The Brexit talks are at a critical stage as we approach this week’s European Council summit. The rumoured landing zone for a deal – essentially a version of the ‘Chequers’ proposals for customs, but applied to Northern Ireland only – is promising. But to get there, both sides will need to compromise – and that applies to the EU as much as it does to the UK.
In the Brexit debate, both politicians and governments in the UK are routinely accused of putting forward ‘unrealistic’ or ‘non-negotiable’ proposals. The word ‘unicorn’ is thrown around and often, the criticism is fair. Simplistic demands from UK politicians to ‘simply take out the backstop’, for example, have become so commonplace that they have become a semi-ironic meme on Brexit Twitter.
Yet the EU is often just as guilty of proposing ideas which the UK is never going to accept, and this has received far less scrutiny. As recently as Sunday night, Michel Barnier told EU diplomats that there were big problems with the UK’s proposals, but that these could be solved if the UK just accepted the original, Northern Ireland-only version of the backstop. As almost anyone who has followed the Brexit debate closely over the last few years will tell you, there is no chance of this being accepted by the UK Government, let alone passing the House of Commons.
Dragging up discredited ideas like this shows that the EU is not immune to bouts of Brexit wishful thinking. ‘Why don’t you simply accept the original Northern Ireland backstop’ is just as unrealistic as ‘why don’t you simply remove the backstop’. In both cases, there is nothing ‘simple’ about it. The EU’s version of the backstop is something that this Government will never accept, which Parliament will never vote for (and passed a law against in July 2018), and which is even more provocative to unionists in Northern Ireland than the hybrid backstop negotiated by Theresa May.
Raising such a provocative idea at such a delicate stage of the negotiations also risks collapsing the entire process. It is legitimate for the UK government to have red lines, especially where the union itself is concerned – and the EU will have to respect this red line if it wants a deal. UK politicians are often accused of forgetting that you can’t do a deal with yourself, but that applies to those on the other side of the Channel too.
Dominic Walsh is a Policy Analyst at the think-tank Open Europe