel Barnier gave a press conference to announce the deal’s acceptance. If you haven’t seen the picture of Varadkar at the centre of Europe’s power brokers, rest assured Fine Gael will be showing it to you soon. In a speech that caused many to wonder if he might one day come to Brussels on a more permanent basis, Varadkar hailed the EU as “a force for good in the world” and the defender of small nations like Ireland. He also promised that there would “always be a place at the table for the United Kingdom if they were ever to choose to come back”.

But Johnson wasn’t giving up his place at the table just yet. His aides said he had decided to stay for the summit dinner. Sure why not? Everyone seemed to be getting on so well.

Or maybe not. The dinner session – pumpkin mousse, sauerkrat soup, roast veal with green beans and figs in puff pastry, if you must know – went on until after midnight, but there was no agreement on the accession of North Macedonia and Albania, one of the non-Brexit issues to which the EU was so keen to move. Most countries were happy to accept the commission’s recommendation to open accession talks – or at least with North Macedonia – but France wasn’t having it. The proposal was blocked. The leaders eventually headed for bed after 1.30am.

Despite the failure to agree anything over dinner, the leaders were happy with their work. As the rout of the British has shown (and remember, there is a long process of agreeing a trade deal to come), the EU is a negotiating machine, and it is very, very good at it. But it is ultimately led by politicians, and politicians are by nature inclined towards compromise. A lot of politics is about making deals. And there was satisfaction at this summit that a deal had been made.

Politicians are also inclined to take credit for things. Even so, the intervention of the Polish prime minister, who claimed that Polish diplomacy had been central to the new Brexit agreement, took people by surprise.

Mateusz Morawiecki said the deal was “an enormous success of Polish diplomacy”. He later posted on Twitter that the Polish sauerkraut soup on the dinner menu was a crucial ingredient in putting everyone in the mood for a deal. Well, it’s not the biggest fib that’s been told about Brexit.

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times