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Meeting In Brussels, EU and U.K. Are At A Standstill Over Brexit


Brexit negotiations are at a standstill. These are words we have said before. Leaders from the United Kingdom and the European Union are meeting in Brussels. And while they're trying to put an optimistic spin on the negotiations, the EU and U.K. are at a stalemate over one crucial issue - the Irish border. If they can't reach an agreement, a so-called hard Brexit would happen with no deal, which would be a blow to the British economy.

Among those trying to hash out a way forward in Brussels is Alexander Stubb. He's the former prime minister of Finland. He's also in the running to become the next president of the European Commission, which would put him right at the center of the Brexit negotiations. Mr. Stubb, thank you so much for being with us this morning.

ALEXANDER STUBB: Thanks. Nice to be here.

MARTIN: What is the state of play right now? Do you see any progress?

STUBB: Well, the state of play is a typical EU negotiation. You know, sometimes you make advances. Then you have a standstill. Then you stop the clock. And then you move on.

Right now, the key issue, as you mentioned, is the so-called backstop, or the border issue, between either Ireland and Northern Ireland or Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. And usually, what happens in these negotiations is that you're going to have to have a little bit of drama, a little bit of theater. And that's what we're going to see in the next few weeks.

MARTIN: Can you explain how one border could be holding up an entire treaty between 28 countries?

STUBB: Well, it's quite simple. It's because Brexit is a lose-lose proposition. It's an oxymoron. It's a paradox in many ways. Basically, what the British side is trying to say is that, yes, we are creating a border, but we are not really. And then, obviously, EU side is saying that, well, Ireland is indivisible, and there should be no hard border. So it's trying to square a circle, which is always quite difficult.

But, you know, it's - I've always said this. Being against the EU is a little bit like being against Internet. You know, you can do that, but it's much better to influence its content. And what the U.K. has decided to do is to leave the European Union, therefore, leave Internet.

MARTIN: Which I imagine you think was the wrong idea in the first place. But can you explain what that solution looks like? If coming up with some fix to the Irish - the so-called Irish problem is the central sticking point, what is the solution when Ireland wants to be part of the EU and Northern Ireland wants to remain part of the U.K.?

STUBB: Well, that's the million-dollar question, I guess, that people are trying to answer. And this is the squaring of the circle that I mentioned. I mean, the solutions that are being discussed is technology.

MARTIN: Technology wherein you could have a hard border that wasn't really hard - that you could check goods and services, perhaps, but not people?

STUBB: Yeah. I mean, you know, I think it's getting pretty Orwellian, if you ask me.

MARTIN: Orwellian?

STUBB: Yeah. Newspeak in the sense that you're trying to claim that there's a border when there is no border, or that you're trying to claim that there is no border when there is a border. So it's all quite complicated at this particular stage, I'm afraid.

MARTIN: So what is your take on the tactics that the British prime minister, Theresa May, is using? I mean, you say this is kind of par for the course for an EU negotiation, but this has been exceptional. The stakes are incredibly high. Do you believe that she is trying to take negotiations to the brink to force Europeans to make concessions?

STUBB: Well, I think a lot of people look a little bit much into game theory and rational choice theory when they look at EU negotiations. And as a matter of fact, at the end of the day, it's more about social constructivism, trying to muddle through difficult negotiations. It's what we call two-level games. So on one hand, you have to negotiate on the European level. On the other hand, you have to sell that negotiation solution down at the national level.

And the problem that Theresa May has, and I can say this as a former prime minister, is that there's a lot of goodwill on the Continental and European side to try to find a solution. But it's very difficult for her to try to sell that solution back home because you basically have a lot of conservative party members, so-called anti-Europeans, hardcore Brexiteers that are, you know, like dogs barking at her ankles. And so she's between a rock and a hard place. And she's trying to find a solution. I don't envy her in any which way. I just wish her good luck.

MARTIN: Do you expect there to be a deal before March, when the U.K. is supposed to leave?

STUBB: Yeah, definitely.


STUBB: Yeah. You know, the three options here - one is a soft Brexit, the other one is a hard Brexit and the third one is no deal. I think soft Brexit seems to be, unfortunately, out of the question. A soft Brexit would basically mean that the United Kingdom would remain as close to the European Union as possible, including internal market, and that's not going to happen. A hard Brexit means that there are going to be some tough choices to be taken. I think that's what they're working on right now. And no deal, I would argue, would be a catastrophe.

In any case, the whole Brexit issue is a lose-lose proposition. I mean, you know, in the era of information technology, the digital revolution of integration, the world becoming smaller, to then start suddenly building walls and, you know, leaving the most successful multilateral organization in the history of international relations, it just - no one is going to win on this one. And we're trying to find pragmatic solutions.

MARTIN: Alexander Stubb, the former prime minister of Finland, talking about the latest round of Brexit negotiations. Mr. Stubb, thank you so much for taking the time.

STUBB: Thank you. My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.