“Northern Ireland to become an EU province” after a Brexit breakdown. Did we not know that already?

Tomorrow the EU will publish its legal version of December’s joint Report or Withdrawal Agreement that was supposed to guarantee against a hard border. The intention is to remove any idea of a fudged   political deal that could be changed later. It  will however become the EU’s law not the UK’s. Britain will argue that Withdrawal Agreement will be superseded as a result of a final free trade agreement.

However as has been well trailed,  it will omit the guarantees  given to the DUP after they’d held up that part of the agreement they thought they’d secured, against the alternative of an economic border in the Irish Sea. This is because that aspect was a deal between the government and the DUP and thus a British internal matter not involving the EU.

In the absence of agreed solutions, as set out in the previous paragraph, the United Kingdom will ensure that no new regulatory barriers develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, unless, consistent with the 1998 Agreement, the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly agree that distinct arrangements are appropriate for Northern Ireland. In all circumstances, the United Kingdom will continue to ensure the same unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the United Kingdom internal market.

As the report was labelled “ joint” this is as disingenuous as was the UK’s attention to play down Option 3, the domesday scenario of Northern Ireland alignment’s  with the single market and the customs union if the whole negotiation fails.

  1. The United Kingdom’s intention is to achieve these objectives through the overall EU-UK relationship.

  2. Should this not be possible, the United Kingdom will propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland.

  3. In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.

On the face it this would negate the promise made to the DUP for the sake of a soft border – if the entire Brexit negotiation fails. It ends the fudge and brings back centre stage a fundamental disagreement on the border between the UK and EU 27 including Ireland.

The fiercely Brexiteer Daily Telegraph explodes in fury.

“Brussels accused of ‘outrageous’ attempt to turn Northern Ireland into EU province by rejecting British compromises.”

Their story continues

The EU will threaten Theresa May’s Brexit plan on Wednesday by warning that Northern Ireland must sign up to Brussels rules and regulations if Britain wishes to leave the customs union and single market.

France and Germany are understood to have blocked British plans to continue “fudging” the issue and are now insisting on a legal agreement, which is likely to spark an “explosive row” in the coming days.

The DUP, which props up the Conservative minority government in Westminster, will strongly oppose the EU’s proposal, as will Conservative Brexiteers.

British Brexit negotiators privately warn that the hardline stance from Brussels has left them unable to negotiate.

The Telegraph understands that the approach will be set out in the European Commission’s draft withdrawal agreement, which is due to be published Wednesday.

It would effectively move the UK/EU border into the Irish Sea if Britain wants to diverge from EU rules, according to officials who have seen it.

The legal text of the December Brexit deal is expected to omit compromise language insisted upon by Mrs May that “no new regulatory barriers” would come into play between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland after Brexit.

After weeks of trying to temper EU demands over the Irish border question, UK negotiators are now increasingly resigned to the EU rejecting compromise, driven on by a hardline Brexit agenda in Paris and Berlin.

So we’re  walking away and it’s  over to WTO rules?  So soon?

Hardly. Well, not yet.

Is the gap really unbridgeable? (Don’t all shout). The Three Baskets approach  critically reviewed by the FT’s Janan Ganesh  and adopted  at last week’s Chequers awayday seems to have signed up to

 a vision of the future that allows for only modest divergence from EU rules, and even then only the theoretical possibility of it. In sectors as large as chemicals and cars, Britain would tightly align with European laws over which it no longer had a say. In financial services, perhaps, it would aspire to the same regulatory goals but reserve the right to depart in some details.

If you can align closely for  chemical and cars, why can’t you do it for Northern Ireland, without  demolishing the Union?

The short answer that the EU Council  president  already dismissed as “pure illusion”  the latest cabinet strategy of Three Baskets of  “managed divergence”  even before we hear the details  we’re told Theresa May will spell out on Friday.  Although the UK side are hoping the EU rejection of their position is tactical talk, May was sufficiently uneasy to ring Varadkar yesterday in an obvious attempt to influence how he sells  the withdrawal agreement.

What will she say to the DUP?  How can the gap between the UK and Ireland be narrowed?

Here’s a clue from Brussels

Regulatory alignment’ best solution to Irish border problem, says European parliament’s Brexit coordinator

Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s Brexit coordinator, has told the chamber’s constitutional affairs committee that ‘regulatory alignment’ between the north and south of Ireland is “the best way to solve the problem” of avoiding. He said:

It is for us key that that there will be in future, whatever the outcome of the negotiations will be, that there is no divergence in norms, rules, standards between the north and Republic of Ireland … That is our goal. That’s the best way to solve the problem.

DUP MEP Dianne Dodds, in response, said his comments were an “intolerable interference in the affairs of the United Kingdom”.

Meanwhile Boris in a rare comment on the border issue extracted in a Today programme interview, has  compared the UK’s idea of a frictionless border with London’s congestion charge introduced when he was Mayor.

“There’s no border between Islington, Camden and Westminster, but when I was mayor of London we anaesthetically and invisibly took hundreds of millions of pounds from people travelling between those two boroughs without any need for border checks,” Johnson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“There are all sorts of arrangements. I think it’s a very relevant comparison, there is scope for pre-booking, electronic checks.




Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London