Some Brexit progress, but big questions remain in London

Amid much political huffing and puffing, the latest Brexit ‘plan’ leaves many unsure

Observers of Theresa May’s management of Brexit might raise some questions about the details and progress made. Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/Pool/EPA

Observers of Theresa May’s management of Brexit might raise some questions about the details and progress made. Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/Pool/EPA

 

There is a scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the (original) movie adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic, where Wonka (Gene Wilder) demonstrates one of the fantastical sweet machines in his factory. When Wonka puts the giant machine into operation, a tremendous whirring and banging begins, as ingredients disappear into funnels for processing; steam rises, levers extend and withdraw, wheels turn; eventually this great cacophony of industry and activity produces a small piece of gum. “Is that it?” asks Violet Beauregarde.

Observers of Theresa May’s management of Brexit might feel some affinity for Ms Beauregarde.

A great deal of political huffing and puffing, of threats and brinkmanship and arm-twisting and compromise, preceded today’s publication of the latest British proposals on Brexit. And all around Europe, the response has echoed the unfortunate Violet: “Is that it?”

Officially, it was a little more polite, if non-committal. In Brussels, Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s chief negotiator, tweeted a welcome to the British proposals, but said that he would examine it with three questions: “Is it a workable solution to avoid a hard border? Does it respect the integrity of the SM/CU? [Single market/customs union] Is it an all-weather backstop?”

“All weather” is the new buzzphrase in the Brexit negotiations about the backstop, and means that it must be effective in both the good weather of an agreed EU-UK solution to the Border, but also in the bad weather of no agreement.

Instant assessments

Nowhere is the Brexit weather watched more closely than in Dublin, where officials were poring over the British draft yesterday, flashing instant assessments and reactions to the Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, who is in the Middle East for a three-day visit.

Coveney’s initial statement was cool, with no sign of a welcome. He stressed the need for “substantial progress” on the backstop in advance of the summit in Brussels at the end of this month.

Officials in Dublin pointed out the obvious holes in the British document – it’s silent on the single market, silent on regulatory alignment, silent on the role of the European Court of Justice, and there is little detail on how the British proposals for remaining in the customs union but still agreeing trade deals with third countries would actually work.

But actually there were some pluses for Dublin in the document. The prospect of long-term customs union membership, or at least equivalence, doesn’t just solve Dublin’s North-South problem, but also its East-West one.

Crucially, the time limit to the backstop in the document, much heralded by the British media, is actually aspirational. The backstop only ends in 2021 if there’s something better in place.

Scepticism

There’s plenty of scepticism about the document in Dublin and Brussels. But at the same time, officials were keen to acknowledge that it represents progress, and a willingness to engage.

Yesterday’s document doesn’t of itself constitute “sufficient progress” – and in truth, the timelines in advance of the summit don’t allow for much more progress to be made – but there appears to be little appetite in Dublin or elsewhere for a showdown in Brussels in three weeks time. Better to keep the show on the road, many think, on the basis that at every stage, the British have more or less acceded to the EU position in the end.

One of the great frustrations that Dublin and Brussels have with London in this process is that it takes so long, and requires so much effort in London to achieve so little progress.

But the EU can handle that. Painstaking negotiations, institutional design, incremental progress – this is what the EU does. The question is whether Mrs May can handle it. As ever in Brexit, the European side is pretty transparent on what it will and won’t do. The real questions remain in London.

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