The current British position is admirably described by James Forsyth in the Brexit leaning, Conservative supporting Spectator. I can do no better than to quote it at length. It covers a viewpoint that cannot be dismissed by ardent Remainers like me. Whatever the mood music, it will be taken seriously in the chancelleries of Europe. For they see that the British are gradually shifting. The next few weeks are the time for quiet diplomacy with the megaphone put away and the tweeting held in check.
Forsyth follows the prevailing depiction in Brexit and government circles of Leo Varadkar as a young bull in a china shop too callow to realise that it’s full of fragile items. Towards the end he quotes a stern warning to Ireland from a British government source.
In the run-up to Monday’s meeting, No. 10 tried to assure ministers that the EU wouldn’t just be able to pocket the money on offer and move on. I am told that the plan was to make the offer clear privately to the EU Council president, Donald Tusk; the Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker; the French president, Emmanuel Macron; and the German chancellor Angela Merkel. Only if all of them agreed that the offer allowed talks to move on to the next stage would the UK make it formal.
But there’s a hitch in this plan. Merkel, whose attempts to put together a governing coalition have just collapsed, is not free to get heavily involved in the Brexit negotiations.
It won’t just be the money that’s an issue at the December Council. Under its new Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, the Irish Republic has taken a strident tone on the border and Brexit. (If British politicians talked about a majority of the Irish electorate the way Varadkar does about Brexiteers, they would rightly be chastised.) The Irish position is now that there must be a guarantee that Northern Ireland won’t diverge at all from the rules of the single market and the customs union. Essentially, this would have the effect of placing a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK because this country is leaving both the single market and the customs union.
The Irish proposal is quite remarkable: it is a state seeking to divide its neighbour economically. This despite the fact that only 15 per cent of Northern Irish exports go to the Republic while 60 per cent go to the rest of the UK.
It is often said that this idea is a non-starter because of Theresa May’s reliance on the Democratic Unionist Party. But this is to miss the point. Even if she had a majority of 100, she could not accept an internal UK customs border. As one cabinet minister who supported Remain points out to me: ‘It is not just the hard right of the Tory party for whom this is non-negotiable.’
Inside government, there is mounting anger at the way that the Taoiseach and his team are behaving. One normally mild-mannered cabinet member tells me that Varadkar is ‘playing with fire’. Another complains that the Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney has his own leadership ambitions, so is making the situation even worse.
Dublin is taking a huge risk with its hardline approach. No decent UK government could agree to what it is demanding. It is therefore making the collapse of the Brexit talks more likely. If these negotiations do fail, the effect on Ireland’s economy would be dire. As one government source warns: ‘If we crash out, they crash even further.’
If the talks do move on to phase two in December, the UK government will have to quickly set out what it wants. Last weekend, Philip Hammond appeared to suggest that he was moving away from the idea of staying as aligned to the EU as possible in regulation. He suggested that one economic positive of Brexit would be the ability to pursue a different regulatory approach to fast-changing industries. But I understand that the current favoured approach in the Department for Exiting the European Union is for any divergence to be limited to the service sector.
There is a temptation to view the deal with the EU as the determinant of the UK’s future prosperity. But what Britain does itself will be far more important than the terms of our exit. This is why it is crucial that any trade agreement allows this country to go its own way on things such as gene editing, driverless cars and artificial intelligence.
What is no nearer resolution is the kind of final relationship with the EU that the UK is aiming for. Boris Johnson hoped the government would have made more internal progress on this point. Instead, there have been only vague assurances that this matter — which is far more important than the money or the transition — will be discussed before the end of the year
And this is surely the main point. The issue for the British is whether to mirror the customs union and achieve near-free trade on mainly EU terms. Or something else, as yet undefined. On whatever that might be, the cabinet still cannot decide.
Theresa May has three weeks to stitch a proposal together again. Varadkar should give her space to do so. She may, claim the Mail and the Sun, be prepared to eat her words and give a role to the European Court of Justice after all.( and they seem remarkably restrained about it). That suggests a willingness to keep regulations harmonised, and may just be enough to set the ball rolling through to the trade phase.
But this would not bring clarity on the border. Much then would depend on what Vardakar would accept short of written guarantees. The British might offer him a “rolling veto” in progress and a work plan on a customs agreement . Would Varadkar take it and would Martin let him in the present febrile circumstances?
There is hope.
While his piece is headlined Relations between Dublin and London have not been so strained for years London editor Denis Staunton’s latest analysis in the Irish Times from the Irish viewpoint hints at some pushback from Varadkar’s blunt demand for the UK to make a written declaration outlining how it plans to avoid a hard Border.
“Every detail cannot be solved at this stage, but what is needed is a firm commitment from the UK that the final outcome will maintain the openness and invisibility that characterises the Border today with its 300 crossings along 300 miles, and that such an outcome will respect Ireland’s position and related responsibilities as an EU member-state”, the Ambassador said on Wednesday.
British officials are hoping that Ireland’s EU partners will tell Varadkar that they cannot allow the Irish issue to hold up progress, particularly in view of Britain’s substantial financial offer. There are signs that a compromise might be possible, perhaps in the form of a British declaration and an EU commitment to defend Ireland’s interests in the second phase of the negotiations.
This might match the British suggestion of recognising a rolling veto for Ireland.
While the viewpoints are different, the briefings of Forsyth and Staunton are consistent.
Simon Jenkins has swung from Brexit agnostic to moderate Remainer as he turns to the endgame. Ireland and the border have emerged as a crucial perhaps the crucial issue, as the negotiations’ hinge of fate.( see also Robert Peston).
For Remainers, the issue is not that only Northern Ireland should remain inside the single market and the customs union, but that the whole UK should do so: But what Jenkins doesn’t add that this could be achieved only at the cost of a much bigger political upheaval than that created by the referendum .
So what is supposed to happen? The answer is easy. It is for the British government to announce it will remain in a customs union with Dublin. Since Dublin’s Varadkar means to stay in the EU, that means no trading barrier between Northern Ireland and the EU. But since May must retain Unionist support, she cannot admit any trading barrier between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Ergo, there can then be no trading barrier between the UK and the EU.
Britain has to remain in the customs union with the rest of Europe. That is what should be on the Brussels negotiating agenda next month. And that is two-thirds of the way to remaining in the single market. That is what polls show the overwhelming majority of parliament and British public opinion, including those who voted Brexit, actually want.
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