Laura Larkin: 'Mixed messages show confusion from UK starting to infect EU side'

Chaos in Westminster and unity across the European Union has emerged as the general theme of Brexit to date, curated by careful messages choreographed skilfully from Brussels – until now.

Throughout negotiations, the EU has moved as a bloc; words spoken by the Taoiseach often echoed phrases used by Jean-Claude Juncker and Michel Barnier. The message has been consistent, as has the tendency to underline just how consistent it has been.

How often have we heard that EU solidarity is stronger than it’s ever been? Any suggestion of a wobble anywhere and the Irish Government was quick to say that, if anything, that solidarity is only getting stronger.

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Meanwhile, in Westminster there has been no consensus around much at all since the referendum result. This has been pointed to as often as possible by EU leaders.

In recent days, Mr Barnier used the disunity in the UK parliament to ramp up the threat of a no-deal Brexit. By not coming together around one solution, MPs were risking an accidental no-deal exit – the only outcome there is a majority against, he warned.

But this week the mixed messages were not emanating from the House of Commons or from fevered briefings from ministers around Theresa May’s Cabinet table.

They were coming from the EU and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar – and, whatever the motives behind various contradictory statements from key actors this week, it all pointed to the fact that Ireland is facing a tense eight-week endgame.

On Monday, Poland’s Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz suggested a five-year limit on the backstop could be the route out of the current deadlock.

The idea was shot down by Tánaiste Simon Coveney less than an hour later, with back-up from Germany.

In Westminster, Mrs May had conceded in parliament that changing the backstop was the surest way to win support for the exit deal.

On Tuesday, EU Commission spokesman Margaritas Schinas told reporters that if he was forced to speculate then he would concede, yes, there would be a hard Border in Ireland in the event of no deal. It was “obvious”, he said.

It came as a bolt from the blue for the Government, who had no advance warning that he was about to stray unexpectedly from the script on the Border question.

A spokesman immediately said the Irish Government “will not accept a hard Border on this island and therefore we are not planning for one”.

It was the first significant divergence between EU and Ireland on the issue which has wound its way to the epicentre of Brexit.

On Wednesday, the Commission sought to clarify the remarks and the message appeared back on track: the EU would do everything it could to not allow a hard Border to emerge on the island of Ireland.

But at home, it was too late. Pressure ramped up on the Government to share details of what work is being done to plan for avoiding a hard Border. Agriculture Minister Michael Creed was on the ropes during a radio interview when he repeatedly refused to discuss how a Border would be avoided in a no-deal exit.

But yesterday it was the Taoiseach who took a sharp U-turn from his own reluctance to spell out the reality of a crash-out Brexit, warning no deal could see the return of soldiers and police to the Border.

It was his most explicit warning about the worst case scenario to date and his first concession that a hard Brexit may mean a hard Border, even if Ireland is not the one to erect it.

Privately, sources close to the Fine Gael leader were insisting the message stemmed from frustration with the British government.

It topped off a week which saw confusion over Brexit that has reigned in London spread to Dublin and Brussels – at a time when cool heads are needed.

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