Many’s the time the EU has seen months of deadlocked negotiations produce a last-minute breakthrough. News of progress from Theresa May’s fateful talks with EU chiefs in Brussels on Monday may, therefore, not come as a major surprise.
Performing a delicate balancing act between the hawks at home and the tough negotiators in Brussels, May has apparently bowed to the last-minute pressure from Ireland, meant to ensure there is no hard border, guards or customs on the island after Brexit.
Quoting UK government sources, Reuters reported Britain had agreed to keep Northern Ireland in “regulatory alignment” with the European Union after Brexit. The wording is short on detail and may still be subject to interpretations but it is a clear commitment to moving forward on the border issue, which has plagued the talks since they started in July.
Many will say that this is just the beginning of a new attempt to square the circle: how to keep Northern Ireland aligned with the rest of the EU, when the rest of the UK will clearly be outside the bloc? (Read one suggestion from Northern Ireland here.)
For now, this should suffice to move the whole winding, see-sawing Brexit process closer to stage two: the real negotiations about the substance of new trade and customs relations between Britain and the EU-27.
Although there has been no official confirmation that an EU summit on 14-15 December will indeed give the green light for the talks to move on, signs on the wall are quite clear: barring an eleventh-hour surprise, the EU leaders will give their nod.
According to sources quoted by the Guardian, MEPs were briefed by the chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, who said that Theresa May had conceded after days of intense talks that Northern Ireland would be treated as a special case.
An upbeat Donald Tusk felt confident enough to tweet after talking on the phone with the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar that Brexit talks are “getting closer to sufficient progress”.
— Donald Tusk (@eucopresident) December 4, 2017
And Ireland’s deputy prime minister, Simon Coveney, told the national RTE News that Ireland had been reassured there would be no re-emergence of a hard border. “We have now a language that gives us the safeguards we need.”
For those who still nurture secret hopes that the whole thing may be reversed, this is probably a sobering bit of bad news.
Surely, a mutually agreed ‘orderly withdrawal’ is the lesser evil than a chaotic, cliff-edge Brexit.
Will the next ten days produce any more surprises? And from which side? So far, the UK is clearly in the lead in the surprise department.
The leader of the small Northern Irish party, the DUP, which supports May in parliament, said the province must leave the EU on the same terms as the rest of the UK, ruling out support for a special status.
At the same time, Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon said keeping Northern Ireland in ‘regulatory alignment’ could actually be replicated in other parts of the UK.
If it’s not some kind of Norway status for whole UK, it must mean some kind of special deal for NI. Has to be one or the other. And if latter, why not also for Scotland, London & Wales (if it wants it)? https://t.co/xh7Ef06uNv
— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) December 4, 2017
The UK’s negotiator David Davis stated confidently when the negotiations started that “Brexit means Brexit”. He now has some square-circling to do to get there.
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Views are the author’s
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