Richard Parry reviews a frantic week with the biggest events still to come
Two very unusual things in EU diplomacy happened on 8 and 10 October. First, Downing Street officials issued a detailed report on a telephone conversation between Boris Johnson and Angela Merkel. Maybe her words were lost in translation, but she appeared to be saying that Northern Ireland had to be in a perpetual customs union with the EU as the price of a withdrawal agreement – almost more Irish than the Irish. No 10’s characterisation of this as a ‘clarifying moment’ set up a wave of pessimism and suggested there might be no scope for any serious negotiation in the nine days before the European Council.
Then, Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar met in an equidistant neutral location for one-to-one talks, neither losing face by travelling to the other’s capital. Only still images were published and there was no joint appearance before the cameras. Such behaviour is normal among diplomatic adversaries but not within the EU. For one or both, clarification that there was an impasse was the last thing they wanted. The need was for warm signals, and in his remarks at Liverpool Airport Varadkar was purring with satisfaction.
What had happened? The focusing down of issues had already isolated Ireland as the problem. This was now further refined into the questions of Northern Ireland political consent and customs status. It became accepted that if these could be solved the deal could be done. The UK appeared to shift on each. For consent, its Explanatory Note on its 2 October proposals said that ‘the UK will provide an opportunity for democratic consent to these arrangements in the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, within the framework set by the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. If consent is withheld, the arrangements will not enter into force…’ (para 13).
This implied, and was understood by the DUP to mean, that cross-community consent would be required. On 10 October, Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith was unguarded (later interviews were less frank) in saying on BBC Northern Ireland ‘what I’m committing to is that we are not going to have one party having a veto over any element of this situation’. The consent notion had potentially flipped from one community having a veto on arrangements entering into force into a need for cross-community agreement if they were to be prevented from entering into force.
On customs, UK appeared to abandon its position of the previous week and revert to an earlier Theresa May idea of the UK managing tariffs on behalf of the EU. This would in a titular sense retain Northern Ireland in the UK customs territory and obviate any customs checks within Ireland. The price would be full inspections on the Irish Sea border and complex tracking mechanisms thereafter. It is indeed a ‘nebulous’ idea (Theresa May’s accusation to |Jean-Claude Juncker on 14 December 2018) and manages to be uncomfortable to both the DUP and (Ireland aside) the EU26.
Both Boris and Leo have domestic issues. With the Court of Session now set to enforce the law on 21 October, there is a real risk that the Conservatives would have to fight a general election within extended EU membership and with seeking a deal still their official position. This would promote a potent Brexit Party campaign and 10%+ of the vote for them. Johnson’s urge to be the hero of a deal seems to have drawn him prematurely into positions on Ireland he might take if no longer needing the votes of the DUP and their hardline Tory allies. But as Theresa May found there is no sweet spot where a deal makes policy sense and also wins a majority of the present House of Commons.
For Varadkar, this week was about a Brexit-laden budget and the reality that the smaller and more exposed unit suffers more from fractured trade relationships – the UK loses to the EU and Ireland loses to the UK. Thursday’s meeting tempted him into a more direct negotiation with the UK, potentially detached from EU27 Brussels positions, than before. The solid EU27 front slipped a little before being reset in subsequent days. The risk is that political will cannot be translated into technically sound proposals before 31 October and does indeed dissipate into the clouds.