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Why this 'Schrödinger's Brexit deal' has more than one father

Who had to compromise to get a Brexit deal over the line? In the end … everyone.

Image: Stefan Rousseau

Gráinne Ní Aodha reports from Brussels: 

AFTER A DRAMATIC morning, the throng of reporters were keen to hear from the Taoiseach.

But on his way into a pre-European Council meeting with his European party colleagues, just after midday yesterday, Leo Varadkar paused to tell the awaiting Irish media absolutely nothing about the deal that had been agreed moments before his arrival.

There had been some initial reports that a deal had been agreed and the sticking issues of customs, consent, and VAT payments solved.

Then yesterday morning, ahead of the much-anticipated gathering of EU leaders for a Brussels summit, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted that a deal had finally been done.

But Varadkar didn’t breathe any details.

I will brief the media later, he said, maintaining a tight-lipped approach he’d adopted since his meeting with Boris Johnson at Thornton Manor Estate, Cheshire last week. 

That ‘secret’ meeting has been seen as a pivotal point in the negotiations – with officials from both sides saying it went far better than expected and helped lay the foundations for the deal struck yesterday. 

Hours later, on the red carpet of Brussels’ Europa building, the Taoiseach was back to his forthright self.

“The backstop has been replaced,” he told Irish reporters, “it’s been replaced by a new solution, a unique solution for Northern Ireland… but that new solution does what we need it to do – avoids a hard border between North and South.”

On the subject of who had compromised, Varadkar insisted: 

A compromise never has one father. We were all involved in making these compromises – Prime Minister Johnson, the Irish government, and of course the EU as well.”

In the end, Ireland compromised its fair share.

Johnson had consistently criticised the backstop as “anti-democratic” and it’s been now erased from the Withdrawal Agreement, instead replaced with a customs arrangement that you’d imagine was inspired by Schrödinger’s cat (which demonstrated the problems with an interpretation of quantum physics with an example that claimed a cat could be simultaneously dead and alive). 

This new customs arrangement effectively aligns Northern Ireland with the EU’s customs union, while keeping it in the UK’s customs territory – meaning that if the UK does strike up new trade deals, the North would benefit from these.  

Tariffs would be paid on goods that enter the EU single market by travelling across the land border in Ireland, but these tariffs could be rebated to businesses if the goods stayed in the North or re-entered Great Britain.

The UK also compromised, trampling over the red lines formerly laid down by the DUP, to allow for a regulatory border in the Irish Sea as well as a customs border (of sorts) at the Irish land border (as well as in the Irish Sea).

Democracy in Northern Ireland

Throughout this process the phrase “a time limited backstop is not a backstop,” was repeated by the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Europe Minister of State Helen McEntee when they were asked whether there was room to compromise.

And although we haven’t a backstop to time-limit anymore, there’s still the same core problem: a solution to protect Northern Ireland that is time limited, limits that protection.

In order to get around the ‘democratic’ issue with the backstop, Northern Ireland has been given a new deadline of 2024, when it would vote to either keep the current customs arrangements, or to switch to a ‘hard Brexit’ scenario – effectively operating on WTO terms.  

Concerns have been raised that this new mechanism simply kicks the can down the road for the people of the North and its politicians.

David Phinnemore a Professor of European Politics at Queen’s University Belfast, told a UK committee earlier this week that such a time-oriented consent mechanism would be “really problematic because the political cycle would be geared towards remaining in, or leaving”.

Business are really sceptical about this agreement and [its ability to] secure the economic future of Northern Ireland.

Added to that political uncertainty would be the inconvenient cost and administrative burden of adhering to two customs arrangements. 

Dr Esmond Birnie, a senior economist at Ulster University said at the same committee that businesses could find themselves making considerable outlays before receiving their rebates.  

He estimated that the rebates would total something in the order of £500 million per annum.

“Businesses would be up-front out-of-pocket for a considerable sum of money,” he said, adding that there would be a certain degree of administrative burden on their part to retrieve that money, too.

It must be remembered also that this consent mechanism wasn’t something the Irish government wanted – it was agreed to as a compromise and helped lead to this week’s deal. But the UK government’s compromise is likely to deal a blow to Northern Irish businesses.

Extension rebellion

When EU leaders were asked about the possibility of an extension, they all dismissed it as something that is out of their hands. There is no extension request from the UK, Juncker said dismissively. In a statement with Johnson later, Juncker said that the deal meant there was no need for “prolongation”, fuelling rumours that it was this deal or nothing.

But an extension is at least a distinct possibility, if not highly likely. If a vote on this new Brexit deal isn’t passed by 320 MPs in the House of Commons tomorrow during its ‘special sitting’, attention will turn to Johnson to request an extension, as required of him by the Benn Act.

It would have to be an extension for a specific reason, like an election, a referendum, or to revoke Article 50 entirely – but the EU is still highly likely to grant such a request.

If it were asked for, the EU would probably need to call another summit in order to get approval for an extension from the various member states. At that juncture, it’s possible there could be some kick-back against another delay from some quarters.

Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt, head of the EU Parliament’s Brexit Steering Group, has suggested holding a parliament vote after the 31 October, in order to allow enough time for the deal to be scrutinised.

Right and wrong

At a joint-press conference between Jean-Claude Juncker, Donald Tusk, Michel Barnier, and Varadkar, all said that today was a sad day for them. As strange as that sounds, EU officials have been holding out hope that the UK would change its mind, and thought maybe that Brexit would never happen. 

“I have infinite respect for the UK,” Michel Barnier said, and made a point of outlining his admiration for Boris Johnson’s historic hero, Winston Churchill.

Donald Tusk, outlining his “sadness” at the UK’s exit from the EU, said: “Deal is always better than no deal, but I am not happy because of the substance of this political fight.” 

Juncker, meanwhile, was a flickering source of humour for the evening. “I am not in charge of Westminster, he said, when asked about whether the deal would pass.  ”I have to say, I am happy about the deal, but I am sad about Brexit.” 

When all four European leaders were asked about what message they would have for those in the UK who voted to remain in the European Union, Juncker opted to fill the silence that followed. 

“I would like to say to the 48%… that they were right.”  

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