Dublin wonders why May is coming over here to meet Varadkar
A common view is PM's visits to Brussels and Dublin are to show activity, momentum
As British prime minister Theresa May prepared to fly into Dublin to meet Taoiseach Leo Varadkar for dinner and discussions on Brexit tonight, the most common question among political and official sources in Dublin was “why is she coming?”
Irish sources said the meeting, which was requested by 10 Downing Street, is part of a round of shuttle diplomacy by Mrs May in advance of key Brexit votes in the House of Commons next week.
She was in Brussels yesterday to see European Council president Donald Tusk, his commission counterpart Jean Claude Juncker and the European Parliament’s Brexit chief, Guy Verhofstadt.
The reaction among political and official sources in Dublin when Mrs May’s trip was announced was surprise, with Government insiders wondering exactly what would be achieved by it.
Dublin made little effort to conceal its scepticism.
“She’s very welcome, of course,” said one high-ranking official. “But you’d wonder what she could possibly be coming with?”
The verdict of another senior source close to the Brexit decision-making was that her arrival was “not that significant”.
Activity and momentum
A common view in Dublin is that Mrs May’s visits to Brussels and Dublin are intended to show activity and momentum to those watching in Westminster in order to help her get through next week’s votes – especially a proposal by Labour MP Yvette Cooper which would compel her government to take the no-deal option off the table.
Mrs May will ask her MPs to let her continue the effort to change the controversial Northern Ireland backstop and request that her hands not be tied at this stage in the process.
Government gossips delight in recounting tales of the frosty atmosphere during encounters between the two
Mrs May’s aspiration for help from Ireland and the EU is not entirely built on sand. Tucked in a corner of the statement she and Mr Juncker issued yesterday was the revelation that the British and EU negotiating teams are going to re-engage next week. The prime minister will return to Brussels for further talks the week after.
A process has begun but whether it yields a productive outcome for both sides is another matter.
Tonight’s meeting is part of it all but Dublin was very clear about what the encounter was not. “This is not a bilateral negotiation on Brexit,” Government Buildings said, in a clear indication that expectations for the meeting, to put it mildly, are not all that high.
The two leaders do not have an easy relationship, and all their previous meetings have come across as scratchy.
Government gossips delight in recounting second- and third-hand tales of the frosty atmosphere during encounters between the two.
Insiders joked about giving the pair plenty of wine at tonight’s dinner to see if that helps ease matters
Even people with more direct knowledge of the meetings describe them as “difficult” or sometimes “very difficult”.
Insiders joked about giving the pair plenty of wine at tonight’s dinner to see if that helps ease matters. But the chasm between Ireland the UK is not about the two leaders: it is about the terms under which the UK leaves the European Union and specifically how that relates to Ireland.
Mrs May knows what the Irish position is – no reopening of the (legally binding) withdrawal agreement, but scope for all sorts of reassurances and declarations in the (not legally binding) political declaration.
That was what she heard in Brussels yesterday, too.
But Mrs May wants – and needs – some concession on the backstop that would enable her to get a tweaked deal through the House of Commons. She wants a time-limit, or a process for the UK to exit the backstop, or a combination of both.
Perhaps there may come a time in the fraught weeks ahead when that is up for discussion. But it is not yet, certainly. If that’s what Mrs May asks for tonight, she should be prepared for a rebuff.