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Everyone Got What They Wanted from the Failure of Brexit Negotiations

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May arrives to attend the Eastern Partnership summit at the European Council Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, November 24, 2017. (Virginia Mayo/Reuters/Pool)
Everyone including Theresa May

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?

Not so fast. I could be wrong, but, looked at another way, everyone got what they wanted. And the “chaos” looks more and more like a stage-managed drama. Consider that while the press was blaming May for the failure of the negotiations today, her interlocutors and partners were all slipping in praises of her even as they made fighting noises for their respective audiences at home.  Although he had enjoyed sticking the knife in this summer, Juncker extended the deadline for the finish of talks and praised May as a “tough negotiator” in his statement at the close of the day. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar of the Republic of Ireland finished his statement about his disappointment at the lack of conclusion by adding that he “trusted” May and that finger-pointing wouldn’t help. Arlene Foster in her statement reiterated her belief that the government “understands the DUP position.” Is that how people normally act when a shocking crisis happens at a critical moment? Hardly.

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.

The Irish government got to demonstrate its nerve in holding out to the last minute, even as it raised the stakes earlier this month. It got promises on Friday from the president of the European Council that Ireland will continue receiving consideration when phase 2 of negotiations begins. That’s a major win for Dublin, for which trade over the Irish Sea is far more valuable than trade into the six counties of Northern Ireland. After that set of positive headlines, the Irish government had started softening its language. Irish Tánaiste and foreign minister Simon Coveney warned the public that Ireland had “no desire” to delay progress on Brexit and understood that it could not get “full detail” in any phase-1 agreement. The Irish also got headlines in the morning that the May government had basically agreed to their demands. And the Varadkar got to float his slightly implausible theory that “no divergence” and “continuing alignment” were the same thing.

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.

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