Irish Times view on the Brexit talks: a precarious stand-off

Theresa May returned from Salzburg with a rejection of her Chequers plan and a chorus of headlines proclaiming she had been ambushed and embarrassed

Britain’s prime minister Theresa May makes a statement on Brexit negotiations with the European Union at  10 Downing Street. Photograph: Jack Taylor/Reuters

Britain’s prime minister Theresa May makes a statement on Brexit negotiations with the European Union at 10 Downing Street. Photograph: Jack Taylor/Reuters

 

The Brexit talks have come to the crunch. Perhaps this was inevitable but it is deeply worrying that the key problems evident for many months have yet to be addressed. In particular, there is no sign of a route to an agreement on a backstop for the Irish Border – a guarantee that a hard border would not reappear on the island after Brexit, no matter what new trading arrangements are agreed between the UK and the European Union.

Theresa May returned from the Salzburg summit of EU leaders with a rejection of her Chequers plan, and a chorus of negative headlines proclaiming she had been ambushed and embarrassed. Her response – delivered in No 10 Downing Street with two union flags strategically positioned behind her – was crafted, no doubt, with an eye to the upcoming Conservative Party conference.

Events at the summit highlighted just how precarious the stand-off remains and why a destructive “no deal” Brexit remains a possibility. The EU leaders had been expected to give the UK prime minister the space to get through the party conference season. However, perhaps driven by her approach to them over dinner, they underlined their opposition to the Chequers plan. Her tactics were ill-judged but it is hard to see what was achieved by humiliating her.

It is important to realise what has to be agreed as part of the withdrawal process – and what doesn’t. The main issue to be sorted is the Irish Border backstop, as well as a political declaration on how the two sides plan to conduct their future relationship. Detailed trade negotiations will come later.

The UK has continually failed to take a realistic and detailed approach to the Brexit talks, perhaps explaining the irritation of EU leaders. Lead European negotiator Michel Barnier has tried to persuade London that conducting customs and regulatory checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea – the key behind the EU’s backstop plan – need not be intrusive or disruptive. But for London and the DUP, the North being in a separate customs territory to the rest of the UK is seen as “breaking up our country” and a step too far.

But the UK signed up to the backstop last December. And if London has another proposal on how it should work, then it must come forward with it. The concern is that it has no such plan and is merely playing for time, hoping for a concession from the EU and Ireland at the eleventh hour. The difficulty for Ireland, meanwhile, is that Brexit will bring heavy costs whatever happens and it is very much in our interest to avoid a “no deal” scenario.

There is still time for both sides to draw breath and make progress. But for this to happen, the UK has to be prepared to engage on a realistic basis. That this has yet to happen so late in the day is a cause for ever growing concern.

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