When I wrote here last week that things were going to get tougher for Leo Varadkar this week and signalled problems for the DUP if there was to be any question of an East-West customs border within the EU, I frankly admit that I did not envisage the utter omni-shambles that was to follow when Mrs Foster told Mrs May that the agreement on the Irish border issue was unacceptable.
Quite why Theresa May took the phone call in Brussels at all still mystifies me. If she had ploughed on with her agreement and come home with a fait accompli, there was very little Arlene could have done about it. And the cock-crow meeting on Friday morning in Brussels still did not satisfy Arlene.
The DUP really has to remember that it has very little political leverage over Theresa May because the cost of bringing her down would quite likely be a Jeremy Corbyn/SNP coalition in government after a Westminster general election – a sobering thought for the DUP amateur power-brokers.
But, in a strange way, that omnishambles has had some quite positive outcomes – for some. Leo, for instance, got a poll bounce for being seen to stand up for Ireland. The DUP managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by signalling their dissatisfaction with Friday’s statement; any clever politician would have claimed credit for the slight variation in the text designed to re-assure the DUP.
Likewise, the outcome on Friday has drawn the teeth of the hard-line Brexiteers in the Tory party. Like Leo, Theresa will probably get her own little mini-bounce from being seen to stand up to her more rabid backwoodsmen with their pathetic series of round-robin letters setting out imaginary red lines.
And, in truth, Irish and British interests may now converge closely in the second phase of the negotiations. Britains’s demands for a close, tariff-free trading partnership with the EU is the least bad outcome of Brexit for Ireland. What is more, such an outcome, combined with regulatory converegence, is really the only way to square the circle in relation to an open Irish border and a single UK market.
Calais, the scene of the jungle camp, is another English pre-occupation. Are there to be massive lorry parks for UK freight at Dover and Calais? Will sealed container trucks from Ireland skirt those lorry parks and travel in a fast lane to the continent?
Or is the UK establishment slowly coming to the realisation that the softest of soft Brexit may be a lot more attractive than pip-dreams of a buccaneering Britain trading across the seven seas with the rest of the world? The Labour Party and the SNP are already of that mind. The wets in the Tory cabinet are increasingly seeing the wisdom of a soft Brexit. May’s position looks stronger now than it has done for days, weeks and months.
Even the hard-line Tory media are softening their coughs. Mrs May has bought time and space in which to educate UK public opinion as to the realities of their position. As I was waiting to do an early morning piece with Alastair Campbell on BBC Radio Ulster this week, they broadcast a vox pop from North Down where the unionists, who support Lady Sylvia Herman rather than the DUP, to a man and a woman expressed real disillusionment with Arlene’s brinkmanship. It was a striking reminder that the DUP has only 30% support and is in a distinct minority on its hard-line stance.
It is increasingly likely that Britain over the next two years will seek to become the semi-detached partner-in-trade of the EU rather than pursue the buccaneering WTO vision of Johnson and Gove ( a pair of muted politicians if ever there was one).
Ireland’s diplomatic agenda is now very tricky indeed. We need the UK to succeed to a great degree on its agenda. But we cannot be seen as total patsies either. At least we too have time and space to build on this week’s outcome to maximise our chances of minimising the adverse consequences.
And then came Martin Schulz.
Fresh from electoral humiliation, he used the German Social Democrats conference to launch his own sputtering exocet.
The ex-president of the EU parliament, who proved to be a walking anti-climax in the Federal elections, decided to launch a demand that the EU member states should establish a process in which a carefully selected convention of EU civil and political society would sit down and hammer out a constitutional treaty for a federal United States of Europe. And then, wait for it, any member states that did not agree to this transformation would have to leave the European Union!
Where have we heard this proposal before?
Our best buddy, Guy Verhofstadt and his best buddy Daniel Cohn-Bendit, proposed exactly this in their risible book or pamphlet “For Europe”. That little tome set out their demand the EU should be transformed into “an Empire” but emphasising of course that it had to be a “good Empire”.
Even Emmanuel Macron is not so naïve as to believe that such a caper could succeed. He saw the terrible fate of former Italian premier, Matteo Renzi, who made similar noises at his infamous Ventotene summit with President Hollande and Chancellor Merkel.
Making silly federalist demands for a United States of Europe is a communicable disease frequently observed in Brussels which can quickly turn fatal. There is no chance at all that the member states of the present EU will adopt or approve a federalist EU constitution – still less agree to a process which would force their voters to opt between a USE or being kicked out of the EU. Most of northern, central and southern European member-states would reject the Schulz idea outright.
Politically it has as much chance of taking off as early attempts at steam-powered flight. It isn’t just a case of immature idealism. The USE idea is based on a crazy view that what the colonists of 18th century New England could set in train can be replicated in 21st century Europe.
A much closer historical analogue for the USE idea is the ill-fated Austro-Hungarian empire, a political and cultural kaleidoscope, built on foundations of autocracy and subjugation, which ultimately flew apart, having provoked and lost the Great War.
And yet Martin Schulz could be deputy Chancellor in Germany within months. Maybe even their foreign minister. Who knows? With his un-erring eye for political disasters, he could even attempt to form a pro-USE alliance with Macron and Rajoy. They would, however, be in for a rude awakening. As a political idea, the USE is a loser – dangerous but USE-less.
That Schulz initiative might even give us some comic relief in the next few years. And the idea would provide such comfort and consolation for Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.
We live in strange times where the top-tables in so many democracies are peopled by dafties such as these. The USA and the USE would be strange bedfellows indeed. Even Donald Trump might begin to look normal in Martin Schulz’s brave new world.
Image credit: Rlevente via Wikimedia