Shifting Brexit sands may afford leaders an opportunity
Varadkar and Johnson may yet find common ground at scheduled Dublin meeting
‘First it was no checks at all, and no Border infrastructure anywhere. Then it was possible checks but not on or near the Border.’
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar meets British prime minister Boris Johnson in Dublin on Monday morning for talks after a week in which both leaders changed their lines on Brexit.
The movement in London this week was erratic, unpredictable and unreliable; in Dublin it was slow and carefully planned. Johnson still has a way to go before a non-disastrous resolution to Brexit becomes even possible. But when both men meet at Farmleigh House, they might – just might – have some common ground to discuss.
Johnson has endured the worst week of any prime minister in recent memory. His wafer-thin majority vanished before his eyes as Conservative MP Philip Lee traipsed across the floor of the House of Commons and took a new place on the Liberal benches. The new prime minister – who voted against his own government a few months ago – greeted a rebellion of Conservative grandees by expelling all of them, throwing his party into turmoil. Parliament voted to compel him to seek a Brexit extension, then denied him his route to a general election. His brother then resigned from the Cabinet and he ended the week pledging to die in a ditch. Politically speaking, he looks pretty close to getting his wish.
But it was his comments on Thursday in west Yorkshire that aroused interest in Irish Government circles. Johnson indicated that he could be open to the extension of all-Ireland arrangements for animals into other sectors, describing it as “the germ of a solution” that could overcome the stalemate on the withdrawal agreement.
To officials in Dublin and Brussels, this signalled that the Northern Ireland-only backstop – previously jettisoned by Theresa May because of unionist objections – could make a comeback. It’s not on the table yet, but it could be on the sideboard. Varadkar and Johnson are certain to discuss the idea on Monday, say sources. But Dublin has already signalled its openness to such an initiative if it materialises.
Assuming the visit goes ahead – officials are operating on the basis that it will would do so on Friday, though without a huge amount of certainty – and if there is an agreed statement, observers will be watching for any signals on this front. Lots of ifs although that’s hardly surprising after the past week.
Varadkar will certainly lay out Ireland’s red lines to Johnson. He will also tell him that he’s not negotiating – that’s Michel Barnier’s job. He will not agree to a shaky, leaky version of the backstop, and he will not compromise Ireland’s membership of the single market. But he will want a deal between the EU and UK if it can be reached. The ramifications for no-deal at the Border alone – apart from the broader economic implications – are reason enough for that.
And there are signs that these are weighing more heavily on Dublin’s mind. Varadkar’s approach to and management of Brexit has never had the erratic and inconsistent character of the British government’s. But on the question of Border checks in the event of no deal, the Government position has been in flux for months. First it was no checks at all, and no Border infrastructure anywhere. Then it was possible checks but not on or near the Border – something Tánaiste Simon Coveney was saying as recently as July. In recent weeks, Coveney has been acknowledging the inevitability of checks somewhere.
Demands to spell it out in more detail have proliferated. So when Varadkar told the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce dinner on Thursday evening that there would probably have to be checks on goods near the Border, he was facing up to the political necessity to be a bit more frank about the effects of no deal on the Border.
What are the unknowns?
Government sources say this isn’t happening by accident – there is a deliberate and planned process of preparing the ground for no deal. It will continue in the weeks ahead, they say. Certainly, once the Dáil returns from its summer recess the week after next, Varadkar can expect plenty of questions about it on the floor of the House. He can probably expect questions from Johnson too.
But the principal unknown in Brexit is not Ireland’s or the EU’s position. It is the ultimate destination of Britain’s Brexit wars and that is impossible to predict. By this time next week, an election campaign could be under way in the UK. Or, having failed to get an election, Johnson could have resigned, and a new government could be in place. Either way, an election cannot be far away.
If Johnson is prime minister with a majority after that election, his position will be crucial for this country. A shift to a Northern Ireland backstop with appropriate safeguards for British sovereignty and the integrity of the EU single market would very likely be acceptable to Ireland and the EU. The question is whether Boris Johnson wants to, and can, deliver it. Come Monday lunchtime, Varadkar – who puts much store on one-on-one meetings with other leaders – may be in a better position to make a judgment.