Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: Stakes are high but who will blink first in the Brexit battle?

By Suzanne Breen

In the once popular game of chicken, the first driver who swerves off the road to avoid danger loses.

Victory involves staying calm, showing courage and holding your nerve.

That's the backdrop against which the two-day visit to Northern Ireland is taking place of the EU's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier. Brussels and London appear to be on a collision course.

The two sides are facing off with increasing menace, revving their engines and kicking up dust. As they prepare to drive straight at each other, it will be a case of who flinches first.

Mr Barnier piled on the pressure yesterday. There could be no Brexit withdrawal deal without a "backstop" option for the border, he said.

If no better solution is found, Northern Ireland would continue to follow EU rules relating to the all-Ireland economy and North-South co-operation. Mr Barnier laid the blame for the situation clearly at London's door. "The backstop is not there to change the UK's red lines. It is there because of the UK's red lines," he said.

"The UK's decision to leave the single market and the customs union creates a risk that the hard border will return.

"This is why it is necessary to have a self-standing backstop solution."

Brussels' agenda is quite clear. The border is leverage in its battle to keep the whole of the UK in the customs union. As a weapon in the negotiations, it is powerful and emotional.

Arlene Foster yesterday accused Mr Barnier of being "aggressive" towards unionists in the Brexit talks.

She said he didn't understand their history, culture or position. He was not acting as an "honest broker" in the talks, the DUP leader claimed.

But Mr Barnier is not there as some neutral referee. He bears no ill-will to the UK or unionists. Indeed, the silver-haired, urbane Frenchman has more than likely paid scant attention to the DUP or any other political party in Northern Ireland until fairly recently.

He just wants the best deal possible for Team EU.

It is those selfish, strategic reasons - as opposed to any ideological predisposition - which puts him on a more friendly footing with Dublin, Sinn Fein and nationalist politicians.

The DUP's political priorities could well be tested in the weeks and months ahead. Will its dedication to the Union - and hence its opposition to special status for Northern Ireland - totally triumph over its support for Brexit?

Will it be prepared to accept the UK remaining in the customs union in order that the economic union between Britain and Northern Ireland remains unaltered?

There are staunch pro-Brexit voices in the party's Westminster ranks such as Sammy Wilson and Ian Paisley. But others, including deputy leader Nigel Dodds, may support leaving the EU but are not diehards.

The stakes are high as we wait to see who blinks first in the Brexit battle.

Belfast Telegraph


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