Let’s catch up. Today Prime Minister Theresa May was set to have lunch with Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, who would judge if she had delivered “sufficient progress” on three Brexit items before they could move to phase 2 of negotiations next week: a divorce bill (settled), agreement on the rights of European Union citizens in the United Kingdom (mostly resolved), and agreement on the Irish border (still sticky). The morning began with high expectations: the announcement of a deal with Dublin on language relating to the Irish border. There was some leaked language about “no divergence” in regulation between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Then it became a promise of “continuing alignment.” There was some grumbling from conservative Brexiteers and others that Theresa May had given up too much. But by morning the expectation was that Brexit talks would move on, and the “sufficient progress” press conferences were scheduled in Dublin, and Brussels. So said the leaks from the EU side of the negotiations. The U.K. side was unusually quiet.
All day rumors kept kicking up about anger from the Tory backbenchers. May was too weak, and didn’t the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) have a point about a two-tier Brexit being impossible? But then one by one those press conferences were delayed, then canceled. The DUP let out a mighty roar, saying that the leaked language was unacceptable. Lunch was put on pause so that Juncker and May could make phone calls. The day ended with rumors that the Northern Irish Unionist Party had scuppered the whole thing with their dramatic midday press conference, and presumably with an implicit threat to withdraw the confidence-and-supply agreement that keeps May in power. The anti-Brexit press howled its jeers at May’s “stunning” lack of coordination with the DUP and at the “chaos” that Brexit was inflicting on the nation. No deal. Disaster, right?
Consider that everyone gets to sell something out of today’s failure. Northern Irish Unionists got to intervene dramatically to preserve the economic and political integrity of their attachment to the United Kingdom. For good measure they accused the Irish government in Dublin of trying to alter the Good Friday Agreement, which keeps peace in Northern Ireland, without their consent. And they did this just as the press had been remarking that they’d been so quiet since they achieved their arrangement with the Tories. As icing on the cake, they got to reject a special-status deal (which hasn’t ever really been offered), even as such an arrangement was being admired by London mayor Sadiq Khan and Nicola Sturgeon, the head of the Scottish National Party, two figures unlikely to be popular in East Belfast. And, after all, the leaked language that supposedly upset the DUP seemed to apply only to a situation in which the U.K. was crashing out of the European Union without trade agreements.
Consider that everyone gets to sell something out of today’s failure.
Then there’s May herself. Even as she walked away from a deal that some of her party’s hardliners were calling unacceptable, she got that compliment from Juncker for her toughness, and warm statements of confidence about how the deal would likely wrap up by the end of the week. The press connected to her said the deal was “too much to swallow.” In other words, May communicated that she was not overeager and not giving everything away in a rush, but also that she wasn’t threatening to fail entirely.
In the end, I think almost everyone got to say that the reason negotiations hadn’t concluded is either that they had either fought so hard and won their battles (Ireland) or that they were still fighting so hard (the DUP and May). But the world has been assured that, despite these very difficult and tough negotiations, everything will be concluded in the nick of time this week.
Negotiations failed, and “sufficient progress” could not be declared. I’m pretty sure everyone involved is quite pleased with the results.
— Michael Brendan Dougherty is a senior writer at National Review.