LONDON CORRESPONDENT: It says something about the Brexit negotiations between the EU and the UK that some people opine they will be over in a few weeks while others foresee total deadlock and a third group thinks neither. But amid the tough talk and bizarre gambits, the probability of an outcome seems to be growing.
Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, navigated her annual party conference last week without disaster. She even managed some photogenic dance moves on the stage.
But she was not able to sell her ‘Chequers plan‘ compromise that would leave the UK in the EU single market for trade in goods and farm products. The tepid response from the party faithful (and their joyful reaction to Boris Johnson, the former cabinet minister) showed the depth of opposition she faces from her own people.
Undeterred, May doubled down, signalling that her government might be willing to keep the UK even more closely integrated into the European regulatory system in order to reach an agreement, raising the possibility that the UK would not regain its power to negotiate independent trade agreements post-Brexit.
This would likely provoke open rebellion among her Conservative party MPs, meaning that she would have to bid for opposition votes in a fragmented parliament to get the plan through.
However, it seems unlikely to get this far. Unless they are bluffing (improbable but not impossible), EU negotiators have shown no interest in May’s half-in-half-out approach.
The signal is emerging from the noise: the EU wants the UK out and future trade conducted on an arms-length basis. Its preference seems to be a standard free trade agreement, with hints that this could be a very good free trade agreement indeed – if the British play their cards right.
This is also the position of May’s opponents in the Conservative party.
Lacking power, this faction is informal (although likely to grow if successful). It does not even have an accepted name. It coalesces around the principles of sovereignty, free trade and hard (ie, no-deal) Brexit, if necessary to achieve these.
It has a base of support in the country (one third of voters polled support a hard Brexit) and its leverage appears to be growing – to the extent that its positions are taken increasingly seriously as part of the negotiating process.
Earlier this week, one of its leading members signaled that they would be prepared to see EU customs officials operating inside the UK to help the EU regulate its imports from the UK (just as EU border officials now check passports at some UK exit points).
So the most plausible agreement right now looks a bit like a three-way compromise, built around a free trade agreement, with elements of expedited customs clearance, exchange of information and mutual recognition and support cobbled in from the Chequers plan to save May’s face.
If nothing else, this should temporarily unite most of the Conservative party around May’s government. Then when the time comes to decide the succession to May, the ‘Sovereignty’ faction will try to establish its control over the party and – they would hope – the government.
The so-far intractable issue is the EU insistence on no hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. This is a problem because by this the EU means that Northern Ireland must remain part of the EU for trade, with a hard border to rest of the UK. This is unacceptable to conservatives of both the ‘Chequers’ and ‘Sovereignty‘ factions – although their responses go in opposite directions.
But the EU is signalling some flexibility in its position. The key to a solution is surely to recognise that the price of allowing the messy flow of goods and people around an Irish landmass with two distinct regulatory regimes is that both EU and UK must put in place internal checks to limit the leakage, where harmful, of people, animals, liquor, tobacco, agricultural chemicals and what-have-you to the rest of their territory.
For example, should the EU ban the weed killer Roundup, it would not just be able to apply this decision to Northern Ireland; rather it would need to figure out how it manages the risk of people buying the product in Northern Ireland and bringing it south.
Co-operation would be desirable in these circumstances and it is in this context that it might be quite useful for EU customs officials to be able to operate inside the UK (and vice versa).
Meanwhile the lucky Irish – north and south of the porous border – can exploit the gaps in the arrangements to their mutual enrichment and enjoyment.
Standard warning: none of this means that a deal will be done quickly or at all. No-deal remains a distinct possibility. And to underline this, Brussels will publish its own ‘no deal‘ contingency plans later this week, not least with the hope of keeping pressure on May in the negotiations.