A few days ago The European Union provided an “absolute deadline” in ten days, for Britain to improve progress on outstanding issues, before turning to trade negotiations, which the British need to begin in December if the proposed deadline for the UK to leave the EU by March, 2019 is realistically to be met. Among these key outstanding issues are the EU ‘divorce bill’, in which the British are said to be increasing their offer to £40Bn, and the Irish-NI border, on which no progress has been made (phase one).
The Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, meanwhile has issued a scarcely veiled warning that Ireland may use its EU veto to stop any attempt by Britain to move forward to the trade negotiations (phase two), unless the UK first undertakes to remove the prospect of a ‘hard border’ between Ireland and NI, from the table. Varadkar was reported as saying:
“We’ve been given assurances that there will be no hard border in Ireland, that there won’t be any physical infrastructure, that we won’t go back to the borders of the past …. We want that written down in practical terms in the conclusions of phase one.”
It would seem quite obvious, given the importance of this matter to Ireland, an EU member that is not leaving the EU, and given the delicate and fraught matter of the Good Friday Peace Agreement, that Ireland would consider the matter of borders serious enough to issue such a warning. The question is, why does this action by Ireland seem to be a surprise, an unexpected, or even an unreasonable priority to the Brexiteers, and the British government? It shouldn’t be.
We may suppose that Ireland has been moving toward this public position only because private diplomacy has been falling on deaf ears in Britain. Varadkar reminded the British that they have had 18 months since the referendum, and a little pointedly also made this comment: “Britain, having unilaterally taken the customs union and single market off the table, before we move to phase two talks on trade we want taken off the table any suggestion that there will be a physical border, a hard border, new barriers to trade on the island of Ireland.” The Customs Union and Single Market, we may surmise, were facilities in the Brexit ‘borders’ toolbox that may have allowed an easier compromise with Ireland to be negotiated. They were unilaterally dismissed by Britain (the British people did not actually vote on leaving either the Customs Union or the Single Market in the referendum).
Suddenly faced with a public statement of Ireland’s policy (albeit an understandable one, if there is no satisfactory border agreement with Ireland first), how has Britain reacted? International Trade Secretary Liam Fox provided a television interview in which he made clear that there can be no solution to the Irish border issue until a trade deal between Britain and the EU has been agreed (in effect phase two pre-empts phase one, including the Ireland-NI border). Fox said: “We think we should begin discussions on the final settlement because that’s good for business, and it’s good for the prosperity both of the British people and of the rest of the people of the European Union.” The Daily Mirror provided a rather harsh quotation of Fox’s undiplomatic words: “We can’t be blackmailed into paying a price on the first part” (phase one). The ex-Permanent Secretary to HM Treasury, Nick Macpherson tweeted his robust reply to Fox: “‘Blackmail’ is the perpetual cry of the smaller negotiator with the weaker hand. #getagrip”. The Irish MEP Mairead McGuinness also responded to Fox in a quote to the Guardian: “I hope that the UK is not holding the Irish situation to ransom in these negotiations. It is far too serious and far too critical.”
Blackmail, ransom ….. what on earth is the purpose of this sudden non-diplomacy, faced with a quite predictable Irish response to an 18-month British policy vacuum? Folly? Incompetence? Arrogance? Bullying? The eighteen month hiatus speaks to policy chaos, but all this may also not be quite the full story. There is, perhaps a method buried in there.
Fox’s intervention, I suggest as a working alternative hypothesis, is not about Ireland at all (at least directly). The “chaos” that everybody sees in the British negotiations is, at least in part – deliberate. The logic of Fox’s position is nothing to do with Ireland, but it is essentially very simple, has a clear objective, and it fits with the current, broader, but ragged, unstructured sweep of events that we can all see; what is it? – to achieve a “no deal” Brexit.
In the Daily Telegraph website (which we may reasonably think a Tory Brexit Biblical Text – Authorised Version), Juliet Samuel has drawn precisely the same conclusion, just in case nobody figured out where all this is really going:
“If Dublin follows through on a threat to veto Brexit progress in December, all it will achieve is to increase the risk that Britain leaves the EU with no deal whatsoever.” Now that is a threat.
I may nit-pick with only one word in this Telegraph argument; “risk”: for I think we could more appropriately discard it, and insert the word “purpose” here. Now we can see better where this is going: “If Dublin follows through on a threat to veto Brexit progress in December, all it will achieve is [the purpose] that Britain leaves the EU with no deal whatsoever.” The British Government is moving closer and closer, not to the media’s cliche of a “cliff-edge” in December, but with purpose to the Brexiteer Conservatives idea of Utopia: a “no deal” Brexit; and to a Dystopian nightmare for the rest of us.
How many “Leave” voters would care to reconsider what they have done? Perhaps we should begin counting now.