Saturday 21 July 2018

May seeks 'third way' in this most crucial of weeks

DUP leader Arlene Foster speaks to the media outside number 10, Downing Street following a meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May in London, England. Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images
DUP leader Arlene Foster speaks to the media outside number 10, Downing Street following a meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May in London, England. Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images
John Downing

John Downing

If there is ever going to be real movement on Brexit, it must happen before this week ends.

There was a clue about this when Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster popped up in to Downing Street yesterday afternoon for talks with British Prime Minister Theresa May.

When she emerged, squired by the party deputy leader and head honcho at the London parliament, Nigel Dodds, there was strong talk reminiscent of the marching season north of the Border.

We did not need reminding the DUP is propping up Mrs May's minority government, and is pretty wired at the prospect of the North exiting the EU on terms different from England, Scotland and Wales.

Mr Dodds stressed the DUP got the required assurances from Mrs May.

"She was very firm on that point. There will be no breaking up of the UK economically, constitutionally or politically," Mr Dodds told reporters in London.

We are beyond two years since UK voters delivered the 'Leave' referendum result, and less than nine months from the witching hour of 11pm on March 29, 2019, when the voters' decision becomes a stark reality.

This coming Friday, Mrs May gathers her ministers at her official country retreat, Chequers, at the foot of the beautiful Chiltern Hills, about 60km from the heart of London.

Mrs May has summoned her warring ministers in a last-ditch effort to thrash out their final list of demands for the EU in these stalled negotiations. It is her final roll of the dice after two years of utterly unproductive squabbling over what sort of post-Brexit deal London wants from Brussels.

Ultra Brexiteers in her cabinet, and in her UK Conservative Party, insist they can live with a "no-deal crashout" - which would mean disaster for all in these islands. Defeated 'Remainers' want an exit deal to resemble EU membership as closely as possible, keeping strong links to the EU customs union and border-free single market.

So, the 'Remainers' want the UK to stay as close as possible to the EU post-Brexit. The 'Leavers' want a definitive severing of the EU links so Britain can trade again in the further reaches of the globe.

Mrs May tabled "half a plan" six weeks ago, which was promptly rejected by the EU. It suggested that plans to keep the North in the customs union could apply to the entire UK and last until 2021. Brussels said the entire UK was too big to get North concessions and the customs union time-limit was not on.

The issue of product standards, which are governed by the EU single market, was not addressed in the "half-plan". Thus far the more reasonable Brexiteers in Mrs May's line-up argue that what Irish EU Commissioner Phil Hogan calls a "cyber Border" can resolve the bulk of problems and obviate "hard Border" threats. In that mind-rotting jargon it has been dubbed "max fac", short for maximum facilitation. For weeks now, Mrs May's sherpas and gurus have been trying to find a compromise between the Leavers' "stick close to EU" and the Brexiteers' "max fac".

Observers in London call this the "third way".

In one-on-one talks in Brussels, Mrs May gave a flavour of this to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. He was understandably cautious about what is coming, insisting we must wait and see.

But finally we are talking about days.

Irish Independent

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