Paul Gillespie: Ireland must look beyond current crisis to Brexit endgame
Preparing an acceptable deal will require imaginative involvement by Irish and British governments
Theresa May: set out what she called “hard facts” about leaving the European Union in a major speech on Friday. Photograph: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty
“We are heading for a big collision on this. It is unavoidable. The Irish border is where reality meets Brexit fantasy.”
This comment on the full alignment of UK to EU rules on the Irish border given to the Financial Times by a senior negotiator of the joint report agreed by the UK and the EU last December was prescient and is now coming to pass.
The contortions we are witnessing this week by radical Brexiteers trying to wriggle out of the agreement in order to preserve their freedom of manoeuvre reveal their opportunism – and also that of the British government as a whole.
That the fudge widely remarked on then was more on their side than the EU’s is also clear from this week’s draft legal agreement putting the joint report into treaty language. It remains a draft subject to negotiation, but reveals another feature of the drama; the balance of power in the negotiations is loaded against the British.
They are the demandeurs seeking change from outside the EU system. They no longer have the leverage to seek opt-outs or bespoke solutions within but threaten the EU’s unity and cohesion if they are accommodated.
It follows that the British political crisis over what their demands are must be resolved before the talks can properly proceed. All the signs of a crunch point are there in the compressed timing of the talks next month and this year, the line-up of former senior officials and politicians urging the British government to stay close to the EU customs union and in the radical Brexiteers’ efforts to subvert the Belfast Agreement to prevent that happening.
Political scenarios arising from Theresa May’s speech yesterday include when there will be a parliamentary vote on what she is demanding, whether there is a majority for leaving the customs union now Labour has moved towards staying in a version of it, what happens if she wins and loses and whether a loss might trigger a change of government, a general election with a possible Conservative split and a Labour victory.
From the Irish point of view it is important to look beyond and over this political crisis towards the wider endgame of the talks and where it will leave Ireland in a EU without the UK.
A softer Brexit outcome preserving the customs union to keep the Irish border open is very much in the Irish interest but would require a willingness on the EU side to match British demands for some bespoke aspects in an agreement.
Preparing a deal acceptable to both sides would need imaginative involvement by the Irish and British governments in bilateral talks to bring it to Brussels. That is a highly sensitive matter at this stage of the negotiations, but it should be discussed in anticipation of the British political crisis being resolved.
If it is resolved soon and more clarity emerges than was apparent in yesterday’s May speech, would there be greater goodwill around the EU to seek a softer outcome that would suit Ireland? Arguably the answer is yes.
The expected shakeout of interests around Europe, including German industrial ones and those arising from Dutch, Belgian and Nordic states with close trading links to the UK would have space to proceed.
The solidarity shown so far to Ireland has depended on skilful diplomacy, the balance of power in negotiating positions and the evident disarray on the UK side along with bad faith of the radical Brexiteers who want to see the whole EU enterprise collapse.
If that is so it makes sense to explore carefully what would be involved a new regime linking to UK to the EU. Given the size of its economy and importance for political and security in Europe it should be possible without relying only on off the shelf models from Norway, Turkey or Canada.
Hints from Macron and the Italians along these lines are worth pursuing. So are the voices in Britain supporting the integrity of the Belfast Agreement and in Northern Ireland those of the non-doctrinaire unionists saying likewise.
Brexit fantasies about bespoke outcomes have this week met the realities of last December’s agreement in a dramatic manifestation of how European and domestic politics are entangled.
Ireland is in the eye of the storm because the EU’s border runs through this island. It is time to trade off priorities on all sides. A strategic approach is particularly needed in both parts of Ireland if the crisis is to be steered towards a beneficial outcome.