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How EU and Irish unity strong armed the UK on the border question

European Chief Brexit Negotiator Michel Barnier visits the Northern Irish border areas with Peter Sheridan of charity Co-operation Ireland in County Lough, March 2017. The issue of the Irish border has emerged as a major obstacle in Brexit negotiations between the EU and UK.
Natasha Turak | CNBC
European Chief Brexit Negotiator Michel Barnier visits the Northern Irish border areas with Peter Sheridan of charity Co-operation Ireland in County Lough, March 2017. The issue of the Irish border has emerged as a major obstacle in Brexit negotiations between the EU and UK.

Ever since the start of Brexit negotiations, diplomats and political leaders across the European continent have repeatedly insisted that the 27 surviving members must remain united behind EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and his colleagues whenever they sit down across the table from the U.K's team led by David Davis.

That unity has been never more apparent or relevant than over the past week or two, ahead of U.K. leader Theresa May's meeting with EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker.

Ahead of Monday's "crunch lunch," Juncker's EU Council counterpart Donald Tusk had traveled to Dublin for talks, where it became clear that the EU's position was increasingly focused on supporting the Republic of Ireland, as it sought clarity and — in some sense — concessions from the British government about a solution for its border with Northern Ireland.

But when I had arrived in Dublin a few days earlier in late November, the country was in the throes of a full-blown political crisis, with then deputy prime minister Frances Fitzgerald under mounting pressure to resign on the back of a whistleblower scandal.

Earlier last month Fitzgerald and I had met in Dubai, Fitzgerald hewed to the Irish government's oft-repeated line that there could be no return to a hard border, and said the onus squarely fell on the British government to develop a workable solution.

But just two weeks later she tendered her resignation, allowing what looked like an intractable political crisis to pass, and the threat of an imminent election to subside. And significantly, there was not a chink of daylight between Fitzgerald's position and those of her successor, Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, or indeed the Irish commissioner in Brussels, Phil Hogan.


Although many of these significant players in this drama have in the past competed with one another inside the Fine Gael party, any resulting tension has vanished in the face of Brexit.

The U.K.'s departure does not just threaten Ireland's tens of billions of dollars in goods, services and FDI exchanged with its largest trading partner. According to many politicians I spoke to inside and out of government on both sides of the border, it also jeopardises the success of the Good Friday Agreement. And despite claims from members of Theresa May's Conservative Party that domestic political pressures have driven Varadkar to adopt a hardline approach at a moment when the British hope to conclude this phase of Brexit talks, that was not my impression after a week's reporting across Ireland.

Micheal Martin, the leader of the opposition party Fianna Fail, told me he and the prime minister have now developed a better understanding of each other thanks to the crisis. And when I asked him if he would continue to support Varadkar's minority government on Brexit, his answer was unequivocal. "We will of course," he said.

As May tries to thread the needle between Brussels and her own party's Brexiteers ahead of a leaders' summit on December 14, she may cast a rather envious eye across the Irish Sea. Life in Number 10 would be significantly easier if she could rely on that level of political cover from inside her own cabinet, let alone from the opposition benches.