Thursday 21 June 2018

Breakfast metaphors from Leo give a hassled May food for thought

Top members of the UK cabinet gathered this week at Chequers, the country residence of Prime Minister Theresa May, to discuss Brexit. Photo: Getty Images
Top members of the UK cabinet gathered this week at Chequers, the country residence of Prime Minister Theresa May, to discuss Brexit. Photo: Getty Images
John Downing

John Downing

It was breakfast time, so Leo Varadkar's food metaphors were probably unavoidable.

The Taoiseach warned that Britain will end up with "scrambled rashers" if it cannot decide what it actually wants from a Brexit process that is rapidly gaining pace. The continuing problem for Ireland is that it has been a process without London's real participation up to now.

Mr Varadkar warned that the London government just has to tell the EU negotiators what it is aiming for in these divorce talks.

"As Chancellor Merkel said, the UK can have as close a relationship with Europe as it wants to have. What it can't do is cherry-pick. The EU is a set-menu restaurant, not an a-la-carte," he went on, staying with the food analogies.

The Taoiseach was speaking at an Independent News and Media breakfast on Thursday as he very pithily laid things on the line: Britain cannot have things both ways.

"If you're a member of the club, you're a member of the club. And if you want to be an associate member, you can't write the rules yourself," he said in a message that could not have been plainer.

But here's the rub. Within two weeks a draft withdrawal agreement, or so-called "divorce treaty", between the EU and UK will be published in Brussels, giving us a clear view of what is to come.

It will put into legalese the items agreed on December 8 last in that deal which Mr Varadkar told us was "bullet-proof". These include agreements on citizens' rights; the EU-UK divorce bill; and the Irish Border and common UK-Ireland travel area.

There was up to this weekend a growing sense of exasperation in all of the EU capitals with Mrs May's government. While the Taoiseach was speaking on Thursday morning, the 11 members of the British "Brexit war cabinet" were gathering at the Mrs May's country residence in Chequers in the foot of the Chiltern Hills.

Both the ardent Brexiteers, like Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, and those less keen, like Finance Minister Philip Hammond, said they were satisfied with the strategy adopted after eight hours of talks. The outcome must be cleared by the full British cabinet next Tuesday and will then be unveiled by Mrs May in yet another landmark speech next Friday.

We understand that Britain will continue to sign up to EU rules on a "voluntary basis" after Brexit happens in March 2019. That would avoid a collapse in trade and would be good news for the immediate term for Ireland. Thereafter it hopes to diverge from the EU regime.

The deal still has to be sold to the other 27 sceptical EU leaders. It looks like the "cherry-picking" approach cited by the Taoiseach.

Mr Varadkar was in Brussels yesterday for talks on the EU post-Brexit, including remedies for a €10bn per year budget hole caused by Brexit. He remained sanguine about the threats of "backsliding" by London out of the December "no hard Border deal".

But he was completely correct when he said it does not matter if language on Ireland and the Border is in a separate protocol or in the body of the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

The point is that it must be legally binding, Mr Varadkar insisted.

"The position of the Irish Government, which is the same position of the European Union, is that we want commitments and guarantees that we were given in December written in the withdrawal agreement," he said.

Way back in 1992 Ireland learned all about how a treaty protocol, a sort of addendum to the main text, had exactly the same weight as the rest of the treaty.

In late 1991 Ireland insisted on a protocol which stated that nothing in the EU Maastricht Treaty affected the issue of abortion in this country.

Then in early 1992 the 'X-Case' happened and Albert Reynolds's government sought to withdraw the protocol.

The answer from Brussels was a flat "No" as Ireland and the other member states had already signed the Maastricht Treaty.

In the end the EU gave Ireland a "declaration" to take account of the outcome of three referendums in November 1992 on the issue.

Thus we learned that in this instance a protocol is every bit as strong as text in the main document.

Yet the question remains, will Britain come up to the mark on aligning its rules and standards with those of the EU?

If it does not, it remains extremely hard to see how a hard Border can be avoided.

Scrambled rashers are not much good to anyone.

Irish Independent

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