The Brief: Ireland, a new twist in the Brexit tale

Exactly a week from now, on 4 December, the messy Brexit negotiations might become somewhat clearer.

At least, that’s what the EU hoped for when it gave Prime Minister Theresa May “an absolute deadline” to improve the terms of her offer by the time she returns to Brussels next week for a meeting with the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

If she were to act on it, the 27 EU leaders would agree at a summit a week later to move on beyond the three tough issues (divorce bill, Ireland-Northern Ireland border and rights of expatriates) to the post-Brexit customs and trade relations between Europe’s second largest economy and the bloc.

But don’t hold your breath, because there are a couple of new twists in the tale.

Ireland’s Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has warned this month that Ireland would veto any progress unless the UK gave a firm written guarantee that there would be no hard border with Northern Ireland.

In no unclear terms, the taoiseach said there should be no physical border, no hard border, no new barriers to trade on the island of Ireland.

The tough talk and fresh pressure was meant to persuade the UK to commit the no-border guarantees to paper.

But Britain’s Trade Minister Liam Fox said on Sunday that it would be very difficult to address the border issue while Britain’s relationship with the EU after Brexit remains unclear.

“We can’t get a final answer to the Irish question until we get an idea of the end state, and until we get into discussions with the European Union on the end state that will be very difficult,” he told Sky television.

In other words, the border issue cannot be fully agreed until the entire post-Brexit arrangement has been finalised. And post-Brexit issues cannot even begin to be discussed until the UK commits to there being no border on the island.

Some are beginning to see this as a tacit policy of denial by Westminster, which, having backed itself into an impasse over the border, appears to be stalling in the hope of avoiding blame for the inevitable cost and disruption of a hard border.

And if that’s not complicated enough, add a possible government collapse to the mix.

Varadkar’s (minority) cabinet is now fighting for its own survival, as opposition parties are calling for his deputy prime minister to step down.

Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said the opposition is “risking an election at a time when there are some really, really serious issues for the government to manage in the national interest,” in a reference to the Brexit negotiations.

With the spectre of early elections looming at precisely the most crucial time for Ireland’s diplomatic efforts, it remains unclear if Varadkar will be in a position to take any strategic decisions.

And that could, once again, slow down the talks.

Perhaps the Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov was right last week, when he said his personal sentiment is “that we are moving towards a hard Brexit”?

Varadkar and the main opposition leader are meeting today to try to avoid snap elections. The clock is ticking and we’ll keep you up to date…

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Look out for…

The Political and Security Committee is meeting in Brussels tomorrow.

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