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John Downing: The confrontational tone of this political Punch and Judy show has to be defused

By John Downing

Embattled Prime Minister Theresa May was said to have been “humiliated” by her EU counterparts.

So she hit back hard in a televised address from her Downing Street office, challenging Brussels to make the next move in these deadlocked Brexit negotiations.

The Prime Minister insisted she had always treated the European Union with respect in these talks — and now expected the same from the EU.

“It’s not acceptable to simply reject the other side’s proposals without a detailed explanation and counter-proposals,” Mrs May said. “So we now need to hear from the EU what the real issues are, what their alternative is, so that we can discuss them. Until we do, we cannot make progress,” she added.

Now it’s all down to a battle of wills as we ask the question: Who will blink first, the EU or the UK?

And then we add another important question: What are the implications for Ireland?

We did not expect a result from this week’s informal summit of EU leaders in Salzburg.

But we did expect a cordial conclusion for Mrs May, as many EU leaders were sympathetic to her trying to drag along a badly divided minority government as she tries to manage tough negotiations.

At the end, the tone was poor. So, back home yesterday her fate was portrayed as a “humiliation” in most newspapers.

Many reports highlighted a warning from French president Emmanuel Macron that, despite a fall-back extra summit fixed for November 17 and 18, there must be real progress at the next leaders’ gathering on October 18 and 19.

Tempers frayed in Salzburg because there was no consensus around the other summit topic of migration.

Then, most uncharacteristically for the usually efficient Austrian hosts, the summit logistics went wrong, further adding to a general air of ill will. Some Brussels diplomats said the leaders were irked by the strident tone Mrs May had taken in an article in the German newspaper Die Welt.

Other diplomats said that British officials boasting that they could bypass EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier, and deal directly with the EU leaders, added fuel to the fire.

It all made a pretty terrible week for Mrs May as her effort at compromise, the so-called Chequers plan, was roundly rejected by the EU 27.

And there was a strong notion among the EU leaders that they were ready to cope with the fallout of a “no-deal crash-out” by Britain.

That gives us a real clue to help in answering our first question.

The leaders warned May that if she does not give ground on trade and arrangements for the Irish border by November, they are ready to cope with Britain “crashing out” and the economic carnage of a “no-deal Brexit”.

Two comments, relating to the Irish border and the so-called backstop sum up this mood.

“There will be no withdrawal agreement without a solid, operational and legally binding backstop,” said Donald Tusk, the permanent chairman of EU summits.

“We need a UK proposal precisely preserving the backstop in the framework of the withdrawal agreement,” Mr Macron said.

Such comments left Mrs May exposed at home as she heads into what is expected to be a tough annual Conservative Party conference on Monday week.

So there was little surprise when she hit back yesterday.

But we must discount at least some of this political Punch and Judy show.

The EU must help defuse this confrontational tone. A no-deal Brexit would mean economic Armageddon in Ireland and very likely a return of the border.

It would be the worst of all worlds for everyone.

John Downing is a political  correspondent for the Irish Independent

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