How solidarity has its limits and Ireland's greatest Brexit fear may still come to pass

The Irish know what they are talking about when it comes to declarations and clarifications

Video footage of an exchange between Jean Claude Juncker and Theresa May appears to show a tense UK Prime Minister confronting the president of the European Commission before discussions yesterday (December 13th). Video: EU Commission

Perhaps the time will come in this intractable, interminable saga of Britain leaving the European Union, when Ireland is squeezed.

When the interests of a small member state will be weighed against the union as a whole and Ireland is, ah, persuaded to ease off slightly on its demands for a cast-iron guarantee that no border will again divide the island.

When the “solidarity” – a favourite word here in Brussels – and support extended to Ireland reaches its limits as the prospect of the serious economic dislocation promised by a sudden, disorganised British exit weighs heavier and heavier in the inner chambers of the European decision-makers.

This has been the secret Irish fear. It has been given voice by people who know what they are talking about, such as Bertie Ahern. And it has been a central part of what passes for the British strategy, if the sorry procession of bluster, brinkmanship and retreat led by Theresa May can be called such a thing.


But on the evidence of this latest European summit, that time has not yet come. Nor is there any sign of it in the middle distance.

One by one, EU leaders lined up on Thursday to reiterate the simple maxim: the deal is the deal. The backstop stays. No other deal is on offer.

French president Emmanuel Macron emphasised that discussions on Brexit at the summit would be "political" not "legal".

Croatian prime minister Andrej Plenkovic said that the offer on the table was very good and will not be renegotiated.

Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurtz said: “I spoke yesterday with prime minister May over the phone and explained to her that a reopening of the Brexit agreement is simply not possible.”

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte said that EU leaders could “listen and offer clarifications.”

However, he said, “it will be impossible to break open the negotiated withdrawal agreement. That is a given.”

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said it too. He said the EU was “very keen to offer explanations, clarifications, assurances, anything that may assist MPs to understand the agreement. And hopefully to support it. But the backstop is not on the table.”

In response, May played down the expectations of an “immediate breakthrough”. It wasn’t clear who exactly harboured these expectations.

The Irish know what they are talking about when it comes to declarations, clarifications, statements of intention, political assurances that can sometimes follow contentious European treaties. There have been protocols on abortion (Maastricht), declarations on neutrality (Nice), assurances on the size of the European Commission (Lisbon) and guarantees which were a binding agreement under international law but only became part of EU law when converted into a protocol some years later (also Lisbon).

If you can’t ratify a treaty, the EU has a bag of procedural wheezes designed to make the task easier.

But what it can’t – and won’t do – and the common thread between all the above is change the text and legal effect of the treaty itself. The Irish were repeatedly assured that treaties that had nothing to do with neutrality and abortion had nothing to do with neutrality and abortion. That is unlikely to suffice in this case.

May’s problem is not that people are afraid the treaty is about something that it is not; it is that they object to what it is about. They object to the backstop. The very clear position in Brussels on Thursday night – at this stage anyway – is that the backstop is not changing.

That means, as the Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, in Brussels for a meeting of the European liberals on the fringes of the summit, observed, that the ball is in Westminster’s court.

Trouble is, Westminster hasn’t a clue whether it wants to run, pass or kick. Truth be told, Westminster doesn’t really know what game it is playing.