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Brexit: intergovernmental talks propound pathway to possible deal

October 14, 2019

By Diarmúid Pepper

 If both sides are to be believed, a deal could somehow be struck before the October 31 Brexit deadline.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson met on Thursday afternoon for what some feared would be a brief meeting.

On Thursday morning, there was little hope for the last minute talks as the opportunity for a deal appeared to have faded.  There was unease that Boris Johnson was entering the talks with no intention of getting a deal and that he just wanted to be seen to be trying his best to get a deal.  The gaps between both sides were incredibly large and it was difficult to see where progress could be made.

But Thursday’s talks in the luxurious venue of Thornton Manor on Merseyside ended up lasting almost three hours.  And when the Taoiseach emerged, he wasn’t bloody and bruised but upbeat and hopeful, saying that he believed a Brexit deal could be done before the end of the month.

While Leo Varadkar was very light on the details of the talks (and Boris Johnson said nothing) the Taoiseach did say that he could see a “pathway to a possible Brexit deal”.

Despite the secrecy, it is widely believed that the two leaders talked mainly about consent for Northern Ireland and customs.

On those issues, Varadkar said: “The first is the issue of consent and democracy, ensuring that any long-term arrangement that applies to Northern Ireland has the consent of the people of Northern Ireland.

“The second is the whole issue of customs, ensuring that there is no customs border between the north and the south; and also we had a good discussion looking forward to how relationships might look after Brexit, how we can strengthen co-operation north and south economically and politically, and also between Britain and Ireland.”

Both issues are fraught with deal-wrecking problems.

On the issue of consent for Northern Ireland, that relates to a new proposal which would see Northern Ireland continue to apply EU rules to agricultural and other manufactured products.  That arrangement could continue indefinitely but for this arrangement to continue, the consent of Northern Ireland’s politicians would have to be sought every four years.

And therein lies a major stumbling block to this proposal; it’s been over 1,000 days since Northern Ireland had a functioning assembly.

There are also fears that the DUP, as the largest party in Northern Ireland, could veto any vote that would be held on this issue.  However, Northern Ireland Secretary of State Julian Smith insisted that a deal would involve the removal of any veto for the Unionist community – something which could cost Boris Johnson the support of the DUP in Westminster. 

On the second of those concerns, custom checks, Leo Varadkar said before the meeting: “Part of the difficulty at the moment is the position of the UK government – that Northern Ireland must leave the EU customs union and be part of the UK customs union, no matter what the people of Northern Ireland think. That’s their position at the moment, and that’s of grave difficulty to us.”

The British government argues it is necessary for Northern Ireland to leave the EU customs union in order to get a deal through Parliament. But that would require installing customs checks along, or at least near, the border.  This is something the Irish government is steadfastly opposed to. There are the practical reasons, since it would interrupt the now seamless trade that is enjoyed across the border.

There is also the threat to the Good Friday Agreement, since this document called for “the removal of security installations”. Whether this phrase prohibits the erection of a customs border is a matter for legal debate. However, the Irish government says custom checks would be against the “spirit” of the Good Friday Agreement. 

The PSNI and Gardaí have said that they would not police such a custom checkpoint in any case.  

Despite these issues, both sides emerged from Thursday’s talks in a hopeful mood and the scene was set for a ‘Brexit Breakfast’ in Brussels the next morning when the EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier met his UK counterpart Steve Barclay.  Indeed, the Brexit Breakfast went so well on Friday morning that Michel Barnier said he was ready to enter the ‘tunnel’. 

The tunnel is EU jargon for highly secretive, private negotiations between small groups of officials. The hope is that EU and UK negotiators enter the ‘tunnel’ and hammer out a deal away from prying eyes and in complete secrecy to ensure that there are no leaks to the media. 

In the tunnel, both sides will try to carve out an agreeable solution before the EU council on October 17 and 18. On the eve of that council, Wednesday October 16, Border Communities Against Brexit will be holding protests at border crossings throughout the north.   

It is thought that the UK is edging closer to accepting a Northern Ireland-only backstop ahead of entering the tunnel.   This would involve Northern Ireland remaining in the EU’s single market and customs union, thus avoiding a hard border and related checks and customs and preserving North-South co-operation. This is a revised edition of Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement that was roundly rejected by MPs and the DUP. 

However, all of this to-ing and fro-ing could be for nothing come ‘Super Saturday’. This is the name being given to October 19, when MPs will have a Saturday sitting of Parliament for the first time since 1982. Parliament was in session on a Saturday back in 1982 as a result of the Falklands War. 

Boris Johnson will hope to present Parliament with a new Brexit Treaty on ‘Super Saturday’. If this treaty isn’t approved, the so-called Benn act would require Boris Johnson to write a letter to Brussels seeking an extension to the Article 50 divorce process. If this were to happen, the real Brexit drama may well ensue – Boris Johnson said he “would rather be dead in a ditch” than seek such an extension.

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