Time for Brexit fudge coming to a close
Pat Leahy: Both British and Irish governments must decide on their endgames
Prime minister Theresa May: Brexit woes result from her chronic political weakness, some unfit people and the festering fissure of Conservative division on Europe. Photograph: Alex Burstow/Getty Images
Never mind the howls from London and the DUP. Wednesday’s EU text of the withdrawal agreement was neither that surprising nor all that radical. It’s only a draft, and it’s from one side. It’s a starting, not a finishing point.
It’s what happens next, when the UK eventually makes up its mind, that will present the greatest challenge yet for the Government.
The British prime minister Theresa May did what she had to do in the House of Commons on Wednesday at her weekly questions. “No UK prime minster could ever agree to it,” she told the braying Brexiteers of the green benches.
Thankfully nobody was impolite enough to point out that she had already agreed to most of it two months ago.
In December, a breakdown in the negotiations between the UK and the EU was avoided when the two sides made a political agreement which EU leaders judged to mark “sufficient progress” in the first phase of the talks. As ever in this process, it was the UK that conceded.
That enabled the talks to move to the second or “future relationship” phase, which crucially includes the trade relationship between the UK and the EU, as the UK had been impatiently seeking.
The Government heaved a sigh of relief at the December deal – not just because it avoided a breakdown, with the prospect for a hard border that such an outcome would likely herald – but because May acceded entirely to the Irish demands to make good on her pledges to avoid a hard border.
The British guarantee was set down in unambiguous terms – if the EU-UK agreement failed to provide for an open border, then the UK would ensure it. Leo Varadkar and his Ministers, having held the line in public terms with the EU against the British, allowed themselves some congratulations on it.
Decision vs fudge
But though the Irish side, and the less cautious in Brussels, paid little attention to it at the time, the British concession was not a decision on Brexit; it was a fudge.
It was a fudge that maintained the essential contradiction inherent in the British position when it comes to Brexit and the Border: out of the single market and the customs union, but no hard border.
But the time for fudging is running out, and that is why the publication of the EU’s treaty draft has received such a hostile response from London, and in Belfast from the DUP.
On the face of it, there is nothing surprising about the text: it merely translates into legally enforceable guarantees the promises that the British government made in December.
Both Michel Barnier and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney were clear that they hope and expect the British will produce proposals on the Border which will avoid the need for the guarantees in the agreement to be triggered. But neither man displays much confidence when they say it.
Because to be in a position to do that, the British government must be in a position to say what its policy is. And unbelievably, preposterously, incredibly, the British government has still not settled on a Brexit policy. That remains the single biggest issue overhanging the Brexit process.
Sooner or later, you have to assume, the British government will make up its mind. And then the Irish Government will have to make up its mind, too.
The inability of the British government to say what it wants post-Brexit and how it intends to get there would be funny if it wasn’t so serious.
It is a product of May’s chronic political weakness, the presence in her government of some people clearly unfit for the task and, above all perhaps, the festering fissure of Conservative division on Europe.
But the hopeless ambiguity of the British position on Brexit cannot go on indefinitely. For a start, you can’t negotiate if you can’t say (even to yourself) what it is you want. And the British have to negotiate the terms of Brexit, assuming they still wish to leave.
When that day comes, it will end the contradiction of leaving the customs union and the single market, while maintaining the existing open border in Ireland. Forced to choose between Brexit and Ireland, the British government – assuming it is still led by the Conservatives, a probable but not certain position – will choose Brexit. So the proposal from London will be some sort of electronic border, combined with exemptions, special arrangements and a lot of whatever is the British equivalent of “sure we’ll see how it goes”.
At this point, Varadkar and his Ministers will have their own decision to make. Do they hold out and seek EU backing to force the UK into maintaining its open border promises, risking either pressure from the EU to soften the line or a complete breakdown in the negotiations? Or do they accept arrangements which represent some friction on goods transferring over the Border, but lack any physical infrastructure? A Border, in other words, that is not as soft as it is right now, but not as hard as it used to be?
Varadkar’s government and officials in the Department of the Taoiseach and the Department of Foreign Affairs have managed the negotiations process with skill and judgment in the 20 months or so since the British referendum. Wednesday’s text was further evidence of their success in binding the EU closely to Ireland’s interests.
But in every negotiation you have to be able to figure out how and where it ends. Ultimately, barring an astonishing U-turn, the British will leave. Making the best of that – and avoiding a complete horror show – will take more of that skill and judgment, pluck and nerve in the future. The hardest bit has yet to come.
Pat Leahy is Political Editor