Brexit: sharper tone reflects realities

EU27 holds nearly all the cards in exit negotiations with the UK

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Queen’s University in Belfast last week on his first visit to Northern Ireland. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Queen’s University in Belfast last week on his first visit to Northern Ireland. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

 

The first significant deadline in the Brexit negotiations is fast approaching, but key players are increasingly sceptical about their ability to meet it. The milestone comes in October, when negotiators hope to have made “sufficient progress” for the EU27 to approve the opening of talks on the future EU-UK relationship. But the slow pace to date has prompted Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, to warn that British ill-preparedness could scupper the timetable. His concern is shared by the Government, which fears that without more hard-headed engagement from London the first round of talks could meander into next year.

That partly explains the more assertive public stance of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on one of the issues that most exercises Dublin: the future of the Border. Varadkar noted that the British had had 14 months to come up with their own proposals, and remarked that Dublin was “not going to design a border for the Brexiteers”. The shift in tone has drawn criticism from the Democratic Unionist Party, while Fianna Fáil has described as “reckless” Varadkar’s instruction to Revenue officials to stop exploring technological solutions to the Border dilemma.

For two decades, Dublin and London have proceeded with exceptional care on issues related to Northern Ireland, anxious to project unity and avoid causing offence. That makes the Government’s hardening rhetoric, and its open criticism of British inertia, all the more striking. The shift is partly down to personalities. Varadkar is more direct than his emollient and confrontation-averse predecessor, Enda Kenny. He is also the first Taoiseach to come of age in the post-ceasefire era, which may well shape his approach. But the shift also reflects new political realities. The balance of power in the Brexit negotiations is such that the EU27, including Ireland, holds nearly all the cards. Dublin sees that London is coming to terms with reality – its acknowledgment of the need for a transition period is the latest sign – but doing so very slowly. With no proposals forthcoming from London on the Border, and no Executive in Belfast, Varadkar has calculated that the time is right to speak up and try to focus minds.

The risk is that his approach could damage relationships. Fianna Fáil also has a point that it makes sense to prepare for all eventualities. But it is also important to stand up for Ireland’s vital interests, and to level with our British partners, and the public at large, about the challenges ahead. It is no secret that London is in disarray over Brexit, and that Dublin is alarmed by that. The Government is also well aware that, in expressing its misgivings so plainly, it is, unlike the DUP or Downing Street, in sync with the majority of Northern voters. Ultimately, Dublin’s goal – a deal that results in the least possible change at the Border – is in the interests of Ireland, Britain and the EU.

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