The EU is preparing to give its Brexit negotiator new instructions to help close a deal with Britain, in a conciliatory move that will bolster Theresa May as she suffers savage attacks from Brexiters at home.
An informal summit in Salzburg this month between the EU’s 27 remaining leaders is emerging as one of the most significant Brexit discussions since the bloc first set its strategy for talks. Ambassadors in Brussels have been told that, as well as the planned timing of any deal and sticking points such as the Irish border, the meeting will discuss whether to issue additional guidance to Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator.
While the EU continues to have fundamental reservations about Mrs May’s Chequers plan for close integration with the EU after Brexit, the bloc’s main priority is concluding a withdrawal deal with the UK, including guarantees to avoid a hard border across the island of Ireland. Diplomats expect many hard choices over future relations to be left until after Brexit.
If leaders agree at the September 20 meeting, diplomats expect a final set of guidelines to be formally adopted at the October summit of EU leaders, setting the stage for a special Brexit summit in November, where the two sides would aim to conclude talks.
“It all depends on what they think they can sell back home,” said an EU diplomat involved in Brexit talks. “There are some things that will not work. We do have a requirement for a legally operable backstop [for the Irish border]. The rest is solvable.
But the backstop won’t go away. In his latest spate of metaphors attacking the Chequers plan , Boris Johnson rehearsed the Brexit case that the border problem is grossly inflated by Brussels and Dublin
Now under the Chequers proposal, we are set to agree to accept their rules – forever – with no say on the making of those rules.
It is a humiliation. We look like a seven-stone weakling being comically bent out of shape by a 500 lb gorilla. And the reason is simple: Northern Ireland, and the insanity of the so-called ‘backstop’.
We have opened ourselves to perpetual political blackmail. We have wrapped a suicide vest around the British constitution – and handed the detonator to Michel Barnier.
We have given him a jemmy with which Brussels can choose – at any time – to crack apart the Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
We have been so mad as to agree, last December, that if we can’t find ways of producing frictionless trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, then Northern Ireland must remain in the customs union and the Single Market: in other words, part of the EU. And that would mean a border down the Irish Sea.
That outcome is completely unacceptable, as the PM has said, to the majority in Northern Ireland and to the UK Government; and yet that is the threat – to the integrity of the UK – that we have allowed our partners to wield. That is why Barnier seems so confident. That is why they are pushing us around. And we are now trying to sort it out, with a solution that is if anything even more pathetic.
We are now proposing our own version of the backstop: that if we can’t find ways of solving the Irish border problem, then the whole of the UK must remain in the customs union and Single Market.
So we have managed to reduce the great British Brexit to two appalling options: either we must divide the Union, or the whole country must accept EU law forever.
You might suppose that the issue of frictionless trade in Ireland had been grossly inflated, in order to keep us in the orbit of Brussels. And you might well be right.
But what I can say for sure is that there are far better technical solutions than either of these hopeless ‘backstop’ arrangements. Around the world, authorities are finding ways of abolishing frontier checks – and doing them elsewhere. Why is that so unthinkable for Ireland?
The Irish currently use their ports and airports to check only one per cent of goods arriving from anywhere outside the EU, let alone the UK. We live in a world of smartphone apps and electronic forms and Authorised Economic Operator schemes. There is no need for any kind of friction at the border at all.
On that, remember Barnier before the Commons Brexit committee last week? The markets are taking him seriously. Over to you, Theresa.
In the Spectator, James Forsyth has floated the latest thinking.
Senior figures on the UK side are instead mulling an approach where the checks are split three-ways between the UK, Northern Ireland and the Republic. Their thinking is that the point of the backstop is to keep the Irish border as it is today but not to create a backdoor into the EU for goods. If the responsibility for that was split three ways with the UK doing regulatory checks on goods going into Northern Ireland and the Republic taking care to ensure that all goods from the North exported via its ports were properly declared, then you would have a solution that was acceptable to the UK.
The EU will be very wary of this idea. It doesn’t want the Irish to have to carry out any additional checks. It also wants to keep the UK in a customs union with the EU, and the Northern Ireland question helps them in their attempt to do this.
But unless some progress is made on the Northern Irish border then the two sides will end up with a no deal that neither of them is prepared for.
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