Brexit: London bows to a new reality
Next phase of negotiations, engaging the national interests of many more states, will be fraught and difficult
Brussels is famous for its chocolate but, as the deal on phase one of the Brexit talks reminds us, it is also a leading producer of high-grade fudge. The agreement is, in some of its key parts, an exercise in creative ambiguity. A year out from a final agreement, that was inevitable. But what remains vague and contingent on the page should not obscure the three broad trends that the deal underlines.
First, the UK is steadily moving towards the EU27 positions on all key issues. It has conceded on the sequencing of talks, on the principle of a transition period and on the divorce bill, which even ardent Brexiteers now accept will come to around £50 billion. For weeks, the right-wing British press and senior Tory politicians ridiculed the Irish Government for seeking a written pledge from the UK on how it would avoid a hard border in Ireland. Now London has provided one. Brexit is not a negotiation, it turns out, but a slow march towards British acceptance of the weakness of its own negotiating position.
Second, the deal solidifies the impression that contradictions at the heart of the UK’s approach – reflecting internal disarray within the British government – will soon reach breaking point. The irresistible logic of the position to which London has signed up on the Border is that it will end up with a soft Brexit, and a trading arrangement that, regardless of its name, looks, feels and functions like the single market and customs union. But that would breach one of the bright red lines London has clung to throughout. How Theresa May can square the circle without bringing down her own government remains an open question.
These diplomatic victories are a tribute to the Government’s persistence and to the EU’s solidarity. But as Leo Varadkar acknowledged, this is only the end of the beginning
Third, the deal confirms that the Government, faced with one of the biggest foreign policy threats since Independence, has succeeded in achieving every aim it set itself for the first phase of the Brexit talks. The Common Travel Area between Ireland and Britain will remain. The Belfast Agreement will be upheld. The rights of Irish – and therefore EU – citizens in Northern Ireland will not be compromised. And now a firm commitment that a hard Border will not be imposed. Indeed, the DUP’s intervention this week may have delivered Dublin a better deal. Last Monday the discussion centred on Northern Ireland remaining inside the trading and customs blocs. By Friday it was the entire UK that pledged to remain “fully aligned” with the Republic’s regime. Given the volume of east-west trade, that would be a much better outcome.
These diplomatic victories are a tribute to the Government’s persistence and to the EU’s solidarity. But as Leo Varadkar acknowledged, this is only the end of the beginning. Phase two, which engages the national interests of many more states, will be fraught and difficult. The real battle for Irish diplomacy will be turning these commitments into reality. That battle starts now.