After a fractious week produced an unlikely agreement between Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar, Brexit talks are entering “the tunnel”: the period of intensive, private negotiations from which a deal, if it is really in the offing, will emerge.
That yesterday’s crisis summit between the Prime Minister and taoiseach produced a joint statement – and alluded, if obliquely, to a mutually agreeable pathway to an accord on the Irish border – was a sign that there were still flickers of life in a process that looked to have totally and irrevocably collapsed as recently as Wednesday.
The risk, however, was that whatever Johnson and Varadkar agreed would combust upon contact with Brussels. Yet not only were there warm words from European Council president Donald Tusk this morning, but, having met Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay to discuss the plans this morning, the European Commission’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier has given the go-ahead for the real negotiations to begin ahead of next week’s Council summit.
Notably, this did not happen last week. Then, plans for a series of new customs posts on the island of Ireland were leaked the day before the UK government unveiled what was then billed as a final offer: a set of proposals that would have seen customs checks on the island of Ireland, regulatory divergence between Great Britain and Northern Ireland for a period of four years, and a Stormont (and thus the DUP) veto on whether to keep the arrangements.
That opening bid was unacceptable to Dublin and Brussels on two grounds: it required new checks and infrastructure, which the UK pledged not to introduce in December 2017, and the mechanism it proposed for securing consent from the people of Northern Ireland was perceived to favour the unionist community over any other. For those reasons it was never going to reach the tunnel, and the fact that its most contentious elements were leaked in advance of its formal announcement attests to the lack of seriousness with which it was taken.
Contrast that with the noises being made by Varadkar and the EU today. Or rather, their silence: yesterday’s meeting has not been followed by briefing and counter-briefing over the substance of what has been agreed or not, but rather an uncharacteristic restraint on all sides. That we do not know precisely what sort of plan is being discussed is the strongest sign yet that, in Brussels at least, there is mutual belief that the basis for an agreement exists – neither Varadkar nor any other EU leader has rushed to rubbish the proposals, as they have been wont to do. It also tells us that Johnson really has budged on at least one of his red lines.
But as long as those details are kept under wraps, we do not know just how likely a workable accord is to emerge from the tunnel – and nor, crucially, what chance it has of passing the Commons. As Theresa May discovered to her cost, Conservative Brexiteers and the DUP have not always taken kindly to deals negotiated above their heads. How they react to what if anything materialises on the other side will be the real test of whether Johnson pull off the victory that eluded his successor, and turn agreement in Brussels into a majority in Westminster.