Irish Times view on the EU summit: worrying weeks ahead as shape of Brexit remains unclear
For all the civility of the latest EU gathering, tempers are starting to fray
British prime minister Theresa May leaves a news conference at the European Union leaders summit in Brussels.Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters
Another summit of EU leaders has come and gone and still we are not clear about what shape Brexit will take. To use the well-worn phrase, the clock is ticking. EU leaders did not judge that there was enough progress to set a date for a special summit in November to try to sign off a withdrawal agreement, though they have said that this remains possible. If the talks head towards the regular mid-December summit, with no agreement still in sight, nerves will be getting decidedly frayed.
This may not happen. We are told that the negotiations have made progress and that further work will be done. Undoubtedly, there is more going on behind the scenes than we know. But the central problems remain. The UK prime minister is under attack at home and the EU side is not clear what London is looking for, as evidenced by the events of last weekend when a possible compromise was shot down by Brexit secretary Dominic Raab. And that is before we consider the complications of getting House of Commons support for any deal.
At the centre of the talks is the so-called backstop, the legally enforceable agreement being sought to guarantee there will no hard Border on the island of Ireland, no matter what emerges from later trade talks. Both sides are seeking a deal which will ensure that underlying goal is delivered while giving Theresa May enough cover to persuade doubters at home that this insurance policy should never need to be used.
The difficulty of achieving this was again demonstrated at the summit. One suggestion that emerged was to extend the transition period, a kind of stand-still arrangement which is due under the withdrawal agreement to come into force when the UK leaves the EU next March and to last until December 2020. The view was that an extension would allow more time to finalise a new trade deal between the EU and UK – of a kind which would ensure that the backstop would not be needed.
However the immediate reaction of the Brexiteer lobby was to denounce this as tying the UK to the EU for longer, subject to its rules and also making financial contributions. It is remarkable at this stage that anyone continues to attach any credibility to unsubstantiated nonsense from this group, which is clearly happy to achieve Brexit at any cost. But unfortunately it commands enough votes in the House of Commons to endanger the passing of any deal, and apparently enough influence to threaten Theresa May’s hold on the Conservative leadership.
We now head into a worrying few weeks. For all the civility of the latest summit, tempers are starting to fray. Ireland’s goals – to avoid a hard Border and a “no-deal” exit – are both threatened. We must hope that there is a way through this mess, but it is not yet clear what it will be.