Another leak against the Brits, but Theresa’s not for budging

Another leak to RTE, another bout of Irish pressure, accompanied by Irish Times columnist Stephen Collins joining a chorus of “ contempt” for British tactics and urging his government to stand firm.

The (British position that the) Border issue should be dealt with in phase two of the Brexit negotiations dealing with future trade rather than in phase one as the EU is insisting.

This is an obvious attempt to use the Border as a bargaining tool in the negotiations that the British really care about: the future trading relationship between the UK and the EU.

Thankfully from an Irish perspective the EU wide consensus that the Border issue needs to be sorted out in phase one is holding strong at European Commission level and across the member states with EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier refusing to budge from that position as late as Monday of this week.

While  I accept that deep frustration is natural, I can’t  for the life of me see how it can be sorted without turning to the bigger picture on trade. And why please is it so essential to “sort” out the Irish border first?  The UK can hardly allow the Irish tail to wag the Brexit dog. The deadlock  lies at the heart of the entire negotiation, on the final agreement over trade,  tariffs and customs; it can’t be hived off as a special category like the money. Indeed Dublin commentators  are really aware of this while joining the joust against the Brits. They are  to fear that at this stage the EU will sell them short. For in truth Ireland is a pawn in the game for both sides.

In the meantime quite a lot of fun is to be had in reading the candid opinions of the EU side, gathered by excellent diplomats of the DFA. They would be a tiny bit more worrying if they included quotes from the big players in the Merkel and Macron teams.

During a meeting in Luxembourg, the British judge in the European Court of Justice bemoaned “the quality of politicians in Westminster”.

Ian Forrester wondered if the British public might view Brexit as “a great mistake” when they realised what leaving the EU entailed.

A minister in the Czech government told his Irish interlocutors that Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was “unimpressive”, but that at least he had “avoided any gaffes” during a visit in September.

The Czech Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs Jakub Dürr told officials “he felt sorry for British Ambassadors around the EU trying to communicate a coherent message when there is political confusion at home”.

The president of the European commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, who will have a crunch dinner with May on 4 December, said on Thursday that it would be seen in the next few days whether Brexit talks with Britain had made enough progress to enter a second phase of negotiations.

“We are in intense negotiation with the UK to end the first phase of the talks about topics such as citizen rights, the ‘Ireland problem’, the bill that will have to be paid… The worst is behind us, but there has not been sufficient progress for me to say that we can enter the second phase of the talks about our relationship in the future. We’ll see that within the next few days.”

In PMQs yesterday no budging from Theresa May

 We are very clear that in relation to the movement of people, the common travel area will continue to operate, as it has done since 1923. On trade, and the movement of goods and services across the border, we will not see the introduction of a hard border. We have been very clear that we will not put physical infrastructure at the border.

We have been engaging fully in the negotiations in relation to Northern Ireland and other issues, and indeed significant progress has been made. That is why, for example, I have said that we have got agreement on the operation of the common travel area for the future. He says that we have not put out any ideas about the border, but I have to say to him that we published a paper back in the summer on possible customs arrangements. We are very happy to move to further detailed discussions of the customs and trading relationship that will exist not just between Northern Ireland and the Republic, but between the United Kingdom and the European Union. That does mean moving on to phase 2.

In other words, if there is to be a hard border, it’ll be down to the EU.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London