Stakes are being raised in the Brexit poker game as “ deadlines” of June or is it October? approach. I continue to believe that a solution will be found without harming the single UK market, in a customs relationship involving trusted trader schemes and an increase in regulatory checks at our ports and airports. Next week, the issues will be tested in a Commons debate with a non-binding vote on a Lords motion approving continued membership of the customs union. The government will oppose it but it is not yet a crunch issue. The background is as the Brexiter Daily Telegraph reports, Barnier and co have shot down British proposals for no border in Ireland and anticipate crisis.
Senior EU diplomatic sources said that Mrs May’s plan for avoiding a hard border in Northern Ireland was subjected to a “systematic and forensic annihilation” this week at a meeting between senior EU officials and Olly Robbins, the UK’s lead Brexit negotiator.
“It was a detailed and forensic rebuttal,” added the source who was directly briefed on the meeting in Brussels on Wednesday. “It was made clear that none of the UK’s customs options will work. None of them.”
Senior pro-European Conservative MPs including former Cabinet ministers Nicky Morgan and Dominic Grieve have joined forces with Labour MPs including Yvette Cooper and Rachel Reeves.
They will hold a vote on Thursday demanding that the Government “include as an objective in negotiations… the establishment of an effective Customs Union”. The vote will not be binding, however, and the Government indicated that MPs do not have to attend or vote.
Conservative MPs who want a soft Brexit believe the government may be deliberately presenting proposals it knows will be knocked back by Brussels to help the prime minister break the deadlock in cabinet about how to proceed.
Backers of a customs union believe it is the only way of resolving the border issue, but it would also constrain the UK’s ability to strike distinct trade deals with non-EU countries.
Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, told the Daily Telegraph on Wednesday: “Without your ability to do things in a different way if you want, and your ability to do free trade deals, there is very little point in Brexit. I think Theresa totally gets that.”
With a debate and vote on the customs union in the House of Commons next week expected to reveal the level of support among MPs, some believe May could yet be forced into conceding on her red line on the issue.
The Daily Telegraph’s front-page hyperbolic reporting of the EU’s rejection in yesterday’s edition painted the meeting as a brutal telling-off of the British on their Northern Ireland proposals. The newspaper quoted senior EU diplomatic sources who described Theresa May’s no-hard-border plan as being subjected to a “systematic and forensic annihilation” and “a detailed and forensic rebuttal” by the EU negotiating task force.
This was downplayed by all sides. Sources described it in calmer terms. The British side is understood to have been told by the EU side that the customs partnership plan would not work from an EU perspective and while enhanced customs co-operation, proposed by London, would be helpful, it would not avoid the need for customs checks and therefore a hard border on a post-Brexit EU-UK frontier in Ireland.
Equally complex, and if not more complicated for North-South trade on the island and east-west with the UK, are the regulatory and sanitary checks that cover agricultural and food products and trade in manufactured goods. These areas were not covered in the two proposals Britain had suggested.
We are now determined to make further significant progress on the backstop before the June European Council. There are five rounds of negotiations between now and June for the British government to follow through on the political commitments given last December and March and to reach agreement with the EU taskforce.
I was very clear in London that Ireland needed to see definitive progress by June. If not, it will be difficult for the negotiations to proceed as before.
Our first preference remains for the EU and UK to agree such a close and comprehensive future relationship that no backstop is ever needed. If this means the UK re-examining some of its red lines, in the interests of peace and prosperity, our hope is that that re-examination will take place.
Next week, the Commons will almost certainly back an “effective” customs union with the EU. I understand that the Government will not fight this vote because it won’t compel Mrs May to do anything.
But the other thing encouraging the EU’s approach is the UK’s attitude in the negotiations. The UK keeps pushing a hybrid model, where the UK would collect tariffs for the EU, which figures on both sides doubt is really doable.
This makes the EU calculate that if it pushes a bit harder, the UK might accept that if this isn’t workable, it should just stay in the customs union.
Brexit-backing ministers’ great fear is that this is what will end up happening. The other issue is the Irish border.
Both sides in the talks have tried to use this border to advance their agenda; the EU to keep Britain in the customs union and as closely aligned to single-market rules as possible, and Britain to argue that technology can keep trade pretty much hassle-free.
But the problem is the backstop Mrs May agreed to in December. This is seen by the EU as keeping Britain in the customs union and in line with European rules on goods and agriculture.
This, and the knowledge that Britain hasn’t prepared to walk away, is making the EU less interested in alternative solutions.
One of the key tests for any Brexit deal is whether it is sustainable — whether it can pass the test of time.
Any deal that doesn’t leave Britain free to make its own comprehensive free-trade deals will fail that test.
It’ll end up with everyone back round the negotiating table within a decade.
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