What could be better for Theresa May than a failure to reach agreement, after which Jean-Claude Juncker praised her as “a tough negotiator” and said that the EU’s deadline, previously immovable, had now been extended to the end of the week?
This will cheer the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party. They were worried about the growing perception that the Prime Minister was so desperate to secure agreement to move on to the next stage of the Brexit talks that she was rolling over and conceding all the EU’s demands. Instead, she has stood firm and the EU has moved.
This will give May the space she needs to secure a deal later this week. It would then look like a deal reached between equals. Perhaps I am cynical, but it almost as if today was choreographed to strengthen May’s position.
It was the EU side of the talks that told journalists a deal was likely. It was from the EU side, presumably, that the leaks of the draft text on Northern Ireland came. Those both seemed designed to put pressure on the UK side to agree – on the assumption that May was keener to move to the next stage of talks than the EU side is.
Now it turns out that the EU side is keen to do a deal too. When it is agreed, the EU will still get most of what it wants, but May will look as if she has fought hard for Britain and won some concessions.
It hasn’t done her any harm, either, that the world-class naysayers of the Democratic Unionist Party have been out and about in the media setting out their modern and reasonable version of “No surrender”.
It doesn’t matter that the DUP’s position makes no sense. They don’t want to be in the EU customs union and they don’t want a hard border on the island, or in the sea, or anywhere else.
But when they say that a hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK is unacceptable, are they saying that Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister is a price they are prepared to pay?
No. A lot of this is huffing and puffing for the sake of appearances. And the same goes for the Irish government. It could use its veto to prevent the talks moving on to the questions of trade and transition, but that means that, instead of a medium-hard border between North and South of Ireland built of EU fudge, it would get the hardest possible border imposed by a no-deal Brexit.
Besides, it became clear today that, despite all the rhetoric of EU solidarity with Ireland, the rest of the EU wants to get on with the Brexit talks and is putting some pressure on Ireland not to wreck them.
So, if there is an agreement this week to pave the way for the go-ahead for trade talks next week, May will be able to sell it to the Brexiteers back home as a triumph. She does want a deal: postponing the trade talks any longer would eat into the time for complex negotiation. But, as I wrote a few days ago, even if she fails to secure a breakthrough, the Tory party is not going to replace her because it has no one better to replace her with.
The EU side has realised that, although it has the upper hand in these negotiations, it does want them to succeed, and that gives May a bit more leverage than everyone thought.