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Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, has told the British government the clock is ticking towards the March 2019 date when the UK will leave the union.
That clock, however, is also ticking towards a European Council summit in October when Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will, along with his other EU heads of state and government, decide if enough progress has been made to move on to the next phase of Brexit talks, which will focus on trade.
It is the crucial phase for Irish economic interests. But the publication this week of Brexit position papers by the UK government indicate that London is not deviating from its position of a so-called “hard” exit, but is maintaining its stance that it would like to cherrypick aspects of its current EU arrangements it likes.
In recent weeks Varadkar has made his feelings known on a number of Brexit fronts, primarily that the Government does not want an economic border on the island of Ireland. But when he toned the rhetoric down in a speech at Queen’s University in Belfast, the Taoiseach anticipated some of the issues that have been confirmed this week.
If the UK wanted to leave the Customs Union, he argued for a separate “EU-UK customs union”.
The Taoiseach also said the UK could rejoin the European Free Trade Association, which gives access to the Single Market, but would most likely mean Britain accepting free movement of people. That is likely to be a non-runner given the emphasis in the Brexit referendum on immigration.
The customs position paper published Tuesday outlined that the UK wants a customs arrangement of sorts with the EU, the most benign of which for Ireland would not require any customs checks on the Border.
But it again showed the UK government trying to have it all its own way: maintain the benefits of the Customs Union while also using any transitional period to negotiate, but not finalise, its own free trade deals.
An arrangement such as the customs union the EU has with Turkey – previously cited by Varadkar – allows for bilateral trade deals to be struck by “third countries”. But the Turkish experience suggests the UK would face some restrictions if it is to go down that path, which are unlikely to sit well with the buccaneering free-trade vision favoured by many Brexiteers.
The UK is seemingly clear in what it wants, or else knows that what it is outlining this week is an opening offer that will shift in time. Perhaps Theresa May is attempting to manage the right wing of her party towards a pre-determined destination.
But, in proposing “practical solutions” in his Queen’s University speech, Varadkar also acknowledged there is a “space in which agreements are made”.
The Irish Government clearly wants the UK to remain in the Customs Union or a similar arrangement at the very least.
The UK wants the benefits of it too but, as of now, is demanding far too much.
In October, Varadkar will probably have no choice but to side with the EU27 if it decides insufficient progress has been made for the talks to move on to trade.
But he could soon find himself in that space he described – the one where deals are made – if Ireland is to prevent a nightmare scenario of a “no-deal” Brexit.