Friday 14 December 2018

Brexit unknowns abound as political sensitivities keep all parties on edge

The Brexit negotiations have already proved to be a roller-coaster ride but it would be wise to hold on to your hats for 2018, writes Ailish O'Hora

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said the EU did not want to stretch the negotiations any further than 2020 in order to tie in with the region’s seven-year budgetary calendar.
The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said the EU did not want to stretch the negotiations any further than 2020 in order to tie in with the region’s seven-year budgetary calendar.

Ailish O'Hora

It was Dalia Grybauskaite, the Lithuanian president, who summed up Brexit succinctly in a tweet at the beginning of this month after the last European Union Summit in Brussels. She said, to paraphrase: the past is history, the future a mystery.

Then, last week, the EU's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, spoke very frankly indeed about his views on how the talks with the UK should progress, even if he was just putting flesh on the bones of what had already been agreed as new directives at the EU Council meeting earlier this month.

More importantly, he set some key deadlines and had a number of very specific messages for Britain, including that the transition period will last no longer than 21 months - which essentially is not much different really than British Prime Minister Theresa May's request at her Florence speech for a period of about two years - and that it must comply with all EU rules in that period.

It also allows for Britain to have a non-voting place at some EU meetings, including a special arrangement for the UK having a role in setting annual EU fishing quotas.

He said the EU did not want to stretch the negotiations any further than 2020 in order to tie in with the region's seven-year budgetary calendar.

The next official step is an EU Council meeting scheduled to take place in January, where these negotiating directives need to be agreed on by the remaining member states.

UK Brexit Secretary David Davis. Photo: PA
UK Brexit Secretary David Davis. Photo: PA

This will lead to a legal mandate to discuss transition with the UK. The big question for Ireland, of course, is while there is an agreement that there will be no hard border on this island, no one seems to know what that actually means.

And this is one of the issues that will have to be agreed in phase two of the negotiations.

One thing is for sure; the scope for further misunderstanding is massive.

Earlier this month, for example, the UK Brexit Secretary, David Davis, had to row back on comments that the deal that there would be no hard border was not legally binding.

He later said that his comments on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show had been misunderstood.

Misunderstandings aside, we do know that a recent mapping document, conducted jointly between the UK and EU, highlighted up to 142 cross-border activities that would be affected by Brexit.

The document emerged following an earlier British position paper that focused only on trade and ignored aspects of the Good Friday Agreement.

Aside from trade areas like the all-Ireland electricity market, agriculture and transport, questions also remain on how cross-border health services would operate, for example.

According to an information note to the Article 50 working group, "EU law also provides a supporting framework of rights that underpin the equality provisions of the GFA. A range of significant rights and equality protections are in fact established through EU regulations and directives such as in the area of employment law and non-discrimination, as well as being enshrined in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights". So much of the Border negotiation will also be down to what Britain has actually committed to as part of the Good Friday Agreement and that is set to be a complicated challenge.

There is also sensitivity on the DUP side in relation to "regulatory alignment", which essentially means continuing to follow some of the EU single market rules.

We are heading into a year of uncertainty on Brexit.

While a lot of focus will remain on the Border issue, there is the bigger picture at play of how the negotiations between the British and EU sides go.

So far it would appear that the EU has hung tough on issues like the timeline on exit, the divorce bill and a refusal to give Britain any bespoke deal on financial services but May might take some solace from the agreement on fisheries discussions.

And even if it did look, at times, that there would be no agreement or ways to move forward during the year there has been some headway. (There's a lot to be said for an all-nighter EU Summit in Brussels!)

Still, there is scope for the unravelling of what has been achieved so far in passing the finishing line on phase one of negotiations.

Relationships between the key players is important and diplomacy skills sometimes can be underestimated.

In October, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker jumped to salvage relations with Downing Street in denying claims that May had begged for help at a private dinner in Brussels.

The move came at a sensitive time in Brexit negotiations and his comments came just hours after Martin Selmayr, his chief of staff, publicly denied that he had been the source of an account of the dinner in Brussels which was published in a German newspaper.

There are lots of other political sensitivities around the whole Brexit saga.

Hammering out a fast agreement on a transition deal is very important for businesses which in many ways are hamstrung by the uncertainty around Brexit and are trying to finalise plans for the post-exit environment, but May is in many ways a weakened leader.

It's a tough juggling act - on the one hand keeping on top of negotiations with the EU and on the other keeping the coalition with the DUP alive as well as dealing with her warring cabinet.

What kind of Brexit model that will eventually emerge is anyone's guess at this stage and it could take years to finalise but it does appear that the EU, headed up by Barnier, is sticking to its pledge that the Good Friday Agreement should continue to be protected and strengthened in all its parts after Brexit.

The former US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, was talking about Iraq when he now famously said: "There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know."

He could easily have been talking about Brexit.

Sunday Independent

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