Martina Devlin: 'EU will have to throw Mrs May some sort of bone - but whether there's enough meat on it to placate the British parliament is another question altogether'
Troops with submachine guns are prominent along busy intersections at the approach to a string of European Commission buildings in Brussels. Uniformed soldiers patrolling the streets aren't necessarily the most desirable way to guarantee the peace in modern states - that's a police force's role - but here they are regarded as necessary for counter-terrorism operations.
No doubt they act as a deterrent. But heavily armed military personnel seem anachronistic in this industrious beehive of a city servicing a cluster of European Union departments and executive agencies - this deliberately developed centre of democracy where the spirit of fair political solutions is prized. Aspiration and reality are two separate entities, however.
Speaking of the difference between goals and real life, lips curl and eyebrows shoot up here when Brexit is mentioned. It's clear Theresa May's stock is low in EC circles after agreeing to a deal she was unable to deliver: the cat's out of the bag now about her lack of political skill. Workable compromises are valued in this city - not a tossed salad of words, without detail to back them, about finding "alternative arrangements" to the backstop in Ireland.
Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.
While Britain's disenchantment with Europe is at record levels, it's a two-way street. EC officials are close to the end of their patience with Mrs May's negotiating style - described by one of them as a hapless anti-style. Their language about both Britain's prime minister and Westminster's political class has hardened.
The answer to the Brexit conundrum doesn't lie in Brussels but in factional British politics, they say. Unless a majority of MPs can coalesce around a settled version of what it wants and can reasonably expect to achieve - as opposed to what it wants and hasn't a chance of achieving - then a no-deal Brexit is imminent. A common observation is that British politicians are betraying their people - a lack of either purpose or clarity ratcheting up the risk of an accidental no-deal exit.
But there is also a view that "a deal at the death" might be agreed to avert catastrophe - some face-saving concession from Europe that will allow the Withdrawal Agreement to pass in the Commons.
One potential solution is some legally binding wording about the backstop in a side letter, possibly included in the 25-page political declaration on the UK and EU's future relationship. EU negotiators are adamant the backstop section, contained in the 585-page Withdrawal Agreement, cannot be altered, however.
While a fudge won't meet with thunderous applause in the British parliament, Mrs May only needs to persuade a number of cross-party moderates to support it. She needn't concern herself with the Brexit ultras. Their cake-and-eat-it approach to leaving the EU prevents them from backing anything smacking of compromise.
The EC has a deal-on taskforce of about 60 staff and a no-deal unit of some 20 people. In view of the current impasse - optimistically described as progress by members of the British cabinet - some people may need to be shuffled into the no-deal working party. However, Michel Barnier's team continues to persevere with ratifying the Withdrawal Agreement, more in hope than expectation.
Meantime, the head of another EU taskforce, Brexit Preparedness, is visiting member state capitals with her officials to share best practice solutions in the event of a hard Brexit. Those EU representatives are due in Ireland next week and it's a safe bet they'll break for the Border. Here's a question for them: does Brexit Preparedness include an action plan for infrastructure at Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal to protect the single market?
The EC continues to insist the backstop is the optimum solution to a thorny problem, much to Ireland's relief. The attitude is that if Mrs May conjures up something more imaginative, perhaps she'll also take the opportunity to showcase her walking-on-water talents.
"We've looked at every single border on the planet - it's not like we've been twiddling our thumbs for 18 months. There are no viable alternative arrangements," said one member of the EC negotiating team. He added: "When the backstop went into the Withdrawal Agreement, it happened with significant British input." In other words, it's not as if Mrs May was sold a pup. She signed off on the backstop.
Certainly, if you compare the draft document of February 28, 2018, with the Withdrawal Agreement (now no longer agreed) of November 14, there is a key difference: by November, the projected customs border between Northern Ireland and Britain had gone. The DUP flexed its muscles, despite the advantages of special status offered to the North, Mrs May caved in and the deal was amended. The UK made significant contributions to the terms of a treaty which it now renounces.
This raises the dilemma of how the EC can renegotiate with Mrs May in good faith if she is capable of striking a deal in November and reversing away from it in January. "Obviously, that's something we're very much aware of," is the response of various EU officials. EC President Jean-Claude Juncker this week spoke of his disappointment (code for "my jaw hit the floor") that Mrs May should renounce their agreement. When she returns for renegotiations, Brussels will listen - but not with tea and sympathy.
Equally, it hasn't been forgotten in British circles that Mr Juncker appeared to mock Mrs May's Abba-style dance recently; soon after she showcased her moves at the Conservatives' conference, he waved his arms about at the podium in what looked suspiciously like ridicule. Oh yes, relations have soured.
A dialogue of the deaf is in process with neither side hearing the other. And the situation is extremely volatile. As for the prospects of a People's Vote, it's receding at warp speed. That momentous referendum in 2016 proved hugely discordant and it's feared another plebiscite would divide still further. "We've learned you should never give the people a vote on anything bigger than a swimming pool," said one British observer based in Brussels.
So, Mrs May is required by parliament to wrest agreement from Europe for "alternative arrangements" to avoid a hard Border - but currently has only eight weeks to do it. Europe will afford the UK more time but for a strictly limited period. And the request has to originate with the UK.
Meanwhile, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe has outlined the economic impact of no deal: the Irish economy could be 4pc less than current projections over the medium term, unemployment could rise by 2pc and the "modest surplus" projected for 2020 would turn to a deficit. Those are just the financial implications - factor in violence over a hard Border and the stakes climb higher.
The EU negotiators will throw Mrs May a bone, but whether there is enough meat on it to appease the British parliament is impossible to predict.
Fasten your seatbelts, we're in for a bumpy ride. And let's hope those soldiers patrolling in Brussels aren't on the brink of becoming Ireland's future.