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Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Robin Copland
© | nito

We have reached another climax in the ongoing saga that just keeps on giving – the Brexit negotiations between the UK and the European Union.  On Tuesday 29 January, there was another (of many) momentous days when amendment after amendment to the original negotiated agreement was narrowly voted down.  Each of these amendments was designed to address a particular set of interests.  Eventually, the House of Commons heard the amendment forwarded by Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 Committee, a senior grandee of the party and widely seen as the spokesperson of backbench Tory MPs. 

His amendment was one of the few that passed.  It says that the Irish backstop agreement should “be replaced with alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border”.  The fact that the amendment was passed with government support enables Theresa May to go to Brussels with a clear sign from MPs of what they need in order to get a negotiated agreement through parliament.

There is one slight problem with all of this.  The EU has already ruled this kind of proposed arrangement out.  At this stage, they admit to being not interested in any such change.  So the problem has been kicked down the path a bit but, it seems, it will not go away.

The problem here is one that many negotiators face out there in the real world.  Theresa May finds herself working on behalf of the parliament (and, by extension, the British people) in her negotiations with the EU whilst, at the same time, working as the EU’s agent within the British parliament.  Right now, she is between a rock and a hard place; the red lines outlined in the House of Commons clash with the EU’s non-negotiables.  She is in the ring with Anthony Joshua; she has both hands tied behind her back and it looks like she is about to take a terrible pasting from said heavyweight champion of the world!

The one solace that she can take from all of this is that, just as Mr Joshua comes across as a very decent young man who just happens to be quite good at knocking people out, so Michel Barnier recognises where Mrs May is in all of this and may be able/ willing to extend an olive branch.  But here’s his problem: he has a bunch of constituents (the rest of the EU) who are sick to the back teeth of the whole Brexit thing and just want it over with.  In addition, he has the Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar keeping him honest about the Irish border which, if we are honest, is the reason that the original May deal failed by over 230 votes.

When you find yourself negotiating in this kind of scenario and, let’s face it, you very rarely negotiate in a vacuum, it becomes increasingly important to ensure that you have all your constituents lined up in agreement with your objectives.  One of the main criticisms of Theresa May’s conduct in these tortuous negotiations has been that she has not involved all interested parties.  When she finally signed up to the deal, it became clear almost immediately that the deal was just plain unacceptable to various interest groups and strands of opinion.  The fact that these various interest groups had no authority themselves and no brakes put on them just exacerbated the problem ten-fold.  It is empowering to know your limits, but less helpful when there is a whole list of limits, many of which are, frankly, untenable.

At long last now though, she has a defendable position and one that she can sell to parliament.  Her problem is that young Mr Joshua is still in the ring; she has managed to get one arm untied, but the other one is still stubbornly locked behind her back.  Enter Mr Barnier and one is tempted to ask, “what next?”

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