Brexit whack-a-mole: Problems keep popping up

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The choreography of compromise is how the European Union is supposed to work.

Monday’s plan was designed to get the main parties around the table and give them the ability to “move together”.

It did not work. It is still expected to do so, but Brexit whack-a-mole means that when you focus on solving one problem, another five pop up elsewhere.

At first all seemed to be going well. Yes, there had been some over-briefing about just how easy it was going to be, but when MEPs emerged from their meeting with Michel Barnier and Jean-Claude Juncker they were struggling to contain their optimism and expectation.

Even Guy Verhofstadt said a deal would probably be struck, but felt the need to say it was 50-50.

Jean-Claude Juncker said the talks with Theresa May had not produced a deal

Image:The UK PM met Jean-Claude Juncker for lunch

But then one member of the European Parliament’s Brexit steering group, Green MEP Phillipe Lamberts, decided to go live on Sky News to express his surprise at just how far the UK government had moved to assuage the fears of the Irish government.

He said that Britain and the EU had agreed to a “special situation for Ireland” to avoid a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland.

“The UK Government has come to terms with reality and that’s a good thing,” he said.

Mr Lamberts told me the wording agreed to “full alignment” of regulatory standards with the single market and customs union, necessary to keep the border open.

Phillipe Lamberts, Green MEP

Image:Phillipe Lamberts said the Government had ‘come to terms with reality’

It sounded not dissimilar, I thought, to “no regulatory divergence” or like Northern Ireland staying in the customs union or single market.

The MEP agreed, saying: “Then again, that’s the only solution if you want to keep the Good Friday Agreement. Period.”

That and a leak in Ireland of the draft agreement was what led to the optimism that a deal would be made.

But as ever, whether or not a deal was done missed the point. What always mattered was three words: “On what terms”.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May (L) poses for a picture with Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Arlene Foster at 10 Downing Street in central London on June 26, 2017

Image:Arlene Foster issued a warning after Theresa May’s offer

When the leaked draft of these terms reached Belfast, the Democratic Unionist Party responded in force.

Arlene Foster, flanked by some of the MPs who kept the PM at Number 10 following the general election in June, expressed disquiet at a deal still being discussed and debated over lunch at the Brussels Berlaymont building.

“We will not accept any sort of regulatory divergence,” she said in front of the steps at Stormont.

DUP leader Arlene FosterVideo:Foster: N Ireland must leave EU on same terms as rest of UK

Technically, regulatory alignment might be something slightly different. But the Irish government and many MEPs think it is the same.

The sliver of difference is that while standards are not legally compelled to remain the same, it just so happens that Northern Ireland would take back control of regulations and then choose to align them with Ireland’s in order to avoid a hard border.

But it was not just Northern Ireland. The European Court of Justice’s role in the citizens’ rights deal is a key concern of the veto-wielding European Parliament.

And so it is for majority-erasing Tory Brexiteers who want to curb the court’s jurisdiction.

Irish Prime Minister Leo VaradkarVideo:Varadkar ‘disappointed’ at no deal

And there is something wider.

The PM has given considerable ground on all three areas – the finances, rights and Northern Ireland.

But she is not preparing the ground for what has always been close to an inevitable landing strip for a deal.

With the EU27 already doubting her authority in a squabbling Cabinet, days like today do not help fill the well of negotiating capital.

As Mrs May arrived late for her meeting with European Council President Donald Tusk, she walked straight past the arriving German finance minister Peter Altmaier – one of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s closest confidants.

He told me that his government was taking a full part in negotiations amid ongoing coalition talks.

“We are in the middle of a very very complicated process,” he said.

“(The) summit will decide, it is a very difficult issue, and there are a number of open points still on the agenda; they have to be clarified… I’m dealing with Brexit on an almost daily basis.”

PMQs

Image:MPs will not get a statement from the PM on Monday’s events

Back home, a statement by the PM planned for Tuesday – along with questions lasting hours – has been pulled.

A form of words can be found. But the fundamental problem will just pop up elsewhere or in a few months time during phase two.

The question arising today is not about the micro-tactics, it is about a fundamental issue – can avoiding Dublin’s Brexit red lines to prevent a hard border be squared with the DUP’s red lines?

More from Brexit

The issue was fudged under the shared sovereignty of European Union law. Can Northern Ireland be part of a United Kingdom out of the European Union and a single borderless Irish economic space inside it?

Today, the PM attempted to force an answer to that question. She did not succeed.

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Brexit whack-a-mole: Problems keep popping up

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