I recently wrote about how the Brexit deadlock was a perfectly destructive equilibrium of opposing aims and forces. The de facto vetoes held by the Irish Government on one side and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on the other meant no viable solution was available that satisfied both sides. This led me to believe that heads would roll as one side was simply cast aside.
I was wrong on this for now. All sides were able to come to an agreement that allowed the talks to progress to the second phase, which will focus on trade. The impasse was broken mostly by vague language that was deemed acceptable by everyone as it was possible for a broad spectrum of interpretations of what the text actually meant.
“Regulatory alignment” was perceived as less constricting to the DUP than “no convergence” between the North and South that led them to effectively veto the agreement that had been decided on Monday last. For most commentators the second iteration, which was agreed last Friday is not much more favourable to the DUP’s stated goals. They have signed off on a document that commits the UK to full alignment between the North and South unless there are prior, agreed solutions.
“In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom committed to maintaining full alignment with those rules of the internal market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy, and the protection of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement. In this context, implementation and oversight mechanisms for the specific arrangements to be found will be established to safeguard the integrity of the internal market.”
The breakthrough was greeted with guarded optimism by most sides, with the Irish government and Theresa May’s camps being the most vocal and ebullient. I wanted to wait until the weekend had passed to assess the fallout.
Furthermore, for Theresa May to navigate the talks and deliver a final solution, she needs to keep the hard right, anti-EU faction of her party onside. The uniformity of the message delivered by members of her party over the weekend was a crucial acid test of whether she had been able to get all sides onboard. Cracks that appear already will possibly move to chasms as the trade talks will evolve from aims and goals to facts, laws and treaties.
David Davis spoke on the Andrew Marr show yesterday and appeared bullish on the United Kingdom’s trade deal prospects, while playing down the commitments agreed in Phase 1. Davis claimed the divorce settlement will only be paid if a deal is agreed and that the text agreed was more a statement than a concrete agreement;
"We want to protect the peace process and we also want to protect Ireland from the impact of Brexit for them. This was a statement of intent more than anything else.”
Michael Gove, the Environment Minister and prominent Brexiteer, went a step further when he stated;
“If the British people dislike the arrangement that we have negotiated with the EU, the agreement will allow a future government to diverge.”
To me, this means that if the Tories win the next election, they can renege on many of their commitments and start over. While he public supported May’s efforts, this undoubtedly undermines her authority and negotiating position.
This has sparked alarm bells in Ireland and Europe and backlash from members of Labour and the Scottish National Party.
The DUP response has already been quite toxic and has done the most to poison relations between North and South. Sammy Wilson made some deplorable comments about cowboys and Indians in the past few weeks. Arlene Foster grudgingly approved the deal with the caveat that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. However, the most insidious comments came from Ian Paisley Junior who claimed the DUP “had done over” the Irish Government and Leo Vardker. This is almost Trump-esque language that will harden Irish resolve as well as cause consternation among many in London.
I won’t be writing about Brexit again until 2018, though there may be further breakthroughs and crucial details that emerge at the meeting of European leaders next week. For now, talks have progressed without real progress and I think all sides will be happy to park the key issues until the New Year. For 2017, disaster has been averted and jobs have been retained.
This agreement was akin so a small release of energy that has resolved the threat of a political earthquake in the very short term. Unfortunately, the underlying fundamentals have not changed and it is still my view that the Irish border is a catch 22 position that can’t be resolved with the current agreement. I expect the Spring to be a very turbulent time for Brexit and political volatility to greatly increase. That’s for later though, to paraphrase the Chinese proverb, “may we live in interesting times, but let’s enjoy Christmas first…”