It might look like a game of Brexit chicken has broken out – but really it’s just all sides limbering up for the blame game.
The EU’s very reserved reaction to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s last-minute plan was all part of a well-choreographed effort to avoid an immediate bust-up. Leaders from Leo Varadkar to Angela Merkel suggested the ‘two borders for four years’ proposal deserved consideration.
But in the background there was a widely held view that Johnson’s offer fell so far short of the target that it would be impossible to rectify before October 31 – even if London was willing to “take the next step”.
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For its part, the British government wanted to present something that showed undeniable evidence of movement. That much they achieved.
Johnson convinced the DUP to accept that Northern Ireland would be tied to the EU single market for at least four years. Theresa May once intimated that a border down the Irish Sea was something “no UK prime minister could ever agree to”.
So that was a big leap. But Johnson must have known that he was placing a major fly in the ointment: something the Irish Government could never agree to.
The whole purpose of the backstop was to avoid any infrastructure on the island, yet Johnson has put forward a scenario where checks will be needed.
And even if he says the UK will not put customs checks at or near the Border, Ireland will have to.
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EU sources have made it clear to the Irish Independent that if the Johnson plan were adopted then Border checks would have to implemented to protect the customs union.
“That will have to happen. Where exactly they are is still up for discussion but they will have to be somewhere,” the well-placed source said.
So the EU has spent the past 48 hours saying it will give consideration to something both sides know simply doesn’t come close to achieving the objective of the backstop.
By pulling their punches, Michel Barnier and Jean-Claude Juncker allowed a narrative to build up in the UK whereby the Tory-driven ‘Daily Telegraph’ ran a frontpage headline that screamed: “Pressure on Dublin to back deal.”
It reported that with the DUP and hardline Brexiteers on board, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar “is now the main obstacle standing in the way of Britain leaving the EU with a deal on October 31”. And when you read that, the truth of what is going on becomes apparent.
Mr Varadkar is under no such pressure from the EU. Both Barnier and Juncker were quick to indicate they would follow Ireland’s lead.
In Stockholm yesterday, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven rejected the idea Varadkar would be bounced into a deal.
“Sweden stands in solidarity with Ireland, we all remember the violence during the Troubles very clearly and the Good Friday Agreement must not be put at risk,” he said.
“It’s not up to Ireland to make concessions and say ‘it’s now your responsibility’. That’s not the case, it’s up to two parties – the United Kingdom and European Union – to try to find a solution.”
There will be a similar message from Denmark’s leader Mette Frederiksen when she meets the Taoiseach today.
However, Johnson’s ‘generous’ offer allows him to urge MPs to “come together in the national interest behind this new deal”.
When eventually an election comes in the UK, he will repeat the line to voters that it was “a genuine attempt to bridge the chasm, to reconcile the apparently irreconcilable and to go the extra mile as time runs short”.
For its part, by leaving the door slightly ajar to further discussions, the EU gets to say that it has been respectful and open-minded when dealing with a UK government that has shown it little respect.
Ultimately, Ireland and the EU will be “unconvinced” and it will end in a massive row. In reality, both sides are limbering up for an argument over who is to blame for this ‘failure of statecraft’.
And, perhaps predictably, the DUP is ahead of the game with its assertion the calm Irish reaction amounted to “incendiary and outrageous comments by Leo Varadkar”.
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