Throughout Brexit, there have been two apparently fixed points on the EU side of the negotiations. The first was their remarkable cohesion, in the face of a deeply divided British political class, and the second was their solidarity with Dublin.
As this Government’s efforts to negotiate Brexit reach their apparent nadir, it is worth paying attention to the other side of the table and noting that something appears to have shifted this week, at least with regards to the former point.
The apparent willingness of certain EU leaders to go for ‘no deal’, rather than endlessly indulging Parliament with a series of extensions in which it can continue to vote down the Withdrawal Agreement, seems to contradict the Union’s policy of catering to the particular needs of the Republic of Ireland.
Whilst the EU is perfectly willing to roll out the high-minded rhetoric about the vital importance of an invisible border whilst attempting to persuade the UK to adopt the backstop, it seems improbable that they would content to allow unregulated goods to flood into the Single Market through Northern Ireland in the event of no-deal.
On top of the serious economic consequences, this is one of the reasons that Leo Varadkar’s government has good reason to be deeply worried by the prospect – hence our Editor floating the ‘Varadkar Test‘ as a gauge of Theresa May’s real willingness to pursue such a course.
By apparently hardening their attitude towards one, then, leaders such as Emmanuel Macron seem on the surface to be abandoning their commitments to Dublin’s interests. Which is a very good reason to think it might be a bluff, of course, but if it is a bluff it has been deeply unhelpful for a Prime Minister who needed Brexiteer MPs to think that a no-deal exit had been taken off the table to win them round to her Withdrawal Agreement.
Could it be the case that they are simply running out of patience with the whole process, and losing their cohesion as a result?
The fact that Angela Merkel appears to have had to rebuke both Macron and Donald Tusk, and emphasise in strong terms that a no-deal Brexit must be avoided, certainly suggests so. And there is no doubt that there is genuine concern about whether or not the UK takes part in the next European elections, a decision which must be made soon and which could impose tight legal limits on any deferment.
But it is a long way from there to thinking that Brussels really will abandon its previous priorities, especially against the wishes of the German Chancellor, and facilitate no deal. It still seems more likely that, for now at least, EU leaders will if pressed swallow their frustrations and grant a long extension – almost certainly with strings attached – if the British Government seeks one.
If that is the case, this rare crack in the united front could possibly not have come at a worse moment for May. Just when some of them felt she had the ‘gun to their heads‘, Macron has muddied the waters.