by Frank Schnittger
Mon Dec 4th, 2017 at 05:57:13 PM EST
The crunch has indeed become a crisis. Agreement between the UK and Irish governments on the Irish border question was reached this morning in time for Theresa May's lunch meeting with Commission President Juncker, only to unravel when May spoke to DUP leader Arlene Foster by phone during the meeting.
The Irish insistence that there be no "regulatory divergence" within Ireland, North and south, in order to prevent the emergence of a hard border within Ireland was watered down slightly to a guarantee that there would be "regulatory alignment" between Northern and southern Ireland. Presumably this means a guarantee of regulatory "equivalence" and mutual recognition, North and south, rather than necessarily absolutely identical regulations. Leo Varadker later said that there was no difference between those forms of words, as far as the Irish Government was concerned, although a UK government spokesman sought to make much of the distinction, presumably to provide some solace to the DUP.
Importantly, from the Irish government's point of view, this agreement has been concluded by the EU Commission Brexit negotiating team and applies whether or not the UK leaves the EU with a Brexit deal on other matters. This effectively removes the Irish border as a potential bargaining chip or bone of contention in phase 2 of the Brexit negotiations and gives Ireland some insurance against the prospect of absolute chaos if the UK leaves the EU without any other Brexit deal.
However this commitment alarmed the DUP who are hyper-sensitive to the possibility that this might result in "regulatory divergence" between N. Ireland and Britain when the UK leaves the EU, Single market and Customs Union. Other Unionist leaders and some Brexiteers immediately joined the chorus of disapproval.
The problem for Theresa May was exacerbated when Nicola Sturgeon immediately asked for a similar status for Scotland followed by Sadiq Khan asking for the same status for London. Even Welsh First Minister, Carwyn James, stated Wales would like the same special status, despite the fact that Wales voted for Brexit. This effectively undermines the UK government position that the UK as a whole will leave the Single Market and Customs Union as well as the EU.
We thus have the extraordinary situation where Scotland, London, and Wales want what the DUP has rejected outright for N. Ireland. What is even more extraordinary is that May would have met Juncker with the UK government saying a deal had been reached, only for that deal to unravel during the meeting when the DUP objected.
The first law of negotiation is to have "all your ducks in a row" before going public on an agreement. Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadker, was forced to cancel a 2.30 news conference to announce the deal as a result. Mrs. May can expect a difficult reception in the House of Commons tonight and her leadership and the continuation of her government must be considered to be in doubt if the DUP and hard Brexiteers maintain their opposition to the deal.
The SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon stated: "Right now, Ireland is powerfully demonstrating the importance of being independent when it comes to defending your vital national interests." Leo Varadker, at his press briefing just concluded, stated that the agreement addresses all of the Irish government "red-line issues" relating to the Peace process, the Good Friday Agreement, the rights of Irish (and EU) citizens in Northern Ireland, the Common Travel Area, EU peace and Intereg funding, respect for Ireland's continuing membership of EU, and the avoidance of hard border.
The UK governmental crisis I had always expected when the Brexit talks came to crescendo appears to have come early, before Phase 1 of the negotiations have even been concluded. Nevertheless the Irish government is now in a very strong position: having come to an agreement with the UK government they cannot now be accused of holding up progression to phase 2 of the Brexit negotiations on transition and trade. The reaction of the DUP will also provide the Irish government with some cover against any opposition charges that they failed to negotiate a tough deal.
Leo Varadker has stated at a news conference that they "had an agreed deal", and it was not the responsibility of the Irish government to ensure that all parts of the Conservative party and indeed the DUP were on board. "Of course the Irish government will always listen to what the DUP has to say, but we have to remember they are only one party amongst many in N. Ireland, and we have to be cognisant of what the other parties, and indeed the majority of the people of N. Ireland are saying". Ouch. The Irish government are happy to give the UK government more time to sort out its position, but there will be no change in the wording.
UK commentator Sam Coates, political correspondent for The Times, has described Leo Varadkers' press conference as extremely unhelpful and likely to "wind up" elements of the UK establishment. Varadker has a reputation as a plain speaker rather than as a master of the dark arts of diplomatic obfuscation. However Sam Coates described the current impasse as likely to be a pause rather than a complete breakdown in the negotiations.
Brigid Laffan, Director of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, and Director of the Global Governance Programme, European University Institute in Florence, argued, on the other hand, that Ireland has in vain tried to attract the attention of the UK government to the difficulties posed by Brexit for the border, and has worked very hard to prevent being "bounced" into agreeing to the Brexit talks progressing to phase 2 without the border issue being addressed. While Varadker had called a Cabinet meeting this morning to discuss the agreement, and briefed all the opposition party leaders, there appeared to have been a communications failure on the UK side.
I will continue to update/add to this diary as events unfold.