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No ifs or buts. “The Irish will decide when ‘sufficient progress’ on the Border has been made,” was the message that two Northern Ireland academics were given when they met the EU Commission Brexit negotiating task force on Tuesday.
It is a message that Irish diplomats are understood also to be getting from many fellow member states who promise “we have your back on this”. No suggestion Ireland should not stick to its guns. And diplomatic reports from the capitals show no sign of a break in the ranks.
What appears to be an agreement between the task force and the UK on the basis for a financial settlement clears the decks for an intense focus over the next 10 days on the two other phase-one priority issues – citizens’ rights and the Northern Border. “Sufficient progress” has to be made on all three before the December 14th summit to enable agreement on the second phase of talks on trade and the future relationship.
On citizens’ rights, there are also still thorny issues to be resolved, specifically around the role of the European Court of Justice, still taboo to the UK.
Everyone is keen to move on. But how keen? Keen enough to lean on the Irish to ease the way by softening their insistence on tangible commitments as to how a frictionless Border will be implemented?
More than one British academic has been suggesting in recent days that the pressure from our partners will be irresistible.
My sense is, not. Firstly, because there is simply no evidence of even silent pressure. Secondly, because it’s not just about Ireland and solidarity with the Irish, though there’s a lot of that around. The Irish Border row is seen by many fellow member states as emblematic of the UK’s wish to “have its cake and eat it”, to make a Brexit shaped entirely on its own terms. It’s about the UK’s approach to the entire process.
London’s determination pre-emptively to rule out in advance of second-round talks membership of the Customs Union and the Single Market, and its vagueness about how it might maintain regulatory equivalence, has set up in advance unacceptable parameters for the phase two discussions on trade and the future relationship. It does not make sense to concede such negotiating ground at this stage.
And then there is the question of the level of ambition – “sufficient progress”. No one expects a complete solution at this stage. What is being sought is a road map to a solution, and one that goes beyond the pious aspirations we have heard so far.
The suspicion is that London has either no idea how it is going to square this circle, or that it knows that it can only be done by reopening and reversing several politically controversial pledges. Either way, delaying until the second-phase talks open to show your hand does not change those difficult realties.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has argued that the setting of the parameters of those talks cannot be the sole prerogative of the UK. In that he appears to have the unwavering support not only of the Barnier task force but of 26 fellow member states.