Brexit talks to be suspended if Britain goes back on its word

Brexit discussions will be suspended if British commitments in phase one talks are reneged on, EU ministers have warned.

Ministers yesterday worked, as one senior EU official put it, to “David Davis-proof” the so-called divorce commitments agreed by the UK last Friday.

In a sharp diplomatic putdown to the UK, they backed proposals which will prevent what Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and others called “backsliding” by the UK.

This was a response to weekend suggestions from Mr Davis, Britain’s Brexit secretary, later repudiated, that the deal was not legally binding but aspirational.

There’s a determination that what has been agreed in phase one would be properly protected and seen through and there would be no backsliding

Guidelines for the next round of talks on transition arrangements for the UK will contain explicit warnings that phase two talks will be suspended if commitments in phase one are reneged on or not “faithfully” enacted in legislation.

Never has there been a clearer indication of how the balance of power has changed in these negotiations. Ireland has plenty of historical experience of being the weaker, supplicant, party in a negotiation, and the many humiliations one has to endure in that role.

The UK may have experienced similar emotions in dealing with the USA post WWII, put if so, is still in deep denial. Having to deal with individual EU27 nations on equal terms, as part of the EU, may have been part of the motivation for Brexit. Brexiteers fondly imagined that the UK could deal with the EU27, taken as a whole, from a position of strength as it retook its place among the major independent powers in the world.
But now the boot is on the other foot. The UK has had to accept first, the EU timetable for these negotiations, then the sequencing, then the agenda for Phase I and phase 2 negotiations, and finally the EU proposals for Phase I issues. Now the EU is making plain, in no uncertain terms, that there will be no back sliding on what has been agreed to date.

For Irish politicians one of the key attractions of EU membership was being able to deal with the UK and other EU members on a quasi-equal footing for the first time. But acting from a position of strength since A50 was triggered is an entirely new experience for Irish politicians and risks going to their head. Some of the exuberance expressed after the deal was initially agreed on December 4th. may have alarmed the DUP and triggered their veto of that deal. Quite why they subsequently agreed to more or less the same deal is unclear, but demonstrates their acquiescence to the weakness of May’s position.

In the past Irish politicians might have taken Davis’ comments to the effect that the deal was merely aspirational and not really legally binding on the chin with a rueful shrug that he needed to appease the Brexiteers and that there wasn’t much that could be done about it. UK Ministers could have let off steam for the benefit of their backbenchers and the Irish government would have sat tight in the hope that all would turn out ok in the end. But not now. Both Varadker and Coveney have been quick to call Davis out on his mealy mouthed weasel words and now the EU27 have formally backed them in their concerns.

The reaction in the UK and from the DUP has been one of shock and disbelief that any Irish government would act in such an “arrogant” fashion. Insults at Varadker personally and at his government more generally have flown freely. He is said to be immature, naive, and without the obsequiously emollient manner of his predecessor, Enda Kenny. Weirdly inaccurate comments have been made about his political circumstances, that he is beholden to Sinn Fein, or in the middle of fighting a Presidential election. (The role of the President in Ireland is purely ceremonial and the election in November of next year is unlikely to be centred around Brexit).

In Ireland the reaction has been much more positive. Having been running more or less neck and neck for the past year Fine Gael have moved 11 points ahead of Fianna Fail in a recent poll. Approval of the government is up 5 points to 41%, and Varadker’s personal rating is up 4 points to 53%, the highest for any Taoiseach for some years. Having narrowly avoid a pre-Christmas general election due to an internal crisis a couple of weeks ago, this virtually removes the prospect of a general election any time soon. Fianna Fail, who are sustaining the minority Fine Gael government in power, cannot afford to lose another election to them without risking being overtaken by Sinn Fein as leaders of the opposition.

One of the rules of good negotiation practice is never to humiliate your opponents. Always give them some ground so they can claim a victory or at least as a reasonable compromise. In a negotiation of near equals, such behaviour will lead to a breakdown in talks and sours the pitch for any future discussions. Ultimately it is in the interest of both parties to reach an acceptable deal or else why hold the talks in the first place?

However one of the reasons for my pessimism about this process is that key political actors may decide that a no deal Brexit is in their interest despite the obvious economic costs.

On the UK side any deal is likely to be much inferior, in economic terms, to the full membership the UK currently enjoys. To justify Brexit, Brexiteers have to construct a narrative about the wonderful economic and social benefits ‘taking back control’ over regulation, immigration, and the ability to negotiate their own trade deals will have for the UK. The fact that these benefits might prove to be largely mythological is a problem for future governments, not this one. But none of these new found freedoms are compatible with a close relationship to the Single market/Customs union, and so a breakdown in the talks is almost inevitable.

On the EU side the need to maintain the political cohesion and stability of the EU27 is paramount. How can that be maintained if members can pick and choose between what benefits they want and don’t want by threatening to leave? For Brexit to become a success spells disaster for the EU. The EU has to be able to demonstrate to each and every one of its members that they are far more powerful within the Union than if they they choose to go it alone. The success of the Irish in achieving their initial objectives with EU support is an instructive case in point.

A no deal Brexit will ultimately be damaging for both sides, but for the EU the prospect that the UK might do relatively better than the EU, is an existential threat. So these negotiations are a war fought by other means. Phase 1 might have been a bruising experience for the UK, but it is nothing compared to what awaits them when all 27 competing EU27 national interests are bought to bear. Theresa May may have difficulties in keeping her Brexiteer parliamentarians in line, but that is nothing compared to the difficulties the EU will experience if it fails to satisfy the vital national interests of a member state.

The loss of the UK is now all but inevitable, but losing another member state because they are unhappy with concessions made on their behalf by the EU would be devastating. The openly held belief of many Brexiteers that the “success of Brexit” will soon lead to Ireland wanting to join the UK outside the EU is also their greatest weakness. May’s expressed wish that she wants a deep and special relationship with the EU post Brexit is doomed to failure. If that is what she truly wanted, then why is she implementing Brexit, because that is what the UK is intent on sundering.

For the EU it is essential that the UK becomes the weaker and supplicant partner in any new relationship, if only to pour encourager les autres. As the unfortunate Admiral Byng discovered when he failed to relieve the British Garrison when faced with a superior French force at the battle of Minorca, perhaps May can do no other than lead the UK to a glorious defeat. It will take many generations to rebuild what one generation has sought to tear down. Battles fought to gain the balance of power are typically brutal.