Theresa May and Michel Barnier have spoken. Barnier has picked his way critically through the UK White Paper with its “facilitated customs arrangement” and common rule book, asking all the pertinent questions but turning nothing down. 80% of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU is now agreed, but the EU’s version of the backstop remains the bugbear. The black scenario is: no agreement on the border, no withdrawal agreement, therefore no transition and no deal. To be honest, nobody except the ultra Brexiteers believes that but they have to frighten each other with the spectre of no deal as nobody has quite yet figured the way through. There’s every chance now that all the talk of ” no deal” by both sides is the necessary darkness before the dawn.
In her long Waterfront statement (you could hardly call it a speech) Mrs May laid out in full a strategy which admits of no contradiction between Brexit and upholding the Union and the terms of the GFA. She concedes that a hard border would indeed breach the Agreement and rejects the Brexiteer idea of simply refusing to impose checks on the British side and let the Irish /EU side do what they will. But…
Equally clear is that as a United Kingdom Government we could never accept that the way to prevent a hard border with Ireland is to create a new border within the United Kingdom.
To do so would also be a breach of the spirit of the Belfast Agreement, and for exactly the same reason that a hard border would be.
It would not be showing ‘parity of esteem’ and ‘just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos and aspirations’ of the Unionist community in Northern Ireland to cut their part of the United Kingdom off from the rest of the UK.
I do not think any member state would be willing to accept that, in order to leave the EU, a nation must accept such a threat to its constitutional integrity.
We made the choice to join as nation states.
We must be free as nation states to make the choice to leave.
The Joint Report that we agreed in December was very clear on this.
We were both explicit that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom, consistent with the principle of consent in the Belfast Agreement.
And the report is also clear about the need to preserve the integrity of the UK’s internal market, which is vital to businesses the length and breadth of our country – not least here in Northern Ireland.
Yet the Commission’s proposed ‘backstop’ text does not deliver this.
Under their proposal, Northern Ireland would be represented in trade negotiations and in the World Trade Organisation on tariffs by the European Commission, not its own national government.
The economic and constitutional dislocation of a formal ‘third country’ customs border within our own country is something I will never accept and I believe no British Prime Minister could ever accept.
And as MPs made clear this week, it is not something the House of Commons will accept either.
We remain absolutely committed to including a legally operative backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement.
But it must be one that delivers on all the commitments made in the December Joint Report.
What she means here is that the EU’s legal version of the backstop appeared to ignore the UK government’s stipulation of no border in the Irish Sea contained in the preceding joint Report. That was an internal British matter, was the EU’s lordly implication. But this was surely as hollow a point, as the Brexiteers’ argument shrugging off responsibility for a hard border.
Emerging from a scheduled briefing of ministers of the EU 27 member council, Michel Barnier was carefully conciliatory towards Theresa May who had been speaking at the same time. He was reporting his view of the White Paper and a “cordial and useful meeting” with the new Brexit secretary Dominic Raab yesterday. Barnier repeated his protestations that
“We are not asking for a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.. We are open to any solution so long as it is workable and legally agreed in time. We must have a backstop but not necessarily our backstop.. We can improve on it and are working on it now. We need checks to protect our consumers. We need pragmatism. We must de-dramatise the situation. We have a long list of checks and are working through them now.”
The Irish government has said it is open to the possibility of a fresh proposal for a deal on the border issue, but will only consider a new plan if it is better than the one on the table.
The Irish finance minister, Paschal Donohoe, was speaking hours after Theresa May demanded the EU abandon its stance and “evolve its position” to include a guarantee there would be no border in the Irish Sea in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
“The only thing that could replace this current form of a backstop is, number one, something which is better, number two, something which is agreed, and number three, something that would be legally operable,” Donohoe told the Irish broadcaster RTÉ.
This is slightly confusing as the tainaiste had tweeted earlier>
If UK Govt don’t support current EU wording on Backstop in draft Withdrawal Agreement, then obligation is on them to propose a viable and legally operable alternative wording that delivers same result: no border infrastructure. Clear UK commitments were made on this in Dec+March.
What’s needed here is some traditional European flexible thinking and can-kicking so a backstop can be agreed which just meets the UK’s red lines, but is so unpleasant for London it could never be seen as a desirable end state. That is just possible. It would involve a compromise from Brussels to allow the whole of the UK to stay in the EU’s customs union for the backstop, not just Northern Ireland. But only the province would remain in the EU’s VAT administrative system and single market laws. This combination would meet the UK’s requirement for no customs checks in the Irish Sea and, if the regulatory controls were, in EU negotiator Michel Barnier’s words, “de-dramatised” in Belfast’s ports, this should prove acceptable.
Hmm, not quite sure that this is the one, are you?
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