Brexit: Republic and EU keen to keep process alive
Irish-EU view is that an extension is the most likely outcome, followed by a UK election
British prime minister Boris Johnson’s proposals will be the starting point for new negotiations, concede Irish sources. Photograph: PA
As the EU-Ireland side began to sketch out their problems with the British proposals, they insisted they saw the Johnson plan as a serious development with which they would engage.
London signalled it could talk about refinements, but the room for manoeuvre is narrow.
So both sides are preparing for negotiations, marking out turf. When they will begin in a meaningful way is not apparent.
EU sources say there are no plans for both side to enter the “tunnel” – the tightly-sealed negotiations process which stays closed until the two sides produce an agreed text.
But observers and erstwhile participants all say that producing a complex new agreement in the time available would be extremely difficult even if there was agreement on the main points.
With the sides remaining divided on major issues, it looks impossible. But the EU does not want to dismiss the possibility of a deal in the future.
Part of all this, certainly, is managing a potential post-breakdown blame game. But it’s also because the EU knows that if, as they believe, a no-deal is prevented by the Benn Act and a UK general election follows, Johnson stands a good chance of being returned to power. Then he will be in a much stronger position to do a deal, or none
And in that case, Johnson’s proposals will be the starting point for new negotiations, Irish sources concede. If and when that happens, Dublin is laying out its principal problems – customs and the Stormont veto.
Dublin was not entirely caught on the hop by the announcement of the British proposals on Wednesday. While senior officials in Government Buildings rubbished the idea, floated in London, that the Irish side had leaked the plan to the Daily Telegraph – “that would be like the DUP leaking something to An Phoblacht,” said one official – they acknowledge that senior members of Johnson’s staff were in Dublin on Tuesday to brief officials here about the British proposals.
No documents were supplied, however.
Trust is not in huge supply in either direction. Dublin’s initial response was carefully prepared and co-ordinated with Brussels, albeit under some time pressure.
The Taoiseach and Tánaiste were both cool on the plan, pointing out the obvious flaw from Dublin’s point of view – that it provided for a customs Border in Ireland and therefore checks of some description.
By Wednesday evening, officials had settled on a line: these proposals are not the basis of a deal, but they are the basis for discussions. It chimed with the approach agreed with Brussels – don’t dismiss the plans out of hand, seek to continue engagement with the British, but don’t concede on any of the substance of the EU position.
By Thursday morning, officials had zeroed in on two major objections to the Johnson plan. And these were the basis of the statements made by both Coveney and Varadkar – who is on a sweep through Stockholm and Copenhagen for meetings with his counterparts .
Are they surmountable difficulties? Dublin would find it very hard to agree a deal that involves checks on goods moving between North and South. And while it would likely concede some role for Stormont, the Government views a veto for the DUP as unsellable domestically, as well as undesirable.
But these are decisions that Dublin expects not to have to make in the coming weeks. The core Irish-EU expectation – that an extension is the most likely outcome followed by a UK election – remains in place.
The EU expects to go toe to toe with a Johnson government. Just not yet.