While a few items remained to be ironed out, the plan was to announce that ‘sufficient progress’ had finally been achieved on the three main areas of the Brexit divorce deal. The money (or at least the formula for calculating the UK’s settlement) had been agreed, as had the status of citizens’ rights – albeit it with some elements still up for debate.
Completing the hat-trick, the thorny issue of the Irish border had, they thought, also been settled in a way that was satisfactory to the Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, who had essentially been granted a veto over any proposal.
However, when EU officials began leaking extracts from the draft agreement that hinted at continued regulatory alignment between Northern Ireland and the Republic, the Democratic Unionists broke up the party in spectacular fashion.
Arlene Foster interrupted May’s lunch with Juncker to declare that her party would insist on Northern Ireland leaving the EU on the same terms as the rest of the UK. In other words, no compromise deal of the kind that was being proposed. It appears that May’s government hoped to square off the Republic of Ireland and the EU, before seeking the DUP’s backing.
That formula now has to be reversed as, not for the first time, the 10 MPs who prop up May’s minority government flex their muscles. There’s no sugar-coating it: this is humiliating for May, who now has to reassure EU officials that she can command the backing of MPs for a deal they thought was in the bag.
Assuming the DUP can be brought into line, yesterday’s drama will still serve as a reminder of the fragility of the current negotiations and of the complexity yet to emerge once talks move on to trade and transition.
Nevertheless, the language from Brussels yesterday was uncharacteristically optimistic and conciliatory – with both sides still confident of an exit deal being agreed by next week.
Whether this optimism is misplaced depends on May’s ability to bring the DUP back into the fold without alienating Dublin. The next few days will test the PM’s mettle.