Thursday 24 May 2018

Varadkar may suffer as 'bulletproof' claim starts to look porous

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Getty Images
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Getty Images
John Downing

John Downing

The news from Brussels is not good and it is beginning to look dangerously like Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney cried "victory" too early and too loudly.

On December 8 last, on the back of an interim EU-UK Brexit deal, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the nation that fears of a "hard Border" on this island had been banished.

Mr Varadkar called the Border commitments "politically bulletproof ... they are cast-iron" and Tánaiste and Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney was equally ebullient.

The Taoiseach's poll ratings, along with those of his Government and party, rose on the back of it all - and these high ratings persisted into this new year. But it was a provisional gain in this marathon and acrimonious EU-UK separation process, which is now in danger of just fizzling right out.

Another round of Brexit talks concluded yesterday with a dire warning by the EU that substantial disagreement remained with Britain over the next stage.

That interim deal in December, along with the Irish Border, also covered two other priority separation issues: the UK's financial settlement and citizens' rights. London agreed to pay a total of €44bn for its pre-existing commitments.

For Ireland, Britain committed to avoid a "hard Border" with checks on goods and people on what would post-Brexit become an EU frontier between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Detailed negotiations would continue on that.

But at its worst, Britain said it would keep "full alignment" with the EU single market and customs union rules which are crucial to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Read More: Border checks 'unavoidable' if Britain leaves customs union

This provisional deal, which has yet to be codified in a legal text, allowed talks to move on to the current phase two.

However, around London the hyper-Brexiteers were asking privately why the UK should go to the trouble of leaving the EU single market and customs union only to mimic its rules?

There were ominous signs as UK Brexit Minister David Davies described the Border element as "a declaration of intent" rather than a legal contract - but then he was obliged to recant that statement.

There have been other warning signs ever since, which built in recent weeks.

The EU kept warning they had no idea what Britain wanted from these talks, which are supposed to conclude next October. British Prime Minister Theresa May's cabinet was publicly riven.

A week ago Irish EU Commissioner Phil Hogan warned that "some kind of Border was inevitable" if the UK continued on its path out of the EU single market and customs union.

Then Michel Barnier yesterday warned there were "substantial" disagreements between the two sides and an agreement was "not a given".

He cited rows over the future rights of EU citizens who arrive in Britain during the Brexit transition period, and the EU's demand that it be allowed to put up trade barriers if London reneges on the deal. But he was equally strong on the Border issue, reiterating plainly what Mr Hogan had said.

"A UK decision to leave the single market and to leave the customs union would make Border checks inevitable," Mr Barnier said.

Irish governments have been in this kind of EU cleft stick in the past in rows over farm funds, regional and social grants, currency devaluation and, more recently, legacy bank debt. But the big difference now is that Dublin is engaging at one remove and one of the major negotiating parties, the British government, is utterly divided on what it is seeking.

These factors are genuinely beyond Dublin's control as Mrs May's government is a Brexit basket case.

The problem for Messrs Varadkar and Coveney is they are left explaining how a deal they claimed "bulletproof" just nine weeks ago is now vanishing before their eyes. They may suffer for calling a far-too premature win.

Irish Independent

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