London stumbles towards the exit
UK Brexit secretary David Davis and Michel Barnier, chief negotiator for the European Union, shake hands ahead of the start of Brexit negotiations in Brussels on Monday. Photograph: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg
It’s a full year since the British people voted by a narrow margin to leave the European Union and still nobody is any the wiser about what that decision will ultimately mean in practice.
Until the British general election earlier this month it appeared that the UK was on course for a hard Brexit, but the humiliation of prime minister Theresa May by the electorate has changed the political atmosphere beyond all recognition.
There is now a possibility that Brexit will be a much softer affair than May was originally planning but, given the current political chaos in Britain, it is impossible to make any firm predictions about which way it will go.
It was against that background of British confusion that the formal Brexit talks began in Brussels earlier this week when the EU chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, met the UK Brexit secretary David Davis.
It was abundantly clear before the meeting that the EU had prepared itself well with a detailed and transparent negotiating position. By contrast, the British approach appeared as vague as ever, apart from a general desire to leave the single market and the EU customs union while retaining maximum access to both.
The EU preparedness told at that very first meeting when the British were forced to back down on the sequencing of the negotiations and accept that talks about the costs of the divorce settlement would take place first before any discussions of the new terms of trade.
From an Irish point of view, the positive aspect of the exchange was that the future of the Belfast Agreement, the common travel area between Ireland and the UK and the desirability of ensuring there is no hard Border on the island all featured prominently in the first day of negotiations.
The fact that the EU has made Ireland one of its three priority issues in the talks is a tribute to the Government’s strong diplomatic campaign but also to the spirit of solidarity that underpins the EU. That was acknowledged by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at his first EU summit in Brussels yesterday.
It remains the case that the softer the Brexit the better for Ireland. The best possible outcome for this country, north and south, would be a decision by the British to remain in the customs union. That is the surest way of preventing the return of a hard trade border on the island.
At present this still seems somewhat far-fetched but given the way the political mood in the UK has been transformed over the past few months, it is not outside the bounds of possibility.
In Brussels last night May adopted a more conciliatory line than heretofore by setting out plans to give EU citizens equal rights in the UK. Hopefully that is a sign of things to come as the Brexit talks progress.