Irreconcilable differences?

The negotiations of the UK-EU divorce are still going on, but who gets custody of Northern Ireland?

Although there have been no concrete developments in the UK-EU negotiations, there are rumours circulating that a draft with the Irish border solution was elaborated. Also, it is said that Britain is prepared to pay £50bn for leaving the EU.

The question of the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland remains one of the sticking points in the Brexit talks. Others being the future of the EU citizens in the UK and the amount of the settlement the UK will have to pay.

The Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is to meet with the European Council President Donald Tusk tomorrow in an attempt to resolve the issue. Until the UK government presents a suitable Irish border solution and defines the rights of the European expats in Britain, there will be no discussion of the UK-EU trade during the European Council meeting on December 14 and 15.

More about the Irish border problem

The divorce settlement

Just a couple of months ago, Britain was confident it could get a good deal and not pay the price. David Davis, Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, sounded particularly confident during his interview with Andrew Marr on the BBC, on September 3rd.

BLIGHTY TV, David Davis snipes “silly” EU Commission (03Sep17)

Moreover, he stated that any settlement around £50bn is impossible. “There are all sorts of stories flying around, you had them in the papers this morning – 50 billion £ – it’s nonsense, it’s completely wrong.”

Looks like the EU had the last laugh. The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier – the silly-looking one, according to Mr Davis – says that “we are not there yet” but “hopes very quickly, next week, to see that we have found an agreement”.

As a matter of fact, the agreement has to be found before the next week. The UK government has until Monday, the “absolute deadline”, to draw up an agreement in principle. On that day, Theresa May has to present a solid Brexit plan to Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission chief in Brussels. On November 24, she said: “There’s been a very positive atmosphere in the talks and a genuine feeling that we want to move forward together” and also quoted the “Golden Rule” of “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”. Well, you certainly can’t argue with that.

It seems, though, that agreeing on everything is an insurmountable task. The divorce settlement keeps growing, and it hasn’t been explained yet how exactly it is calculated. According to Mrs May, “We are paying for the transitional arrangement period 2019-2021, and contractual obligations on top of that,” but this vague explanation does not satisfy the British, nor does the £50bn figure.

“It’s not their money,” – they say, “It’s ours.” “We were paying all the time, so I don’t understand why we have to pay to leave?” “If I’d known we would have to go through all this, I wouldn’t have bothered.” As A. Einstein said, “Any fool can know. The point is to understand,” – now, the Brexiteers certainly struggle to understand where this bill comes from.

The pro-EU Labour lawmaker Chuka Umunna calls it a “whopping great symbol for the impossibility of delivering Brexit on the terms it was sold to the British people.”

Peter Bone, a conservative pro-Brexit MP, said in an interview: “I just think it is wrong, it not what people voted for. If there is £50 billion or £40 billion, or whatever the figure is, floating around, if we have this money, why are we not spending it on our NHS and other public services or using some of it for tax cuts? It is just not what the referendum was about and the Government is getting itself in a terrible tangle with all of this.”

Once upon a time, Boris Johnson, just like David Davis, said that that the EU could “go whistle” if it demanded a large settlement.

OldQueen TV, Boris Johnson: EU can ‘go whistle’ over Brexit bill

Now, it looks like Mr Johnson has to change his tune. Even £40 or £50bn are agreeable if they help “get the ship off the rocks” and proceed with the trade negotiations.

The Irish question

Another major obstacle is the Irish border issue. The UK government still hasn’t provided any proof that there will be no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Although Theresa May repeatedly promised that there will be no hard border, the Island has yet to see a formally written guarantee of that statement.

Both the Irish government and the EU want the frontier to remain open to people and trade.

The British Irish Chamber of Commerce president Eoin O’Neill warned that “the reintroduction of border controls would have serious implications for communities along the border and would significantly reduce cross-border trade, which would ultimately lead to job losses on both sides of the border.” The Agriculture Minister Michael Creed urged for a “political solution”. “If the UK has clearly said no to a single market and customs union, it is clearly incumbent on the British Government to articulate a way forward that enables us to have an invisible, seamless border which they have said they want. We need political solutions now and we are not getting them from the UK Government,” – he said.

What would be the ideal solution? Since the UK has stated that it is definitely leaving the single market and the customs union, the best option would be to give Northern Ireland a special status and locate the Border in the Irish Sea. 

How can Ireland accomplish that? The Irish negotiators should probably stick to the strategy of Sarah Sanders, the president Trump spokeswoman. Just watch the makeshift interview broadcasted by the BBC today. Following her example would probably be a good idea: whatever question you are asked, stick to the keywords.

“Does Donald Trump endorse this group (Britain First) that tweeted these (anti-Islamic) videos?” SS:“Donald Trump endorses strong borders and strong national security!”

“Is he promoting an anti-Muslim content?” SS:“No, just strong borders and strong national security.”

“How do these videos promote border security?” SS:“We are talking about borders security now!”

To better understand the Irish-Brexit terms

The keywords for the Irish border discussion would be the Good Friday Agreement, peace in Ireland and trade.

  • The peace, although officially established in the mid-late 90s, is still fragile. And the EU needs a constant reminder that it has made a substantial contribution to that peace. The special EU “peace grants” that began after the 1994 IRA ceasefire now amount to €25bn.
  • The prosperity and free trade are essential to the Island’s peace, and that means no hard border. Even a “high-tech” Border would require some physical control points. Many member-states, especially the newer and smaller ones, would welcome a trade alliance with Ireland.

And while there is a need to secure other member states’ support, Ireland shouldn’t be afraid of using the “Irish veto”: no UK trade interests will be dealt with until the Irish Border terms are clearly agreed. 

At a first glance, the conditions sound manageable and straightforward. However, if the UK can use Ireland as a bargaining chip in the negotiations with Brussels to get a better and less costly deal, it will certainly do so. Ireland would do well to adopt “constant vigilance” as its motto for the foreseeable future…

Natalia Ilina
Natalia Ilina

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