The looming ultimatum: Varadkar’s warning shot

Many thanks to Brian Walker for his posts yesterday and today about the latest developments in the Irish angle to the Brexit negotiations. I think one important dimension has been missed, however. Progress on the Irish border is one of the three priority areas of discussion where sufficient progress needs to have been made by October to move to further talks over the future UK/EU relationship. The other two are the terms of the financial settlement for Brexit, and the rights of UK citizens in the EU and vice versa.

A lot of trust and credibility (and time) has been lost by the British government’s failure to prepare, relying instead on fantasies about German industry and schoolboy insults, and serious indications of goodwill from Westminster are therefore now required. If the UK stonewalls on the three key issues, the EU will reconcile itself to a hard Brexit and officially start planning accordingly. (Unofficial planning has of course already started, though nobody will admit it.)

Now in fact, the Brussels gossip is that despite public perception, it seems plausible that a deal can be reached on citizens’ rights; and that while the British came into this month’s session of the talks in combative form on the financial deal, they went away looking rather thoughtful. (The British government’s rejection of its own Foreign Secretary’s “Go whistle!” taunt was also helpful in restoring trust on this issue.)

However, there has been zero indication of progress on how the Irish border will be regulated post-Brexit, and that frustration, more than any other calculation, was surely behind the Taoiseach’s unrehearsed comments on Friday. I don’t believe the media reports that the Irish government has, or had, a strong position on moving the functional Border to the Irish Sea. Leo Varadkar is right to say that it is up to the UK in the first place to propose a way forward – they are the ones breaking up the current system, after all – and no proposal has been forthcoming.

Rumours are now circulating that leading cabinet ministers in Whitehall are coming around to the view that the UK should stay in both the Customs Union and the Single Market for some time after 2019, for reasons largely unrelated to Ireland. Those with experience in the field have pointed out that setting up the bureaucratic machinery to administer any border regime other than a UK/EU Customs Union will take a lot longer than the 19 months between now and Brexit day. This outbreak of realism is welcome, though the Customs Union option is also far from straightforward.

Speculation about any kind of special status for Northern Ireland will remain wishful thinking unless and until London formally proposes it; nobody else at the negotiating table is going to mention it. I have to report that there is not a huge appetite for it on the EU side. It is important to understand that if such a proposal (or any proposal relating to the Border) is made by the UK, the Irish government will have a controlling interest in the EU’s response – the other EU governments and institutions recognise that this is an existential issue for the Irish state, and will defer to Dublin.

The British government has just a few weeks left to demonstrate whether it is going to take the negotiations seriously. If there is no British proposal on how the practicalities of travel and trade between Northern Ireland and Ireland can be managed, or no credible proposal, then we are headed for a hard Brexit and a hard Border – which of course would be a very undesirable outcome for the Irish state, but one entirely driven by British choices.