Creative ambiguity may be key to resolving Brexit

More often than not, politics is the art of deliberately fogging up the view while claiming to have cleared the air.

Creative ambiguity  may be key to resolving Brexit

More often than not, politics is the art of deliberately fogging up the view while claiming to have cleared the air. And while nothing is guaranteed yet, after three years of Brexit confusion, maybe in the end that political ambiguity was all that was really needed to give people the cover to cut a deal.

That was certainly the overriding impression as it was all smiles when Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and British prime minister Boris Johnson left their three-hour behind-closed-doors meeting in Cheshire, England, on Thursday.

And it gained even more credence yesterday when the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, left his Brussels meeting with Britain’s Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, to give the nod for intense private talks to take place over the coming days.

So, what has just happened, and why has the mood music changed so drastically since Tuesday, when Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe took out his hammer and nails to batten down the Budget 2020 hatches for a no-deal Brexit?

In simple terms, a fudge. After seemingly reaching the point of no return for a crash-out Brexit, all changed on Thursday when Mr Varadkar and Mr Johnson met in Cheshire.

After speaking in a top-secret luxury private venue — which was quickly identified by journalists given the fact that high-powered jeeps with blacked-out windows were driving in and the “gardener” was wearing a suit and earpiece — a joint statement emerged from both leaders.

“The Taoiseach and prime minister have had a detailed and constructive discussion,” it read.

Both continue to believe a deal is in everybody’s interest. They agreed that they could see a pathway to a possible deal.

During a press briefing at Liverpool’s John Lennon Airport shortly afterwards, a near giddy Mr Varadkar elaborated on the situation, ditching his gloomy Budget 2020 tone for a far more upbeat image.

“I think sometimes at this point in negotiations and discussions, the less said the better,” he said. “But what I can say is that I had a very good meeting with the prime minister and our teams together. [It was] very positive and very promising. I am now absolutely convinced that both Ireland and Britain want there to be an agreement.”

On-alert ears pricked up even further yesterday morning when Mr Barnier told reporters after meeting Mr Barclay in Brussels that while “Brexit is like climbing a mountain”, the talks had been “constructive”.

It was a view shared by European Council president, Donald Tusk, who said on Twitter: “The UK has still not come forward with a workable, realistic proposal. But I have received promising signals from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar that a deal is possible. Even the slightest chance must be used. A no-deal Brexit will never be the choice of the EU.”

It may not sound like much, but the comments marked a clear shift in position from two of the EU’s most powerful politicians, and were underlined by the fact that Mr Barnier was subsequently given the green light by EU member states for the EU Brexit task force to “enter the tunnel” and begin intense talks with Britain over the coming days.

And it all stems back to that clear-the-air meeting between Mr Varadkar and Mr Johnson on Thursday which has given both sides the fog they need to slip through a potential deal.

So, what exactly is it? Under the apparent pathway to a long-awaited Brexit deal, Dublin and London would be open to customs checks at Irish ports and airports in order to protect the integrity of the EU market.

This would mean that there will be no need for customs checks between the Republic and the North — essentially moving the EU border to the Irish sea.

In order to keep the DUP happy —or at least to stop them from being incandescent with rage — and to give Mr Johnson political cover in England, the North will officially leave the EU with the rest of Britain.

However, the EU and UK would also agree that the North would agree to apply EU customs rules and tariffs meaning it would, in practical terms, be both in and out of the EU. In addition, a “consent” system would be introduced in the North allowing a still-to-be-worked-out process where Stormont — if it ever gets up and running again — will vote every few years on whether to keep the arrangement.

In basic terms, this means the North will leave the EU as part of Britain — keeping the DUP and Brexiteers happy, and allowing Mr Johnson to stick to his commitment to taking Britain out of the EU — while at the same time ensuring it stays as part of the customs union, thereby allowing Mr Varadkar to claim success for avoiding a hard border.

If it sounds like a confusing and illogical fudge of epic proportions, and one that is remarkably similar to a version of Theresa May’s shot-down 2017 plans, it’s probably because that is exactly what it is.

But fast-approaching deadlines have a tendency to focus minds, and it is far from the first time a fudge has been used to help cut a political deal, as anyone with a decent grasp of Irish history will know all too well.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement in particular was cloaked in an air of constructive ambiguity which allowed both sides to read whatever they wanted into their identities, as everything was kept just vague enough to ensure widespread support.

And it should not be forgotten that Mr Varadkar has repeatedly referred to the Good Friday Agreement in recent months, describing it as “elegant”during a visit to Belfast in July.

Before everyone starts slapping each other on the back on a job well done, however, it is worth pointing out the would-be deal still has a number of hurdles it will need to leap — or at very least awkwardly stumble — over for the next fortnight.

Between now and the crunch EU summit on Thursday and Friday, the EU’s Brexit taskforce and British negotiators will enter intense talks — known as “the tunnel” in Brussels —to hammer out the specifics of any agreement.

This will then be put to EU foreign affairs ministers at a pre-summit meeting in Luxembourg on Tuesday, before EU leaders discuss it in Brussels on Thursday and Friday.

On Britain’s side, even if the EU agrees to a deal, Mr Johnson will have to put it to a divided House of Commons and convince DUP leader Arlene Foster that it is this deal or nothing.

Achieving all of this before the October 31 Brexit deadline means it is still far from certain that a deal can finally be reached after three torturous years of talks. But if it does happen, it will be the latest example of how politics can simultaneously cloud the issue while clearing the air.

A lesson Leo Varadkar and Boris Johnson, both of whom know their political futures depend on Brexit, will privately accept has been learned just in time. More often than not, politics is the art of deliberately fogging up the view while claiming to have cleared the air.

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