Bobby McDonagh (former Permanent Representative of Ireland to the EU)
Yesterday’s high-level Brexit meeting between Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen and her colleagues was perfunctory in length and anodyne in output. The leaders did little more than call for greater momentum in the sluggish Brexit negotiations.
Occasionally, however, a non-event is to be welcomed. Low-key can be better than high-pitched. On this occasion, it was. The UK did not, in the absence of real progress by this month, walk away from the negotiations as it had long promised to do. Moreover, the Prime Minister did not bang the table with his fist, as the British tabloid media had been briefed that he would. In fact, if there was any sound of flesh meeting a hard surface, it would have been the EU privately banging its head against the wall at the UK’s continued prioritization of ideology over interests and at Johnson’s suggestion that all the negotiations now need is some oomph.
Today being Bloomsday, it is worth recalling Joyce’s wise observation that “the actions of men are the best interpreters of their thoughts”. Leaving aside therefore all the inevitable tabloid rhetoric, the actions of the EU and UK leaders yesterday, in keeping the negotiations on track, reflected the clear preference of both sides to reach a deal.
Nevertheless, the absence of any substantive progress has several consequences.
First, the stipulated deadline for agreeing to an extension of the Brexit transition period cannot now be met. While technically it might still be possible to find some way to allow further time for negotiations, the compressed timetable is now taken as a given.
Second, the gratuitous limitation of the time available for negotiations necessarily further limits the level of ambition for the scope and depth of the future EU/UK relationship.
Third, the threat of a “no deal” outcome has increased.
These consequences reflect the UK Government’s wishes but not its interests. As time runs out and the threat to British business looms ever larger, its negotiating hand will be weakened.
If there is to be an agreement this autumn, both sides will have to compromise on the difficult outstanding issues, notably to address the requirement for a level playing field for business, and to reach a balanced deal on fisheries. The question is not which side will blink first, even if the precedent of the Withdrawal Agreement suggests that that is likely to be the UK. The question is whether the UK can accept that both sides have red lines and that difficult choices have to made. The EU will certainly have to make some concessions which, by definition, it will find uncomfortable. But the UK negotiators face the bigger challenge of agreeing compromises that will fall short of the simplistic solutions that have been fed to their tabloids over several years. In short, sovereignty works both ways. If the UK is to be free to set its own laws, the EU is equally free to set EU laws including those that govern access to its market. The core Brexit delusion is that the UK outside the EU will in some way be more independent than the EU or its Member States.
The decisive question now is not whether, as Boris Johnson suggested this week, the EU will “put a tiger in the tank”. The question is whether a leopard, long fed on the myth of having its cake and eating it, can change its spots.
Bobby McDonagh is a former Irish Ambassador. He was Permanent Representative of Ireland to the EU, Ambassador of Ireland to the UK, and Ambassador of Ireland to Italy
Image credit: preparation of the EU-UK High Level (online) Conference on Brexit