Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions re­quire cool heads

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Comment -

AS the Brexit endgame ap­proaches, things are be­com­ing fraught, and this seems to be es­pe­cially so for those on the fringes of ne­go­ti­a­tions — the DUP and the hard­line Tory Brex­i­teers.

In writ­ing to the DUP lead­er­ship, Theresa May un­doubt­edly thought she was head­ing off any po­ten­tial trou­ble from that quar­ter in the wake of her Cabi­net dis­cus­sions this week. In­stead she has con­fused mat­ters more than they al­ready were and in the process, up­set Ar­lene Foster.

It was known from ear­lier last week that what was likely to go to the Bri­tish Cabi­net was a pro­posal for a back­stop en­com­pass­ing the en­tirety of the UK, but with some ad­di­tional cus­tom mea­sures for North­ern Ire­land to en­sure align­ment with EU stan­dards. That did not frighten the union­ists and would ef­fec­tively mean no hard bor­der be­tween north and south.

The difficulty arises from the Bri­tish in­sis­tence that there needs to be a built-in re­view process in the back­stop — some­thing which nei­ther the Ir­ish Govern­ment nor the EU ob­jects to in prin­ci­ple. But the rest of the EU do in­sist that the re­view can­not lead to the back­stop hav­ing a fi­nite ex­is­tence with­out be­ing re­placed by some­thing equally ac­cept­able, or the Bri­tish hav­ing a uni­lat­eral right to aban­don the back­stop. Even in the event of no deal, it would still have to be part of the “di­vorce” agree­ment.

Mrs May con­cedes that in­clud­ing this in the fi­nal agree­ment might ap­pear to al­low for the pos­si­bil­ity of cus­toms re­stric­tions be­tween North­ern Ire­land and the rest of the UK — the dreaded bor­der down the Ir­ish Sea — but in­sists she would never al­low this to ac­tu­ally come into force.

How­ever, she has wor­ried Mrs Foster, who says the let­ter raises alarm bells for “those of us who value the in­tegrity of our pre­cious union and for those who want a proper Brexit for the whole of the UK”.

On an­other front, Mrs May will have to fight those in her Cabi­net and party who are in­sist­ing the back­stop can only be tem­po­rary so that Bri­tain will not be tied to EU rules in­def­i­nitely.

They are quite bloody-minded in their ap­proach, as ex­em­pli­fied by the for­mer Brexit Sec­re­tary, David Davis, who has sug­gested that if MPs re­ject Mrs May’s pro­posed deal, the EU will be will­ing to of­fer a bet­ter agree­ment.

Com­pare that with the ap­proach of Tanaiste Si­mon Coveney who says that even if Mrs May suc­ceeds in get­ting it through her own par­lia­ment, there is no guar­an­tee that the deal will get fi­nal ap­proval in Brus­sels, and you can see that in what should be the fi­nal days of ne­go­ti­a­tion af­ter two and a half years, the mat­ter is far from set­tled.

And as we get closer to the end, the Taoiseach may come un­der gen­tle pressure, ei­ther to con­cede some ground on the back­stop, or to play ball on tax har­mon­i­sa­tion to en­sure con­tin­ued sol­i­dar­ity from the rest of our EU part­ners. He will only get through what is im­me­di­ately ahead with a cool head and a strong re­solve.

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