If the temporary extension of the customs relationship was greeted with euphoria, it was shortlived, as the FT reports. It exposes the next big issue. The single market looms.
Mrs May was accused by some Conservative MPs of “bouncing” the cabinet into adopting the scheme, and others said they had been kept in the dark. Senior EU officials also expressed doubts about the UK approach, warning that it diverges significantly from Brussels’ preferred outcome. “If this is it, we will have a crisis,” said one senior EU diplomat directly involved in talks.
Downing Street did not say how it would address regulatory alignment. Unless Northern Ireland remains part of the single market for goods, regulatory checks will be needed at the Irish border. The avoidance of a hard border requires not just a customs union, but close regulatory alignment, ranging from product standards to VAT. To Mr Barnier’s team, avoiding checks requires a common regulatory space allowing the free movement of goods. If offered to the UK as whole, such trade terms would divide the “freedoms” of the single market
For Berlin, the UK-wide backstop might look too much like carrying over the economic benefits of membership. “Every populist in Europe would point and say: we want that,” complained one northern European diplomat working on Brexit
Robert Peston spells it out.
Now for the avoidance of doubt, although this is a significant victory for May over the arch Brexiters in her government, it solves very little of substance in respect of the passionate arguments over what Brexit should be in practice.
Remember this backstop is supposed to be a bridge from 2020 to whatever our permanent new customs arrangement with the EU will be. It is not a choice between NCP (being the EU’s tariff collector forever) or Max Fac (tech solutions to prevent border checks). That decision is yet to be made – though all my money is on Max Fac being the eventual choice.
But perhaps more importantly, I simply cannot see this backstop being deemed adequate by the EU27 unless it is accompanied by a pledge from the UK to maintain full alignment with the EU’s product and food standards for just as long as the backstop is needed (I should point out here that the PM retains a hope that all new customs systems could be in place by the end of 2020, and the backstop would then be academic – but few UK or EU officials agree with her).
So you will immediately grasp why Brexiters see this backstop as a Trojan Horse to keep us in the single market, even perhaps forever – if the Max Fac tech never does what it is supposed to do.
In other words, May still has to decide whether to face down her Brexiter colleagues, by opting for a soft Brexit, or spurn the rest of the EU, by rejecting their notion of how to keep the Irish border open.
All her war cabinet has achieved with its agreement on the Irish backstop is a gentle tap on the infamous can – which she’s nudged a little bit further down the road. We continue to wait for the Godot of May’s big Brexit choice.
In the strongly pro-Brexit Daily Telegraph, Spectator editor Fraser Nelson claims Brexiteer Tories are gearing up for a no deal.
The plans for a no-deal Brexit are not very advanced but ministers involved regard them as perfectly workable.
It would mean trading with the EU as we currently trade with the US, under World Trade Organisation rules with tariffs (averaging about 4.2 per cent). To implement this properly would mean a massive expansion of ports, with far more customs inspectors.
There would be massive disruption, to be sure, but a great many Conservatives believe the chances of life in Britain going on pretty much as before are reasonably high. And that the same could not be said for the EU, which would be facing a rather large hole in its budget.
It all adds up to a reasonable threat, but it’s not one that Mrs May is inclined to make.
If this is “workable “ I’d like Fraser to share what his definition of “unworkable” is.
Meanwhile Sammy has been sharing his wisdom with the Daily Telegraph..
When the PM has stuck her heels in, as she did in December, they changed the agreement. As she did in March, when they said they wouldn’t accept the legal agreement, they backed down.
“She should learn from that. Stand up to them. They need the deal, they will back down. Do this kind of thing where you sway with the wind you will come off worse.”
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