by Frank Schnittger
Wed Dec 6th, 2017 at 01:04:14 PM EST
Arlene Foster, the leader of the DUP, has been delaying even a phone conversation with Theresa May, and as yet there are no plans for the two to meet, despite the fact that May is due in Brussels at some stage this week to present her final offer on Phase one issues to the EU.
It's getting to the point where no one sees much point in even meeting May any more. After all, the EU agreed a deal with her team, and then she promptly overturned it at the first sign of resistance. Juncker could be forgiven for asking her to confirm that she has achieved agreement from her cabinet and all other key players before even scheduling a meeting again.
By the way, is there some reason that May always seems to meet Juncker over lunch? Does he imbibe a bottle of wine over lunch and thus become more agreeable, or is this just a UK PR attempt to portray him as an epicurean dilettante? I suggest a meeting over a ten metre long table at dawn, the next time.
It has been noticeable ever since her premiership began how few important people seem to bother travelling to 10 Downing street to meet her. Trump has been invited, but shows no sign of turning up. Rajoy is there at the moment, but he is hardly flavour of the month in Europe at the moment. Varadker re-imagined a "Love Actually" scene there but Ireland has a particular interest in close UK/Ireland relations.
But to be snubbed by the leader of a minor party in N. Ireland with 10 MPs is a new low. Presumably Arlene Foster feels as betrayed as Leo Varadker, but breaking trust with both of them in one act is a new achievement.
Brussels/Dublin may well calculate that there is no point in further discussions with May so long as she is beholden to the DUP. So either she calls their bluff, or the DUP take her down, and she is replaced by a government not beholden to the DUP. This could only be achieved by a general election quite probably resulting in a Corbyn led government perhaps with SNP/Lib Dem support.
May's latest ruse appears to be to promise the DUP there will be "regulatory alignment" between the EU and the whole of the UK, thus obviating the need for a customs border either within Ireland or in the Irish sea.
But this means that UK is effectively staying within the Single Market/Customs union and thus not "taking back control" over their own regulation, immigration, and indeed the freedom to negotiate their own trade treaties.
Davis has made much of the distinction between being in the SM/CU and having access to it. Typical "have cake and eat it" stuff. I doubt the EU will be impressed by such Jesuitical casuistry.
But the Irish government may have done the EU some service by taking a hard line on the border issue. Because what May is doing is shifting the UK position from wanting some kind of Canada+ trade deal, to effectively remaining within the CU/SM - the Norway+ option.
That changes the parameters for the Phase II trade and transition negotiations entirely and on to common ground with Labour and the SNP. In fact if the SNP are so keen on the "Irish solution" to the border problem, they might well support the Tories on this, removing May's dependency on the DUP.
The wonder of it is that the Brexiteers seem to be going along with it too. Perhaps they are clinging to the notion that the EU will grant the UK access to the SM/CU on terms entirely unique to the UK. That is a fiction easy to maintain by all sides until such time as it becomes necessary for the EU/UK to agree a price for such access.
If the UK were to pay an access fee similar to Norway in per capita terms, it would end up costing more or less as much as the current net cost of UK membership of the EU, but without any influence over the ongoing process of change of those regulations, and perhaps even the adjudication of breaches of those regulations (C.F. ECJ).
It will then be difficult to see what the UK is getting out of all of this trauma, and Brexit will have come to mean not very much at all, except the systematic dis-empowering of the UK. If May secures DUP and perhaps even SNP/Labour support for such a strategy, her position will become secure unless the Brexiteers manage to overturn her leadership by an internal party coup - and without her precipitating a general election first. In fact her ability to precipitate such an election could be her strongest defence against any such coup attempt.
But what appears to be happening is a slow turning of the screw resulting in a change of attitudes and diminution of expectations on the part of most Brexiteers within the Tory party, although Nigel Farage smells a rat... Had such a position of "maintaining regulatory alignment" between the UK and EU been announced even a few weeks ago, there would have been Brexiteer outrage all round and calls for May's immediate removal.
The DUP/Irish border crisis has changed all that. Expect the phase II negotiations on trade and transition to have a similarly disillusioning effect on Brexiteers as it becomes clear that even "access to" the SM/CU requires a loss of control over regulations, immigration, and over negotiating separate foreign trade deals.
If May can stay the course it will be a classic case of the apocryphal frog who failed to jump out of a slowly overheating pond whereas he would have jumped instantly out of a pot of boiling water. It would also be a considerable political achievement on May's part.
It is still my main expectation that at some point the Brexiteers will revolt and May will change course and that the UK will lurch toward a no-deal or minimal deal Brexit. But if May's parting gift to the nation is to stay the course or call a general election I would expect a successor government to pursue precisely such a course: continued membership of the CU/SM and only minor changes in the overall EU/UK relationship perhaps branded as some sort of external associate membership.
In practice not a lot will have changed except that the UK will have disempowered itself within the EU to the barely disguised relief of almost all.