Brexit Bulletin: Ireland Again

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We’ve been here before. A weekend of last-minute negotiations. Some confidence (perhaps complacency?) that a deal is imminent. Then the Irish border adds a twist in the tail and things fall apart.

It was like that in December, when it was all about getting an interim agreement to allow Brexit talks to move onto negotiations over the future relationship. Prime Minister Theresa May returned from Brussels empty-handed. Could it happen again?

This St. Patrick’s Day weekend sees the two sides’ leading technical negotiators – Olly Robbins for Britain and the EU’s Sabine Weyand – go head to head in Brussels to get the transition agreement over the line. Both sides, particularly the U.K., have let it be known that prospects look good. Brexit Secretary David Davis plans to fly to the Belgian capital on Sunday in advance of a meeting with Michel Barnier, his EU counterpart, the following day. In Parliament yesterday, Davis said he’s “confident” a deal will be struck.

But then there’s Ireland.

There’s no formal link between making progress on a solution for the Irish border and reaching agreement on the transition but, as Bloomberg reported last night, diplomats from the EU’s 27 remaining countries yesterday broadly backed Ireland’s view that transition can’t be signed off until the U.K. makes firm commitments on the border issue.

Three months ago, a weekend of talks between British and Brussels negotiators, supposedly to dot the i’s and cross the t’s on the first phase on negotiations, led officials on both sides to suggest a deal was imminent. After an unexpected collapse, it was resurrected a few days later after long nights of diplomacy. Yet the problem of the Irish border still hasn’t really been solved.

What would constitute progress now? Diplomats suggest that, at a minimum, the U.K. needs to explicitly recognize the need for a “fallback” option to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland, of the sort set out in a protocol accompanying the EU’s draft Brexit treaty published earlier this month. The trouble for May is that she said that no British prime minister could ever accept that plan.

In Brussels, Dublin and London, the smart money still seems to be on there being an agreement on transition next week. But it’s going to require some intense work over the weekend. European diplomats say that on Ireland, the two sides are still a long way from seeing eye to eye.

Brexit Latest

Bitter Pill | GlaxoSmithKline estimates Brexit-related costs as high as £70 million ($98 million) over the next two to three years as Britain’s largest drugmaker seeks to maintain a steady supply of products to patients around the world. Glaxo expects subsequent, additional costs of roughly £50 million a year, according to the London-based company’s annual report. The expenses are tied to retesting medicines, transferring marketing authorizations in the U.K. to the EU, changing manufacturing licenses and other steps. 

Talking Ireland | Brexit negotiators will hold a month of talks aimed at ending the deadlock over how to police the Irish border when the U.K. leaves the EU, irrespective of how transition negotiations go in the next few days. The process is designed to reach a deal on how to overcome one of the thorniest problems in the Brexit negotiating process – how to avoid a hard border and the infrastructure of customs checks at the frontier between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

No Decisions | Sir Charlie Mayfield, chairman of the industry group set up to nurture U.K. corporate productivity, told the Financial Times that the prospect of Brexit is causing “inertia” within British companies and undermining efforts to improve their performance. “There are good reasons why businesses are hesitating,” he said.

Worth the Money | Even if the U.K. gets a bare-bones Canada-style trade arrangement without the add-ons, the economic benefit of an agreement would far outweigh a “no deal” scenario under World Trade Organization rules, according to research by Bloomberg Economics. By 2030, the loss of output associated with a WTO regime vs. some sort of better deal would be more than 10 times the size of the cost of the U.K.’s financial settlement with the EU including interest, the research shows. In other words, the Brexit bill would pay for itself quickly.

Planning Questions | The French financial-markets regulator sent an email to U.K. firms active in France to ask about the status of their Brexit preparations, the regulator said. Companies will have to take action when they lose “passporting” rights which currently enable them to sell their services throughout the EU’s single market.

Defense Spending | British officials confirmed the U.K. will continue spending money on EU defense projects after Brexit, according to Friday’s Sun, which has heard a recording of a private conference held in London. The newspaper reports that Cabinet Office security adviser Alastair Brockbank, who works for top Brexit negotiator Olly Robbins, told diplomats that Britain stood ready to continue paying “significant contributions” to foreign policy programs.

And Finally...

If you thought the Brexit referendum presented an offer you couldn’t refuse, spare a thought for a Spanish restaurant chain whose name has just been banned by the EU court.

“La Mafia se sienta a la mesa” (The Mafia takes a seat at the table) can’t be registered, the Luxembourg-based court ruled yesterday, after Italy brought a complaint.

According to European judges, the likes of whom the U.K.’s pro-Brexit camp hope never have a say in British life again, the restaurant name “conveys a globally positive image” of the Mafia and therefore “trivializes the serious harm done by that organization to the fundamental values of the EU.” So don’t expect to see the Mafia’s table on a European street any time soon.

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