After the Irish and British prime minister suddenly saw a possible path towards a Brexit deal on Thursday, Brussels decided to intensify talks with the United Kingdom. But there is little time and still a lot of uncertainty.
Based on metaphors that alternate in Brussels, the Brexit negotiations have unexpectedly gained momentum.
While EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier mentioned on Friday morning about ‘a mountain’ to be climbed, the ambassadors of the 27 other EU member states decided it was time to enter ‘the tunnel’. That means they have enough fiducia in a new British proposal to keep the border on the Irish island invisible. It is time for intensive conversations and total radio silence.
That there is still hope for a new Brexit deal, so shortly before the decisive EU summit next Thursday, is due to a conversation of more than two hours on Thursday between British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Irish colleague Leo Varadkar.
The two had made an effort to turn their meeting into a fruitful encounter. They did not meet in Dublin or London, where issues such as home advantage and high risk of leaks play a role, but at Thornton Manor, an estate outside Liverpool that was once owned by soap magnate William Lever. The location is about as far away for Varadkar as it is for Johnson.
The two heads of government talked to each other for more than two hours without advisers and then another sixty minutes with assistants. Afterwards Varadkar showed himself unusually positive: “I see the road to an agreement.”
Remarkably, nothing has come out through British channels, both official and the press. Irish media report from anonymous sources that the two leaders want to set up a system that responds to political sensitivities on both sides. As part of the plan, Northern Ireland would exit from the European Customs Union. That is an absolute requirement of Johnson, otherwise he will not receive support for an agreement between the Northern Irish unionists and the hardliners at the Tories.
At the same time, Northern Ireland will follow the relevant rules of the European Customs Union, so that no controls are needed on the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. This is necessary for Varadkar, since agreeing to a tougher border marks the end of his political career. Elections are taking place in Ireland in May.
The talks must also find a solution for democratic control. In this construction, Northern Ireland will also follow European rules after the Brexit, without having any substantial influence on it. Johnson therefore wants the Northern Ireland Parliament to approve the system again every few years. On the contrary, the EU wants the border regulation to be watertight and therefore not possibly temporary in nature.
There is not much time for intensive negotiations. Barnier reported that on Monday, on behalf of the Commission, he would catch up with the European Parliament and the Member States in the run-up to the usual meetings in preparation for an EU summit.
The content of the compromise is similar to that proposed by former Prime Minister May to imitate these rules outside the European Customs Union. She suggested that this apply to the entire United Kingdom. That plan met with enormous resistance within its own government, because the British would be stuck to EU rules too much and without participation.
This proposal therefore seems to be limited to Northern Ireland only, but it is still uncertain whether Johnson will receive sufficient support in the Lower House. The Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party was in the past against such a border in the Irish Sea. Johnson can certainly not just count on the ten votes of the unionists. A group of hardliners at the Conservatives will see such a proposal as a disgrace and surrender for the same reason.
That means that Johnson needs support from the twenty ex-Tories that he previously removed from the group. This will be difficult given the high rise. Johnson also needs a significant portion of Labor. Even for Labor politicians from parts of the country where people voted for the Brexit, it is illogical to give Johnson support, since it is assumed that if Johnson arranges a Brexit deal, voters will reward him with a big win at the next ballot .
Johnson may have a different timeline in mind. He can also try to make a provisional deal with the EU now. At the summit next week, he nevertheless requested an extension of the Brexit, with the aim of organizing elections at the end of November. The deal then becomes the use of a ballot box. If the Conservatives win and get a majority in the House of Commons, Johnson has the political power to make the deal pass.
Surprise and suspicion about the change alternate Friday in Brussels. Nobody really believed that movement was possible at this stage. But careful optimism is immediately followed by explicit reserves. European Council President Donald Tusk spoke on Friday about “promising sounds”, but also said that “there is no guarantee of success” and that “time is running out.”
The EU also takes into account that the turn, the positive atmosphere, the improved proposal and the photos of a smiling Barnier with a relaxed Brexit minister Stephen Barclay are a misleading maneuver.
The overture cannot be meant, but is meant to eventually be able to blame the debt. If the talks break after this weekend, Johnson can say: you see, I really tried, but the EU is immovable. The prime minister can thus gain more support for a final No Deal-Brexit.
In a press statement on Friday afternoon, the EU underlined that nothing has changed in its own starting position: a deal must avoid a hard Irish border, do not harm the Good Friday agreement and do not jeopardize the internal European market. The message: no movement on our side.
Yet it does not mean anything that it is now decided to intensify the negotiations. The so-called “tunnel” has yielded earlier results: it led to the retirement deal with Theresa May at the end of 2018. At the time, it came up with the then co-negotiator Sabine Weyand, who wanted to create a “safe space” in which potential solutions could be tested.
The member states do not like that: on Friday you again heard resentment about the tunnel. But, Weyand said earlier, keeping them constantly informed was impossible because the negotiations were like a “jigsaw puzzle”. “Only when all the pieces fit, does it make sense.”
For example, discussions about the precise form of the customs union on the Irish island are easier than those about the European “red lines”: the internal market and the hard border on the Irish island. No one doubts that the EU will impose hard and precise requirements for imitating such a customs union.
And there are still questions: how do the British see the customs border in the sea? How will Northern Ireland be excluded from new UK trade agreements with third countries?
But those are the kind of technical issues that can at least be discussed. The EU is looking to Ireland for starting such negotiations. If they are confident that a workable deal can be concluded, the other Member States will not soon fall for it.
When asked about possible alternatives, you have occasionally heard one option in Brussels in recent weeks: that of an earlier EU proposal whereby Northern Ireland remains in the customs union and also continues to follow the EU rules for goods. It is possible that current negotiations are moving in that direction.