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Martin poised to assume role of Brit Whisperer in Brussels


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3EU member states sometimes rely on Ireland as an interpreter of the British, with special insight due to the long and intimate Dublin-London relationship, and authority as the state most impacted by Brexit apart from the UK itself.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin will assume this role of Brit Whisperer when he addresses the European Council this week to tell his fellow 26 leaders that, contrary to the impression received in some continental capitals, prime minister Boris Johnson does in fact want a deal.

Some EU governments understood the Internal Market Bill as a deliberate wrecking ball, and wondered if walking out of the negotiations was the only logical response. Can a new agreement be reached with a counterpart who is simultaneously unpicking the last one?

But Dublin has been reassured by London, and by the energetically optimistic spin issuing from Downing Street this week claiming that a breakthrough is close, which is taken as a sign of engagement with the talks, and surely not the act of a government resolved to have a Big Bang on January 1st.

This means that the introduction of the Internal Market Bill by London was a mistake.

London U-turn

Logistically, it has added complication when there is little time left. The British government will have to withdraw the articles that breach the withdrawal agreement in order for a new deal to be signed: the EU is unanimous on this. London will therefore now have to politically manage a U-turn on the Bill, as well as the compromises that were always unavoidable on the sticking points of state aid, fishing and governance.

The British government’s open declaration that it is prepared to break international law has also made the kind of deal it wants harder to get. 

UK negotiators have long sought a deal that leaves them a bit of wiggle room and takes on faith that every detail does not need to be nailed down because their norms are similar to those of the EU and the British are broadly a good lot. This kind of argument was key to British opposition to containing a commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights in the deal, to name one example.

Caution turns to paranoia

The Internal Market Bill torched all prospect of such indulgence from Brussels, following a long erosion of trust since 2016. This has direct implications for the talks: this week, negotiators have spent 14 hours hunkered in talks over “governance”, a contentious area that covers how any future disagreements between the UK and EU should be dealt with and what authority should arbitrate them. If the EU’s negotiators were cautious towards UK appeals for lenience on this matter before, now they are fully paranoid.

The UK side brought new papers to the talks this week that were briefed as heralding a breakthrough, but which were quickly shot down by Brussels. The reason given is telling: insufficient detail on “governance”, on how the EU could make Britain keep its promises.

The European Commission’s launch of infringement proceedings is simultaneously predictable, inevitable and a negative sign. It was predictable because it is the course of action described in the withdrawal agreement, and was flagged by commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic last month. It was inevitable because the Internal Market Bill continues its passage through Westminster with its offending articles intact. It is a negative sign because as long as this persists, a deal cannot be reached.

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