The Salzburg debacle was a low point of British diplomacy, because neither Number 10 nor the Brexit ministers paid any attention to the information being provided by Britain’s Embassies, which was that there is fizzing resentment in major capitals at what is viewed as Theresa May’s rank bad faith.
Good faith is an intangible, but it is the most important asset you can have in diplomatic negotiations, and building up trust is the most important skill in international relations. The EU remains genuinely concerned for the future of Ireland, which unlike the UK is a continuing member.
In December, after hard talks, the UK signed up to the Joint Report as the basis for negotiation. This contained the famous “backstop” on North/South Ireland relations. It is worth looking on what the text of the “backstop” actually says.
49. The United Kingdom remains committed to protecting North-South cooperation and to
its guarantee of avoiding a hard border. Any future arrangements must be compatible
with these overarching requirements. The United Kingdom’s intention is to achieve
these objectives through the overall EU-UK relationship. Should this not be possible,
the United Kingdom will propose specific solutions to address the unique
circumstances of the island of Ireland. In the absence of agreed solutions, the United
Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the
Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all island
economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.
What May is now saying is that it is impossible for Northern Ireland to maintain alignment with the rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union, when as per her Chequers plan the rest of the UK will not maintain that alignment. This would involve a border in the Irish Sea which, she repeatedly declaims, “no British government could accept”.
The problem is, she has already accepted it. There is no possible meaning of last December’s backstop agreement which does not involve profoundly different customs and regulatory rules for Northern Ireland, unless the UK remains part of the single market, which May has rejected. To state now that such difference for Northern Ireland is unacceptable for reasons of unionist fundamentalism, is too late. You signed up to it last December.
The humiliation of Salzburg occurred because there was never chance of any sympathy from EU member states for an attempt to dishonour the agreement of nine months ago. There is no way out of that conundrum. The government has belatedly remembered the existence of the FCO as a potential tool in international relations, and ambassadors in our Embassies in EU countries are currently staring in bafflement at dense and complex instructions urging them to convince their hosts that black is white.
I have refrained from comment on the Brexit negotiations, but among the rafts of mainstream media coverage, I have not seen this issue of May’s bad faith given the prominence it deserves. Whatever your stance on Brexit, conducting negotiations in this manner – the cliche of perfidious is in fact the best description – is a ludicrously ineffective way to behave. On the most profound political, economic and social transformation the UK has embarked on in decades, the Tory government is an utter shambles.
I personally changed my rose-tinted view of the EU after seeing its leaders line-up to applaud the Francoist paramilitary forces for clubbing grandmothers over the head for having the temerity to try to vote in Catalonia. My interest in Third Pillar cooperation ended there. But leaving the customs union appears to me a ridiculous act of self harm.