A Very British Farce

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Monday 4th December 2017 – A milestone on the rocky road?

Posted by Cliff Dartnall who comments:

‘Is this a taste of more to come? I don’t know if I can be excruciated further without requiring medical attention. The excitement in the pro-brexit media was tangible: “Deal imminent” stated the BBC online news page. Europe’s finest diplomats and negotiators were about to see the sort of steely resolve and can-do brinkmanship that helped us rule the world. The Mail, Telegraph and Times all looked forward to the momentous deal May was about to pull off to get the brexit talks back on track.

A bespoke arrangement would be announced which solved the seemingly impossible conundrum of leaving the EU but still having no border in Ireland – make no mistake, May was going to stun us all and leave with everybody happy. All was set to be announced to waiting journalists and diplomats when, as May and Juncker mulled over the dessert menu,  a phone call came through from the DUP’s Arlene Foster. Since she is all that’s propping up May’s government at the moment, dessert had to wait and the rest is now history.’

Read the full story from The Guardian below:

Theresa May’s political weakness was brutally exposed to Brussels on Monday as an agreement struck between Britain and the EU to solve the problem of the Irish border and move to the next phase of Brexit talks was torpedoed by a last-minute telephone call with the leader of the Democratic Unionist party.

Confidence early on Monday that an agreement was within reach came to nothing when, during a working lunch with the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, May was forced to pause discussions to take a call from Arlene Foster.

The unionist leader, whose party currently provides the Tories with a working majority in the Commons, told the British prime minister that she could not support Downing Street’s planned commitment to keep Northern Ireland aligned with EU laws.

In London, Tory Brexiters, including Iain Duncan Smith and Jacob Rees-Mogg, told the Brexit minister Steve Baker, and the prime minister’s chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, that they were also rallying behind the DUP’s stance.

Lord Trimble, a former first minister of Northern Ireland, said Tory MPs at the meeting had shown “unanimous backing for opposition to the draft proposal he said was “minted in Dublin”.

The development raises fresh questions about May’s ability to deliver on any deal she proposes to the 27 member states, and has filled diplomats in Brussels with a deep foreboding for future talks, should they develop in the new year to take in the future relationship.

Diplomats were waiting for two hours in a negotiating room at the Council of Ministers headquarters, for a meeting that had been planned to follow the Juncker-May lunch. When it became clear the two sides could not get an agreement, the officials were sent home.

Juncker and May attempted to put a brave face on the spectacular collapse of their plans in press statements at the end of the day. The commission president praised May for being a “tough negotiator” who was energetically fighting for Britain’s interests.

“On many of the issues there is a common understanding and crucially it is clear we want to move forward together,” May told reporters before hinting further talks were needed. “There are a couple of issues, some differences do remain, which require further negotiation and consultation. And those will continue but we will reconvene before the end of the week and I am also confident we will conclude this positively.”

Labour sources said they understood that a major statement due from the prime minister to parliament on Tuesday had been cancelled. Negotiators are now expected to reassemble by the end of the week, with Wednesday evening now sketched into officials’ diaries.

The delay also takes the EU into unusual territory, as member states will have less than a week to approve an agreement that many have not yet seen. Some EU diplomats are increasingly concerned about Juncker’s extension of the deadline, billed as “the extension of the very last round”.

The text of the agreement has to be discussed in 27 national capitals, if EU leaders are to sign it off at a summit on 14-15 December. “The less time we have before the European council, the more difficult it becomes to run the text through 27 national administrations and get an agreement,” said one. “It is [the UK’s] decision to leave it to the last minute and it is [the UK’s] risk.”

Government sources made clear that there were two key sticking points yet to be solved in the negotiations with the EU27 – the role of the European court of justice when it came to citizen rights and the Irish border.

On Ireland, one senior government source admitted that progress would be difficult without the support of unionists. “It has to be a deal which is going to carry the support of the EU27 and everybody here. It is a reality that you need DUP support if the deal is to stand the test of time.”

In Dublin, where there had been full confidence that an agreement had been reached that could avoid a hard border after Brexit, the Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, told reporters that he was “disappointed and surprised” by Britain’s U-turn.

Varadkar said: “It is evident that things broke down, became problematic during the lunch in Brussels.”

The Irish prime minister’s deputy had been on national radio just hours earlier confidently predicting that a deal was close and that “a positive statement for the country” from the taoiseach was planned for the afternoon.

The DUP’s fury had been prompted by a leak early on Monday of a draft 15-page joint statement from the European commission and the UK which suggested Britain had bowed to the Republic of Ireland’s demands by accepting that “in the absence of agreed solutions, the UK will ensure that there continues to be continued regulatory alignment” with the internal market and customs union.

Foster swiftly put out a statement insisting that she would not accept any special status for Northern Ireland as the UK left the EU in March 2019.

Speaking at Stormont, she noted the speculation emerging from ­negotiations. “We have been very clear,” she said. “Northern Ireland must leave the EU on the same terms as the rest of the United Kingdom. We will not accept any form of regulatory divergence which separates Northern Ireland economically or politically from the rest of the United Kingdom. The economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom will not be compromised in any way,” she said.

The news was then seized upon by Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, who suggested that any promise for Northern Ireland could be replicated for Scotland. That call was followed by similar suggestions from the London mayor, Sadiq Khan.

The European council president, Donald Tusk, tweeted:

Met with PM . I was ready to present draft EU27 guidelines tomorrow for talks on transition and future.

But UK and Commission asked for more time. It is now getting very tight but agreement at December is still possible.

The UK wants Brussels to rule that sufficient progress has been made on the opening issues in order for talks on trade and a transition period to open in December, after the summit of leaders next week.

May’s tense day in Brussels also left her with further headaches at home after Khan warned that there were would be “huge ramifications” if the government conceded that part of the country could stay in the single market and customs union after Brexit. “Londoners overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU and a similar deal here could protect tens of thousands of jobs,” he wrote on Twitter.

Sturgeon said there was “no good practical reason” that Scotland could not in effect remain in the single market if the same was true for Northern Ireland.

Jeremy Corbyn claimed that the difficulties in overcoming negotiation points showed that May’s government was ill-equipped to negotiate a successful Brexit deal.

The Labour leader: “It is disappointing that there has not been progress in the Brexit negotiations after months of delays and grandstanding. Labour has been clear from the outset that we need a jobs-first Brexit deal that works for the whole of the United Kingdom.”

However, the former Ukip leader Nigel Farage said the DUP were right to “scupper” the deal, and the Leave means Leave campaign – which is backed by more than 30 Tory MPs – called on May to “completely rule out” any proposal that would treat Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the UK.

Additional reporting by Lisa O’Carroll and Henry McDonald