Monday 16 September 2019

John Downing: 'Signed deal would be a big step - but Taoiseach must err on side of caution'


Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at Leinster House earlier this year. Picture: Damien Eagers
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at Leinster House earlier this year. Picture: Damien Eagers
John Downing

John Downing

It is already encouraging to see that the Taoiseach is not obliged to undertake last-minute shuttle diplomacy around EU capitals ahead of Sunday's decisive Brexit summit.

Barring last-minute glitches, this draft withdrawal treaty is likely to be signed by all the EU leaders sometime before lunch on Sunday in the heart of Brussels. Glitches such as Spanish demands over the future of Gibraltar, or the demands of France and others over access to UK fishery grounds, can be overcome, we are told.

A signing by EU leaders would be a big symbolic move. The hope is that it would concentrate the debate in the UK into terms of 'This Brexit - or no Brexit'.

In an ideal world, that would upgrade the chances of British Prime Minister Theresa May getting parliamentary backing.

Her chances might go from the current 'slim' to a marginally better ranking of 'fighting'.

But the Taoiseach's contribution to Sunday's summit will still require a deal of thinking through. He must, of course, continue to be measured; it is also time to show gratitude to EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and be gracious towards Mrs May.

But Mr Varadkar must also forcefully stress Ireland's needs - even at this late stage. It will not escape his notice that the old saw of "max fac" has again surfaced in London political circles.

Another piece of Brexit jargon, this is short for "maximum facilitation", and turns on the idea that nobody should fear a return of the Irish Border because everything could be sorted with super new technology.

This was rightly dismissed by Irish EU Commissioner Phil Hogan as "a cyber border" and by the EU negotiators as "magical thinking".

A central flaw is the established fact that the required sophisticated technology to implement this allegedly barely intrusive border does not yet exist. But Mrs May's supporters are now saying "max fac" could feature in talks about the future trade relationship to be framed after Brexit happens next March.

The notion could be used to buy off some objectors as Mrs May's chief whip tries to pile up votes, one by one, to get the draft Brexit deal over the line. It might dial down Brexiteers anxiety about a "nominal Brexit".

It would, however, be utterly inimical to Irish interests. Happily, it would appear Brussels is not receptive. But the speculation is a warning in itself.

The other focus of attention at a preparatory meeting between Mrs May and EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker this afternoon will be the declaration which will frame guidelines for those longer-term negotiations. Here again Mrs May is looking for some 'constructive ambiguity' which might allow her to defuse the objections of the more wavering opponents of this draft deal.

Sunday's summit is being billed as "the easy part" and Brussels officials have signalled that it can all be done and dusted between 8.30am and 12 noon. Let's hope that doesn't smack of complacency.

Irish Independent

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