Kevin Doyle: 'When talks go from 'cordial' to 'robust' it's clear the mood is ugly'

The word ‘cordial’ is one routinely used to feed the hungry hacks waiting to hear how political discussions are going.

It is a meaningless word. Everybody knows it’s little more than political code for “the two sides agreed not to bitch about each other after the meeting”.

Cordial was deployed daily during the confidence and supply talks between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil in 2016, and it regularly finds its way into statements emerging from Brussels. So there was one line in the joint declaration issued after British Prime Minister Theresa May and EU chief Jean-Claude Juncker met yesterday that stood out.

“The discussion was robust but constructive,” they said.

Robust is not language usually used in such statements, but that’s where we are.

It was an improvement on European Council President Donald Tusk’s “hell” comments – but still shows how strained relations are.

Mrs May yesterday said the comments had caused “widespread dismay” in the UK, which may be true but will be nothing compared to the dismay a no-deal scenario will bring on March 29.

The body language between Mrs May and the key European figures was uneasy.

If the diplomats are willing to describe meetings as ‘robust’, the truth is they were probably ugly.

For a long time the EU negotiators were happy to play along with Mrs May’s need to be seen as ‘strong and stable’ in her dealings with them. But the time for games has long passed. Brexit is broken and nobody knows how to fix it.

Mrs May told the EU that she needs changes but still can’t give any details on what those changes are. The EU says it can’t reopen the Withdrawal Agreement. Frustrating is another word now in common use in Brussels.

The problem with the UK’s current position is that much like Brexit, it is undefined.

During his time in Belgium on Wednesday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar actually came closest to explaining the situation in basic terms.

“I do have concerns about this idea of ‘alternative arrangements’. We need to bear in mind that this majority that did exist in the House of Commons for ‘alternative arrangements’ probably only exists because alternative arrangements can mean whatever you want them to mean.

“I don’t believe that would have passed if people had to actually get into the details of what alternative arrangements might mean or might not mean,” he said.

And therein lies the problem, but possibly also the solution.

Mrs May will never satisfy everybody but she could look to use creative language to get her deal across the line.

The EU is full of diplomats who love using ambiguous terminology to get out of difficult situations. The backstop must remain but don’t rule out a last-minute ‘formula of words’ to get a deal over the line.

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