How can one possibly explain the enormous range of reactions to the progress reported last week by Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker on the 1st phase of the Brexit negotiations?
The 15-page joint report, agreed on December 8th at a breakfast between Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker after frantic all-night-long negotiations, seems to have been enough to trigger the passage from Phase I to Phase II. Thus, the European Council on December 14th and 15th is expected to formalise the opening of negotiations over the future relationship between the EU and the UK. Progress in the three preliminary issues – citizens’ rights, the budget and Northern Ireland – is judged by the EU to be adequate to authorise the opening of Phase II.
The tenor of the commentaries ranges from hailing the breakthrough as historic to the very reserved. How to explain and interpret this extreme gamut of opinions?
The most effusive praise comes from Mrs May’s senior pro-Brexit colleagues, including Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. They were expressing huge relief that the impasse over Northern Ireland, which had threatened during the previous days to make a train wreck of the whole process, had for the moment been overcome. The sycophantic wording of their praise for the ‘victory’ of their boss at the breakfast in Brussels also reflects their desperate efforts to patch up their government’s image of squabbling and incompetence.
The sceptical voices were observing that the Northern Irish border issue was not settled at all – the can was just kicked down the road. But if so, why did the EU side agree that sufficient progress had been made to pass from Phase I to Phase II? The answer is surely that the EU wants to avoid continued blockage in the discussions at this early stage to the point that a disastrous ‘no deal’ outcome by March 2019 becomes unavoidable. So the EU compromised. It is also true, as the UK has argued, that the Northern Ireland border question is logically part of the Phase II work to be done on the future EU-UK relationship.
So let’s look at the three chapters to extract their essence.
Michael Emerson is Associate Senior Research Fellow at CEPS.