EU remains firm but fair on Brexit
The European Union's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has systematically dismantled the United Kingdom's latest paper on its withdrawal from the EU and has stated, 10 months from Brexit, that more "realism" is required from the UK. On the British side, chaos rather than realism remains the order of the day. There is cause more than ever for deep pessimism as to the outcome of the process and, therefore, growing concern that the UK seems to be heading for a catastrophic withdrawal that will be damaging in the extreme to the interests of this country.
As is the case in most negotiations, hard decisions are taken at the last moment. There are now two weeks before the June European Council meeting. In all likelihood, a solution will not be found before then. The last moment will be the following October, when a solution to the withdrawal agreement will be required. The omens are not good that a solution will be found by then either, although every effort must be made to do so, particularly from the UK side.
The position adopted by the EU is hard but fair, and blindingly obvious in its simplicity. As Mr Barnier has said, in all of the UK papers the EU has received there has been a request to maintain the status quo, a form of continuity, which he has described as "paradoxical" seeing as the UK itself has decided to leave the EU. But the UK seems to want to maintain the benefits of the current relationship, while leaving the EU regulatory, supervision, and application framework. That circle can not be squared. For example, the EU can not be expected to reopen, renegotiate or re-ratify existing agreements in order to keep the UK in the customs territory after the transition.
In relation to the unique situation of Northern Ireland, the UK is taking a different approach. It is looking for a UK-wide solution. Mr Barnier has now made it quite clear: the backstop agreement negotiated last year cannot be extended to the UK as a whole. It has been designed for the specific situation of Northern Ireland. The EU's firmness in this regard has caused a renewal of certain anxieties among DUP politicians in Northern Ireland. Those anxieties are understandable, but neither does that provide a solution to the current impasse. In the end, a pragmatic solution will have to be found.
In the first instance, that solution must come from the UK. However, the manner in which the governing Tory party is divided on this issue, and is dependent for survival on the DUP, does not bode well for a positive outcome.
The bitter infighting evident again last week in the Tory party is profoundly depressing but to be expected. There are various machinations at play in the UK, not least a barely concealed contest for leadership succession within the Conservatives and a battle for the future of that party in terms of its relationship with Europe. In essence, a group of 30 or so eurosceptic MPs, supported by the DUP, is attempting to face down a collective EU which remains resolutely aligned to the position of the Government here. It may well be that the UK will have to get its own house in order first, and quickly, before progress can be made.