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21 November 2017

Forget Germany – the real crisis as far as Brexit talks go is closer to home

Without a coherent position on the Irish border, money alone will only get the UK so far.

By Stephen Bush

What are the repercussions of the political crisis in Germany on Britain’s objectives in the Brexit talks? That’s the question raised by Iain Duncan Smith and Jacob Rees-Mogg in the Times, who want the government to use the political instability in Germany to get a better deal for the UK.  

It’s got a short answer, this one: there aren’t any. The question of Brexit unites effectively all of the German political class, and the electorate, to the extent that the average German in the street cares about Brexit. Whatever government emerges from the breakdown in coalition negotiations, its Brexit objectives will remain unchanged.

The European leader with something to gain is French president Emmanuel Macron. If the liberal FDP in Germany pay an electoral price for blowing up the talks, then that removes a major impediment to Macron’s hopes of achieving eurozone reform. The European country Brexiteers should be worried about is Ireland, which can, just like Germany, veto the final treaty and use its influence to block progress to the next stage of talks.

Theresa May has secured a cabinet agreement that the UK will increase the amount of its outstanding liabilities to the EU, but without a coherent position on the Irish border, money alone will only get the UK so far.

That speaks to the PM’s biggest success and her biggest failure in the Brexit talks. If May can get to the end of the process, she has a set of excellent cards: that parliament as a whole favours a soft exit from the EU, that a good third of the parliamentary Labour Party will fear a Brexit backlash if they vote against any deal, and that another third of the PLP will want to avert a catastrophic unplanned exit.

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So if she can survive to the final stage she might be able to pull off a less disruptive exit than we expect. And May is doing an unnoticed good job in gradually moving the centre of Conservative gravity to a reality-based place on Brexit: on money, and on the need for a transition period.

But what she has failed to do is court public opinion in the EU27. There is no resolution to the Irish question that doesn’t, at this stage, either lead to a hard border or the fall of May. The PM’s rhetoric and her snubbing of the Irish parliament means that it is politically toxic for taoiseach Leo Varadkar to give her the benefit of the doubt that she could, at the 11th hour, make a last-minute concession to prevent a hard border.

And that means that for all May has taken the Conservative party to a better place as far as money goes, it might all be for nothing when her failures on Ireland mean that the latest concession achieves nothing at all with the EU27 in December.

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