This week’s European Council summit was supposed to be the moment a Brexit deal was done. Yet the UK’s departure from the bloc did not even receive a mention in the published conclusions. Theresa May had just 20 minutes to make her case. No wonder some are questioning her government’s ability to conclude an agreement, while others wonder about the EU’s commitment to negotiating in good faith.
Everything is stalled over the Irish backstop, with both sides sticking rigidly to their position. Mrs May has little political space for compromise. Although the House of Commons and her cabinet are bitterly divided over the direction of Brexit, they are pretty united against the EU’s version of the backstop, which risks creating a regulatory and customs border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Even pro-Remain Conservative MPs tell me they could not agree it. Damian Green, the former first secretary of state, summed this up by describing the commission’s proposals as “worse than no deal”.
For its part the commission refuses to budge. It argues the UK committed to a backstop last December. True. But that agreement contained provisions that the EU now overlooks — for example, that the entire UK was leaving the customs union, and there would be no new regulatory barriers within the UK without Northern Ireland’s consent. The backstop was supposed to be an insurance policy. Yet since then, the EU has soft pedalled on future discussions.
Feelings are running high. The backstop touches on the territorial integrity of the UK as well as the bitter history of the Troubles. Dominic Raab, the Brexit secretary, has warned that the view of some Europeans is that Northern Ireland is a price the UK might have to pay for Brexit. There is a sense that the issue is being exploited to damage Britain, echoing Charles de Gaulle’s 1968 I’Irlande toute entière toast to Taoiseach Jack Lynch. On the other side the current Taoiseach reminded this summit of how customs posts have been bombed in the past.
A compromise is needed. If there is political commitment to a solution, a route will be found — particularly as no one wants a return to violence or hard borders in Ireland. On Thursday, French president Emmanuel Macron said that the negotiations’ problem was “no longer a technical issue” but a “political” inability by the UK to reach agreement. That misreads Britain’s objections to the backstop. It also fails to recognise that the UK has put forward a policy on the future relationship, which Mr Macron led the Salzburg summit to reject last month. More worrying is the sense, described to me by a well-placed source, that the mood in the Elysée is that Brexit should lead to “blood on the floor”.
Jeremy Hunt’s comparison of the EU to the Soviet Union was clumsy. But the row over the foreign secretary’s words distracted from a serious point: the EU is not a trap. Each country has a right, specifically afforded in fundamental treaties, to depart. Article 50 places a responsibility on the EU not just to negotiate with the departing member but to conclude a deal with them. It is not clear that the EU is taking this responsibility seriously, nor its duty to agree the UK’s withdrawal in a manner which takes account of the framework of our future relationship.
Britain’s handling of Brexit has been botched — from a crass refusal to guarantee EU nationals’ rights, to triggering Article 50 with no agreed plan. At this summit Downing Street let the idea of an extended transition dominate the news with little sign that could unblock negotiations. Meanwhile MPs come up with schemes from “Super Canada” to extending Article 50, none of which would obviate the EU’s desire for a backstop or resolve the deadlock.
The only answer is to press on. Mrs May should put Mr Raab more firmly in charge; task the Brexit secretary with drafting a new text guaranteeing an open border, send him to Brussels to lead the negotiations, and let him pivot away from the aspects of her Chequers proposals which have been rejected by both the EU and her own Conservative party.
For all the calls for Britain to come up with new answers, the ball is actually in the EU’s court. A backstop that divides the UK is unacceptable and could well collapse the talks. It is ironic that an insurance policy to prevent a hard Irish border could be the cause of “no-deal” Brexit and so possibly harden the border.
If France and Germany really are now, as has been reported, in “deal mode” that is encouraging. But there is scarce time to lose as we enter the final stages of Brexit talks. All paths to an consensual divorce flow through the backstop. The EU has always been masterful at finding compromise and keeping the show on the road. There is only so long that the key European powers can hide behind the commission’s negotiating team. If they want a deal to be done then it is time to engage properly at a political level and get this over the line.
The writer is director of the Open Europe think-tank