The EU and the British have agreed at the last minute on Brexit divorce proceedings. Now they can start negotiating a future relationship. That's where the real arguments will start, says DW's Barbara Wesel.
The agreement in Brussels is a triumph of diplomatic word-spinning over political reality. The EU did everything in its power to accommodate Theresa May, at least in form. In Brussels, it has been clear that her future as UK prime minister is inextricably linked to her making "sufficient progress" in the first part of the Brexit talks. That even turned into a kind of mantra. And the Europeans have no interest in causing maximum political chaos in London, because May's successor would probably be a tough Brexiteer.
Ireland solution as diplomatic sham
At the beginning of the week, the talks stalled over the question of the Irish border. Theresa May had likely not reckoned with the obstinacy of the unionist DUP, which is fighting for Northern Ireland's status tooth and nail. On the other hand, there was the legitimate interest of the government in Dublin, which does not want to jeopardize the fragile peace on the island through a new hard border. And with the EU backing its member state, the Irish were able to demand assurances from London.
What is now written in the agreement, however, will only prove its value in the future. Theresa May has promised to maintain both Northern Ireland's rights as an integral part of Britain as well as the economic and de facto special status of the region. That's practically squaring the circle. It can only succeed if the United Kingdom manages to imitate the current EU regulations, so that a real border between the two parts is not necessary. Another possibility would be for Britain simply to remain in the customs union and internal market. This is wishful thinking for which there are no guarantees, and hard Brexiteers will certainly not like this solution. In principle, the Irish question has only been postponed and left as an open check to be dealt with in later negotiations.
With British quarrel time frittered away
Following this agreement in Brussels, it is expected that the EU Parliament and member states will give the green light next week for the second phase of the Brexit talks. But first of all, the so-called transition period must be agreed upon, which will also contain plenty of explosive material. And only then will it finally be about the future relationship between Britain and the EU.
Anyone who looks back at developments over the past nine months, during which the British wasted endless time with internal disagreements and political posing, can only throw up one's hands in horror. If it has taken so long to sort out the divorce, how much can be expected to be achieved in the remaining nine months of 2018, when it comes to the infinitely more complicated future relationship between the two sides?
The EU has already made it clear that it will not be possible to reach more than an outline of a future trade deal with Britain, with an agreement on a few basic principles. The actual deal will then be so technical and complicated that it will need to be worked out over the years to come.
The Brexiteers' final lies
Up to this point, large parts of the Brexiteers' propaganda and illusions have been thrown back in their faces already. Of course, Britain must pay the final bill for its membership. The EU is undoubtedly in a better negotiating position because 27 together are stronger than one country on its own. The British attempt to divide EU member states and blackmail concessions failed miserably.
But that was the lighter part. When it comes to the details of a new relationship between the former partners, the Brexiteers' rosy dreams will be shattered. The EU is not going to give the British any special concessions or gifts. It is going to invoke its rules and strongly defend the interests of its member states.
It could get lonely on the island
Britain will have the status of a "third country," stated Council President Donald Tusk without emotion. The common past is over; it will now be about a business relationship in the future. And the hard Brexiteers will be able to painfully experience how every step away from European rules drives them into isolation economically and politically. "Retrieve control" was one of the stupidest slogans in the arsenal of hardliners brimming with untruths and illusions. In the worst-case scenario, the British will end up with about as much sovereignty as the shipwrecked Robinson Crusoe on his lonely island.
The EU regrets the British withdrawal, but it will not let it interfere with its plans. It is no coincidence that the Commission on Friday presented details of its new trade agreement with Japan at the same time as the Brexit deal. Brussels wants to show that the future belongs to the European Union, while Brexit is more of a footnote.