Tuesday 22 January 2019

Frictionless border solution on track

US President Donald Trump with British Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Jack Taylor/PA Wire
US President Donald Trump with British Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Jack Taylor/PA Wire


It has been a good week for those who want to see a soft Brexit with a frictionless border between this republic and Northern Ireland and good relations between the UK and the EU maintained. The authority of the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, has been strengthened, notwithstanding the resignations of two Cabinet members, David Davis and Boris Johnson, and US President Donald Trump's antics.

The full reaction to the British government's Brexit White Paper will only emerge in the coming days after all concerned have had a chance to study its 100-page content. The EU's main negotiator, Michel Barnier, who resumes talks with British officials tomorrow, was understandably cautious and reiterated the community's desire to stand by the "four freedoms" of movement of people, of goods, of services and of capital.

The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, who is spending the weekend studying the document, sounded just the right note when he welcomed Mrs May's proposals and accepted that the UK was "able to relax its position regarding some of its red line issues". In return he suggested that the EU could also now be flexible in the negotiations that still have a long way to go. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, was also on the right track, recognising that there is now a clear negotiating position from Britain which is a step towards a much softer Brexit than had been spoken of previously. At the same time it is prudent to be prepared for a hard Brexit in case talks fail.

The departing UK ministers and the back-bench Conservative critics of the prime minister, led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, have been left floundering, claiming that the EU will react to the White Paper with new demands. Certainly the EU negotiators will not accept everything in the British White Paper because that is how negotiations work. But none of the hard Brexiteers, who sound increasingly like Tory versions of Nigel Farage, suggested an alternative strategy. They know that if they did, it would have to be immediately rejected out of hand by the rest of the EU and would lead to Britain being forced to leave the union with no deal - something which may well happen anyway. And for that they are not willing to take responsibility. Instead they have tried to place road blocks in the path of further negotiations by putting down amendments to a trade bill coming before the House of Commons this week. One of these which would impose a legally binding commitment on the British government to never have a border down the Irish Sea, is supported by the DUP, though Mr Barnier recently said any checks on goods moving across the Irish Sea would be strictly "technical and operational" and would respect the UK's constitutional order.

However, the prime minister can take comfort from the fact that in her parliament there is a majority in favour of a soft Brexit, though Mr Rees-Mogg says it would be a betrayal of her party to accept support from Labour MPs! And she should realise that the behaviour of the American president during his British visit has not undermined her in the least. His high praise for Boris Johnson reflects the fact that he had a conversation with the former foreign secretary before doing that interview with The Sun - an example of the long discredited policy of taking your politics from the last person to whom you spoke.

Sunday Independent

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