In Depth

What is the Brexit tunnel?

Michel Barnier gives ‘green light’ to begin intensive negotiations with the UK

Since the UK voted on 23 June 2016 to leave the European Union, a wave of Brexit-specific jargon has entered the political lexicon, from max-fac to backstop to Canada plus plus plus. Now, with hope of a withdrawal agreement finally appearing on the horizon, it seems as though we have yet another new word to add to our Brexit glossary: the “tunnel”.

On Friday, the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier confused those without an extended Brussels vocabulary by announcing that he had secured the agreement of EU leaders to open so-called “tunnel” negotiations on Boris Johnson’s latest Brexit proposals.

The definition of a tunnel in this context is effectively slang for a series of intensive, ultra-private negotiations between leaders to which journalists and even other politicians are not privy.

Speaking to reporters in Ireland after holding meetings with Johnson this week, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said that the “UK and EU negotiators may now enter the so-called tunnel for Brexit talks”, but added: “The less said publicly about the talks the better.”

So what are tunnel negotiations and what will it mean for Johnson’s proposals?

What are tunnel negotiations?

According to The Telegraph, the tunnel is a recently developed piece of Brussels jargon for “intensive talks among a small core of negotiators carried out in total secrecy with the aim of hammering out a deal away from the prying eyes and loud objections of onlookers”.

The paper notes that during this period, “documents are not published, press reaction or comment is off-limits and even the ambassadors of the EU27 are not kept informed of progress”.

The term was apparently coined by EU deputy chief negotiator Sabine Weyand, who in October 2018 told a group of EU officials that she “wanted to take the negotiations out of the public eye, and talk intensely with the British, without the usual consultation with the member states laid down in a hefty book of rules of procedures”, The Guardian reports.

To that effect, she claimed she wanted to create a “safe space” for negotiations, telling the meeting: “If we fail to plan for success, we plan to fail. What we would really like to do is go into a tunnel and then come back to brief you about what happened just before the next European council.”

Not only does such a tunnel afford both sides of the debate to float potentially controversial ideas, but the Telegraph suggests that “keeping the to-and-fro between both sides under wraps” also allows both the EU and the UK “to present the results as a joint proposal and minimise the embarrassment caused by any inevitable concessions given”.

Why are we entering the tunnel now?

This week, President of the European Council Donald Tusk revealed that he had set Boris Johnson an ultimatum of presenting new Brexit proposals by Friday or “no more chances”, but added that “positive signals” were emerging.

But following a breakfast meeting between Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay and Michel Barnier on Friday, reports emerged that Barnier had given the “green light” for negotiations to enter the tunnel – which suggests a breakthrough has been achieved between the Johnson administration and the EU. 

Despite this, The Guardian reports that the details of Johnson’s latest suggestions to the EU are yet to emerge.

Today, Barnier said the EU had three concerns with UK proposals, which may end up as the focal point of tunnel negotiations. According to The Independent, these are “that they did not prevent a customs border on the island of Ireland, that they included a veto for the Northern Ireland Assembly, and that they were not actually legally operable or ready to go”.

As a result, despite this breakthrough, Tusk has remained extremely cautious over the prospect of a deal. “Unfortunately, we are still in a situation in which the UK has not come forward with a workable, realistic proposal,” he told reporters in Cyprus today.

“A week ago I told PM Johnson that if there was no such proposal by today, I would announce publicly that there are no more chances – because of objective reasons – for a deal during the incoming European Council.”

Furthermore, historic precedent also paints a bleak picture of the future. The tunnel was also used last year to thrash out the details of Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement, which was ultimately unceremoniously shot down three times by Parliament, paving the way for her resignation as prime minister.

The tunnel negotiations are set to be held in the days before the EU summit on 17 and 18 October.

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