Irish stew promises Brexit summit indigestion

Dharshini David

Pheasant supreme with cep mushrooms, butternut gnocchi and poached veal tenderloin are among the dishes that have appeared on the menu at recent EU summits. Putting together a selection of gourmet courses for the next Council gathering on the 22nd and 23rd March to suit the diverse tastes and dietary requirements of European leaders, who also bring pride in their national cuisine to the table (between them, they represent over 2000  Michelin starred restaurants), will be challenging. The agenda, too, will be varied and wide reaching. While it might seem like the main event, the UK’s departure from the EU is tacked on at the end - “finally, EU leaders will also discuss Brexit” - like the after-dinner petit fours that accompany coffee. 

It’s a conversation few will savour, with the initial stages of Brexit negotiations proving as intricate as a state banquet. The UK had hoped to serve up a first course to relish at the summit – a transition deal. It’s something that politicians, investors and business alike are hungering for, with less than 400 days to go until the UK departs the EU. But instead, there is still wrangling over the equivalent of canapés – the withdrawal agreement. That has come down to finding the least repellent option for all sides.  That deal was agreed in principle in December after protracted discussions that led to what was originally billed as an “English breakfast” turning into an early supper.  

On many key areas – notably citizenship and the financial settlement – it’s been a case of simply recording agreed terms. Indeed, the official forecasts that formed part of the Chancellor’s Spring Statement clarified that the cost of the settlement is estimated at £37.1bn, paid over 45 years (although over 70% of those payments will have been made by 2023). The main sticking point, however, was – and still is - the future of the Irish border. On this matter, as the EU translated the agreement into a detailed and ultimately legally binding draft, the tensions have resurfaced.  

The draft dictates that, in the absence of any other solution “The territory of Northern Ireland shall be considered part of the customs territory of the EU”. In other words, full alignment would be the fall back position, meaning Northern Ireland would remain subject to EU rules on movement of goods and customs.  If so, to avoid separate treatment for Northern Ireland – which would require a  shift in the customs and regulatory border to the Irish Sea – the rest of UK would have to stay in regulatory alignment with the EU. Theresa May deems this unacceptable, just as was the idea of a hard border, with physical barriers and checks.

What would she consider palatable? In her 2nd March speech, May proffered two options. The first is a customs partnership, whereby the UK mirrors the EU’s tariffs and rules for imports destined for the EU at entry (while those destined to remain in the UK could face different policies). The second would be a streamlined arrangement, with smaller traders, who make up 80% of North-South trade in Ireland, exempt from new checks. Both systems would be complex, and rely heavily on the use of appropriate technology (which may just make checks more efficient rather than eliminate the need for them). She’s mentioned the US-Canada border model – but many have pointed out that this includes physical features, including armed guards. This would be impossible to swallow for many, undermining the terms of the hard-fought 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which drew a line under sectarian conflict. It would also be unpalatable to business, meaning inevitably delays at the border and the additional costs that would imply.  So, like Irish stew, the island’s celebrated meat and root vegetable dish, the composition of this concoction is subject to heated debate.

At the top of the December progress report, it states “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.” It’s a crucial line. And the European Council President, Donald Tusk has demanded “Ireland First” – meaning that, unless more “specific and realistic” (and agreeable) plans from the UK are forthcoming, there’s little hope of progress on the transitional agreement either. As the summit fast approaches, there have been signs of compromise on that deal from both sides – from the rights of EU citizens who arrive in the UK, to the ability to negotiate new trade deals while in the single market.  Notably, Brexit Secretary David Davis said in a TV interview that he was willing to live with a transition period of under two years if it prompted a swift deal, although it’s hard to see how the UK could prepare adequately in such a short timeframe.   

Indeed, the UK’s favoured mode of communication so far has been broad-brush speeches and press comments, rather than detailed statements of policy intentions. By contrast, the EU has been putting in the hours to churn out paper after paper on the table for the leavers to digest. The “Motion for a resolution to wind up the debate on the framework of the future EU-UK relationship” outlines the European Parliament’s response to the UK’s request for some kind of deep and comprehensive deal. It’s a signal of intent from the MEPs who’ll have a binding vote on the deal. The document proposes an “association agreement” between the UK and EU – something that would thus treat the UK in a similar way to Ukraine – and makes it clear that third countries like the UK cannot “enjoy similar benefits or access” as EU members. Its 65 clauses add up to a rebuttal of May’s demands, on everything from a special deal for financial services to seeking a “binding interpretation role” for the ECJ.  It goes so far as to state that the parliament’s preference is for the UK to remain part of the internal market and customs union.

Draft guidelines on future trade and co-operation agreed by the EU member states in the EU Council, meanwhile, indicate that the UK will be offered tariff-free trade in goods – but only if it agrees to existing arrangements for fishing waters, a blow to those Brexiteers who want control in this area.  Services would be covered only to the very limited degree way they are in the EU’s deal with Canada. The highly bespoke deal May is seeking, with the ambitious and unprecedented inclusion of financial services, would be hard to swallow.

The final text of the draft guidelines will be agreed by the 27 member states at the summit. But Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator warned that Brussels won’t allow “à la carte” access. Britain won’t be able to secure the “mutual recognition” of its regulatory standards necessary to access the single market, unless it accepts EU oversight of its rules. Thus, in a speech to the European Parliament, he said the UK needed to face the “hard facts” of Brexit. The latter was a reference to language used by May in her speech earlier this month when she said “it is time to face up to the hard facts”.

There’s nothing like a deadline to focus attention but the Irish stew could be a major source of indigestion, and mean that talks on the transition period drag on several months beyond the March summit. Compromise might be necessary to enable officials to then get their teeth into the complex main course, the shape of the future relationship post Brexit. There had been hopes – on both sides – to get an agreement in principle by October, such that it could be approved by the relevant bodies in time for the UK’s intended departure on 29 March 2019. Instead, mutterings are emerging in the corridors of Brussels and Westminster that a deal might not be reached until January, if at all.

Rather than toasting the completion of a round of talks, the March summit may be remembered as a queasy anti-climax, with leaders figuratively throwing bread rolls at each other. Meanwhile, markets, businesses and citizens face the continued disruptive uncertainty over what will finally be dished up. Rather than toasting the completion of a round of talks, the March summit may be remembered as a queasy anti-climax, with leaders figuratively throwing bread rolls at each other. Meanwhile, markets, businesses and citizens face the continued disruptive uncertainty over what will finally be dished up.

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