The Financial Times, The Times, and (hat tip PlutoniumKun) RTÉ all are giving positive signals on the state of Brexit negotiation on the eve of a critically important deadline. On Monday, Theresa May is to meet with the European Commmission’s Jean-Claude Juncker and then European Council chief Donald Tusk. She will present her offers on the three critical issues on which the talks must be deemed to have made sufficient progress for the parties to get a green light to move to the next phase of negotiations, which would include, critically, discussing the shape of future trade relations.
As we’ll see, even though these press outlets are putting a positive spin on where things stand, they still contain plenty of weasel language and say at best that a deal is close. “Close” is not good enough for the meeting tomorrow, nor is is good enough for the European Council to make its go/no go decision on December 14-15.
The most likely outcome of the meeting tomorrow is that the UK gets an extension of a day or at most a few days and whatever is cooked up is not going to be deemed to be adequate. And the reason for the EU relenting on its deadline of having May give her offer by midnight today would be purely optical: to look as if they’d bent over backwards on being accommodating, not based on a view that a deal was nigh and they just needed to tie down critically important loose ends.
Mind you, this is not any great surprise; the odds of a deal have seemed remote. What has been surprising is that May was willing to capitulate on what had been loudly presented as a Tory red line, of not stumping up to settle the Brexit divorce tab, and in the range the EU deemed to be adequate.
Despite the upbeat tone from some quarters, if you read carefully, the UK is no closer to an answer on Ireland than it ever was. Consider this section from RTÉ:
It is understood that the Irish Government is seeking assurances on a transition period; the retention of a common travel area; the protection of the Good Friday Agreement, and a commitment to avoid a hard border.
Help me. I hate to oversimplify the negotiations over the Irish border, but this is all you need to know. When the UK exits the EU for good, there will be a hard border with the Republic of Ireland somewhere, whether on the current border with Northern Ireland or “at sea,” with Northern Ireland either formally getting a special status with respect to trade or some sort of wink and nod that is a functional equivalent.
Narrowly, “no hard border” to the Irish government means no customs and other checks at the now almost entirely ignored Ireland/Northern Ireland border. But the “no hard border” turn of phrase seems to reflect the same sort of denialism that afflicts how UK commentators and pols discuss “hard Brexit”. To them, “hard Brexit,” which means departing without a trade deal, is the worst case scenario. But it is impossible for the UK to have a trade pact with the EU by March 2019, or even after a two year transition period. And as much as these observers recoil in horror as to what that actually means, and bizarrely avert their eyes and assume it will magically not come to pass, that is not the most dire possible outcome. A disorderly Brexit, as in leaving with no agreement at all, would be even worse.
Not only is the EU not going to accept a porous Irish border as a way for goods that don’t comply with EU regulations to pour into the EU, but (without going into the gory details), it’s not on as far as WTO rules are concerned either. There are no fudges here, there are only choices to be made. But the UK had tried to avoid making them.
Any deal that avoids customs checks on the Ireland/NI border will result in the DUP abandoning the Tories, since they see a arrangement that has Northern Ireland complying with EU trade standards and rules (which means EU regulations and jurisdiction of the ECJ) as too close to Irish integration, which is a red line for them. Similarly, one of the big rallying cries of Brexit was that the Brits needed to escape the supposedly stultifying EU bureaucracy. The press barons and Tory ultras won’t stand for Northern Ireland being under EU jurisdiction as far as trade is concerned.
So May faces a choice of opting for a workable solution that would almost certainly lead to the fall of her Government. Not hard to see that she won’t go for that.
That makes the Torygraph’s take on where things stand more credible than the cautiously upbeat accounts:
Theresa May will go into a crunch meeting with EU leaders on Monday admitting she is yet to find a solution to the Irish border problem, as a Cabinet minister suggested for the first time that Brexit might not happen.
Mrs May has until Monday night to meet an EU deadline for Britain to make “satisfactory progress” on the issues of money, citizens’ rights and the border in order to trigger trade talks this month….Government sources were highly pessimistic about the prospect of a breakthrough, leaving the entire Brexit timetable in jeopardy.
And the Independent flags another potential sticking point: the fact that one of the three key issues, that of the treatment of EU and UK emigres post Brexit, has been finessed rather than solved. Recall that Barnier got ahead of his principals over the summer in trying to push them to discuss trade with the UK sooner rather than later. He was slapped down. The “kick the can to the next phase” non-resolution of the status of citizens hasn’t gotten much coverage in the press. However, it appears directly affected individuals and businesses have taken note and have made a stink, with the result that MEPs may also petition the European Council to demand that this be resolved sooner rather than later. From the Independent:
The future rights of EU citizens in the UK – and of British nationals in the EU – are being forgotten as a deal to break the Brexit deadlock gets closer, MEPs and campaigners say….
Key issues will be “shunted” into phase two of the talks, rather than being settled before the negotiations move onto future trade terms between the UK and the EU, MEPs and citizens fear.
And soem European politicians are not prepared to back some of the concessions Barnier is apparently willing to make:
Seb Dance, a Labour MEP and a member of the Parliament’s EU Citizens’ Taskforce, said: “Michel Barnier did not go far enough. There are concerns that the EU is ready to dilute its stance on citizens’ rights – but we won’t sit back and let that happen….
Family reunification is one of the areas that the EU may be ready to compromise on.
“We can’t move on just for the sake of moving on. We should only move on when we are certain that nobody will suffer as a result because of a decision they had no part in.”
Jean Lambert, a Green MEP and taskforce member, agreed, saying: “It looks as if issues may be shunted into the second round of negotiations.
“The issue of family unification is crucial. We can’t have children born after Brexit with different legal status, that’s not going to be satisfactory.”
Ms Lambert said the ECJ “must have a role that runs through these people’s lives”, adding: “We want to see these things cleared up in the first stage of the negotiations…
Meanwhile, British In Europe, an alliance of groups representing more than a million British citizens living in the EU, have written to European leaders urging them to block Brexit negotiations from moving forward.
So while it would be better if I were proven wrong, there does not seem to be any reason for optimism about an EU-UK breakthrough in December. The only upside is the UK press is beginning to bring up the formerly verboten idea of somehow backing out of Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn actually dared to say, in response to a question, that he would not rule out a second Brexit referendum if the Government were to fall and Labour came into power. But Tony Blair rising from his crypt to campaign for reversing Brexit is a great way to discredit the idea.
As always, stay tuned. We’ll know a lot more in a few hours.