Irish Times view on Brexit negotiations: stretching trust and ingenuity
Brussels and Dublin willing to test out Theresa May’s willingness to proceed with more intense negotiations over the summer
British prime minister Theresa May in the middle of a political confrontation with hard Brexiteers in her Conservative party. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Pool via Reuters
Theresa May’s call in Belfast yesterday on European Union representatives to “evolve their positions” on negotiating Brexit in response to her government’s White Paper setting out its proposals invites them to trust her ability to deliver an eventual agreement. That is a tall order coming just after she said the UK cannot continue to support the backstop position she signed in December last guaranteeing Northern Ireland’s continued participation in the EU’s customs union and single market should no agreement be reached. Trust is needed on both sides if the talks are to succeed.
May is still in the middle of a political confrontation with hard Brexiteers in her Conservative party that she must win if the softer Brexit both she and the EU side prefer is to be agreed. It has been impossible to make proper progress with the talks while her party conducted this parallel negotiation with itself. Since her cabinet met at Chequers two weeks ago to agree on the proposals contained in the subsequent White Paper, two major and several minor ministers have resigned and she has struggled desperately to maintain her slim parliamentary majority. This week she made concessions to the hard Brexiteers, including a crucial one ruling a specific Northern Ireland backstop unlawful.
Those dealing with her must decide whether she can deliver a sustainable outcome, including by making further compromises on her red lines. Such flexibility is difficult for both sides. It is imprudent from the EU if it cannot be reciprocated and it also sucks May further into battles she will not win in her party. Hence the increasing talk of a possible split in the Conservatives, a national government or an autumn general election. Hence also the greater preparedness for a breakdown of negotiations and a failure to agree terms for UK withdrawal from the EU. That would be catastrophic for Britain, Ireland and other EU partners as many argue, including the International Monetary Fund this week.
Yesterday’s responses to May from Brussels and Dublin were cautious and critical yet prepared to test out her willingness to proceed with more detailed and intense negotiations over the summer and into the autumn. That is a welcome and sensible approach. The British proposals raise many troublesome questions about cherry-picking, border checks and unfair competition yet promise progress on other essential issues.
The Government is right to hold the British to the backstop agreed on Northern Ireland and has full support on that question from Brussels. It must now explore imaginative ways to find a satisfactory outcome to these talks with its EU partners and encourage a similar willingness for creative ideas in Northern Ireland and Britain. Such goodwill could make a real contribution if it is reciprocated by UK negotiators.