As the buildup to the EU Council meeting reaches fever pitch, Richard Parry explains that deals at dawn may work in Brussels but they don't always play to the home crowd.
Sometimes in politics setbacks can actually be set-ups, designed to give political propulsion to the outcome that is eventually snatched out of chaos. The termination on Sunday 14 October of Barnier-Raab talk prior to the European Council has one practical effect: all the political bandwith this week will have to be devoted to Ireland, and the securing of an Irish text in the draft Withdrawal Agreement. On Monday 15th Northern Ireland politicians are where they like to be, on centre-stage, with Arlene Foster meeting Leo Varadkar in Dublin and Sinn Féin leaders meeting Theresa May in London. At Westminster, DUP MPs are making mischief with arch-Brexiteers. This means that an important UK objective will likely have to be sidelined this week: to trade off their consent to the Withdrawal Agreement against a precise text on the future framework that picks up themes in the Chequers plan. Detail on the post-Brexit relationship will have to be postponed until November and indeed finally until December 2020, very much what the EU wants. The rabbits that will have to pulled out of the hat this week, and then smothered in positive briefing to sympathetic media on all sides, are centered on Northern Ireland.
The Irish impasse reflects some UK success on this aspect of the negotiations. The EU’s approach started out as differentiation of Northern Ireland, typical of many privileged anomalies in EU law and practice. By substituting the concept of the whole UK, not just Northern Ireland, remaining in EU customs and regulatory territory pending final settlement, the UK tried to turn an exception into a model. Defending ‘our precious Union’ could provide a way for the UK as whole to keep privileged access to the EU market. A backstop could become a Trojan horse. As we are seeing, various parties can object to this in different ways and a main casualty of Sunday’s events seems the concept of the time limit to the backstop as a way of satisfying them all.
As the UK approaches the European Council, two forces are at work, both articulated by Jeremy Hunt. In an Evening Standard interview of 31 July he said that the European Commission ‘have this view that they just need to wait and Britain will blink. That is just a profound misunderstanding of us as a nation’. This is itself a misunderstanding: as the UK emphasized to Scotland in 2014, the leaving nation cannot expect the rejected entity to facilitate arrangements that justify the wisdom of the decision to leave. But Hunt could also be constructive, as in a BBC Today interview on 21 August: ‘in their heads, they’re worried that if they give us a good deal other countries will follow suit. So what I’m staying to them is: if you’re thinking about this logically with your head as opposed to your heart, also recognise that the consequences for a messy, acrimonious divorce will be terrible for the EU project as well’.
A problem arises when one party convinces itself of the reasonableness of its proposals and ascribes perversity to the other, so locking out negotiating room. Over the summer, the UK put themselves in dangerous territory that set up the debacle of Salzburg. The ‘no deal’ guidance notes issued in August and September did not help. The HMRC note on Trading with the EU if there’s no deal said ‘we will provide more information in due course’ and ‘we would recommend that, if you trade across the land border, you should consider whether you will need advice from the Irish government about preparations you need to make.’
May and her ministers may believe that all successful negotiations, such as industrial disputes, go to the wire in this way. But last December they recognized that something – the Withdrawal Agreement – did need to be agreed before everything was agreed. Now they must commit to, and sell politically, a precise text on Northern Ireland and a vague one on the future framework. Deals at dawn are in the EU’s lifeblood, but, just as David Cameron found with his ‘triumph’ in Brussels on ‘special status’ for the UK in 2016, troubles at home may just be starting. Theresa May’s band of reluctant remainers turned lukewarm leavers occupy a contracting, friendless political space.