Belfast Telegraph

Imminent Brexit compromise will have majority’s interests at heart


Dominic Raab
Dominic Raab

By John Downing

Yes, there very definitely will be a Brexit compromise on offer very soon. And it is a very good sign that we are now getting soundings from Brussels that a deal is possible sooner rather than later. 

The European Union was set up in 1957 to do deals and avoid the awfulness of the previous centuries of war, horror and hunger. That’s a clue for all of us when we ask if there will be a Brexit deal.

It may well be a clunky compromise, rather far from perfect — but it will very probably have the majority of the people’s interests at its heart.

The tougher and sadder question is: can embattled Prime Minister Theresa May put such a compromise deal through her parliament in London? And what role will the DUP, who prop up Mrs May’s minority Government, play in that difficult process? 

As things stand, the DUP is  threatening all sorts to pull its prop from under the current Government, as it takes a very one-dimensional stance on the issue. It is a distressing prospect — but something over which politicians in the Republic have only limited control, at best.

But let us also try to learn from that UK/DUP farrago and remember something that often unsung group of politicians — the Irish Members of the European Parliament — have lived by at times of conflict. Over the years the Irish MEPs of all parties during rows over farm funds, regional and social grants, and other issues, have called out as one: “It’s green jersey time.”

Park any notions you may have about a potential cringe factor here and look at the reality. As less than 1% of the EU population, the Republic has few enough options to influence that behemoth of a decision-making machine. So, does it want to dilute the limited oomph that it has?

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Or should the Irish parliamentarians go to the various large groups to which they are connected and make the case? As the European Parliament has grown in power and influence, the “green jersey factor” has also become more important and at times effective.

Back in Dublin, it is a tricky time at Leinster House. There is little doubt that the only questions are now about how and precisely when the current strange Government arrangement will end. But Fine Gael and Fianna Fail must leave their current power dance to one side and make common cause. Let us recall that both parties have pursued identical policies and strategies over the past 45 years of EU membership. Voters will not thank either of them for trying to make short-term political capital out of these Brexit endgame moves.

In Brussels this week things are set to move into overdrive. Throughout Sunday there was a surprise flurry of meetings at the most senior level with EU ambassadors gathering and UK Brexit Minister Dominic Raab engaging in talks at least a day ahead of schedule.

By late that night it was clear Brexit negotiators had some distance to go to seal a deal on EU-UK divorce terms. Everything is about preparations for a decisive EU leaders’ summit which starts tomorrow evening in Brussels. But already timetables for preparatory meetings have been moved forward, suggesting optimism around a favourable outcome is growing.

Mr Raab went to Brussels after officials indicated that the two sides “jointly agreed that face-to-face talks were necessary” on the “big issues still to be resolved”. Central to these is the so-called backstop to prevent a return to controls on the Irish border. The deal, which was agreed in December, would see Northern Ireland mimic the EU’s product standards, effectively keeping it inside the EU single market after Brexit.

The DUP has vehemently opposed it, leading Mrs May to reject a detailed legal text on its implementation last March. The current talks turnaround make this option more acceptable.

But all the negotiations are happening in the shadow of huge divisions within the Conservative Party. David Davis, who quit as Brexit Minister in July after objecting to Mrs May’s compromise plan, has now accused her of accepting “the EU’s language on dealing with the Northern Ireland border”.

“This is one of the most fundamental decisions that government has taken in modern times. It is time for Cabinet members to exert their collective authority,” Mr Davis wrote in the Sunday Times.

He also pressed Mrs May to abandon that Brexit proposal, which includes staying in a free trade zone with the EU for manufactured and agricultural goods. He noted that EU leaders rejected it at a summit in Salzburg last month. “The public does not like it. Parliament will not vote for it,” he wrote.

The coming two months will be the real test of Theresa May’s mettle. Since her party conference ended earlier this month she has shown few signs of changing her approach. She continues trying to persuade Conservative lawmakers and those in the opposition Labour Party to vote for any deal based on her plan.

In London Mrs May is being lobbied from all sides as a potential deal on a draft withdrawal treaty to cover the divorce terms, a transition period and a solution for Northern Ireland edges closer. Viewed from Dublin, it is all about preventing any return of a hard border in Ireland. But pro-Brexit campaigners fear that a backstop with no expiry date would keep Britain inside a customs union with the EU indefinitely. That begs the question: why leave the EU at all?

Mrs May insists any customs arrangement, as part of the backstop, must be temporary. The EU has refused to set an end date and does not want to extend Northern Ireland concessions to England, Scotland and Wales.

The row continues as UK Health Minister Matt Hancock suggested the backstop could be temporary without an end date. But on the other side of the argument Eurosceptic Tories are still calling for Mrs May to “chuck” her Brexit plan.

“There are different ways to ensure that something is time-limited,” Mr Hancock told the BBC. “For instance, you can set conditions at the point at which the arrangements come to an end.”

However you view things, it all comes back to one end-point. Even if Mrs May reaches a withdrawal agreement, she will struggle to get it through the Commons.

The DUP insists it will oppose other legislation such as the Budget to further its narrow world view. “I fully appreciate the risks of a ‘no deal’ but the dangers of a bad deal are worse,” Arlene Foster said.

“This backstop arrangement would not be temporary. It would be the permanent annexation of Northern Ireland away from the rest of the United Kingdom and forever leave us subject to rules made in a place where we have no say.”

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