As the practicalities of the border issue are wrestled with, the pressure on the DUP is mounting. Are the hardline Brexiteers preparing to rat?

Now what?  On the border issue, the EU Commission and the Brexiteers are coming closer together than either to the government, according to the Guardian.  This report shows that both sides are getting down to the practical options,  instead of political grandstanding.

Do the options appeal to the DUP? Downing St are sticking with ” no EU officials” at British ports but for how long? Does ” no EU officials ” rule out categorically different rules for the island of Ireland than for  other destinations? Is this tantamount to a border down the Irish Sea, even if checks are not limited  to NI ports and Ireland-facing ports in GB ? Checks carried out by British officials are part of the Chequers “facilitated customs arrangement” already rejected by Barnier.

Jacob Rees Mogg has just said his group will produce their plan for the border tomorrow, “which any reasonable person would accept”. That presumably includes the DUP. We wait and see.

Guardian extracts..

  Downing Street is refusing to consider proposals to have EU officials stationed at British ports serving Ireland, intended as part of a solution to the problem of the Irish border after Brexit.

The compromise plan, which is under consideration by Ireland and Brussels, is aimed at “de-dramatising” the Irish border issue, and reflects the fact that many goods enter Northern Ireland via Dublin, and not Belfast or the two other main ports in the region.

But No 10 is insistent that the proposals set out in the Chequers plan, with a common rulebook for goods and agrifood, and a “facilitated customs arrangement”, which would involve the UK levying EU tariffs, will ultimately remove the need for border checks altogether.

A Downing Street spokesman said: “We believe the solution that we set out in the white paper and at Chequers delivers on the issue of the Northern Ireland border. As the PM has said many times, she is a committed unionist; that’s a key fact in where we’ve ended up.”

Checks at ports could also breach an amendment to the government’s customs bill, currently making its way through the Lords, which would rule out a customs border in the Irish Sea.

Seamus Leheny, the head of the Freight Transport Association in Northern Ireland, said many members used the route between Dublin and Holyhead in Wales because it was the shortest crossing. Data from the Central Statistics Office in Ireland shows that 1.1m trucks and unaccompanied containers arrive in Dublin every year but the data does not include how many journeys each lorry makes a year.

While Theresa May opposes EU checks in British ports, recent reports suggest there is a loosening of opposition among Brexiters. The Brexit-supporting European Research Group, chaired by Jacob Rees-Mogg, will reportedly support the proposal in a Brexit blueprint due to be published this week, believing it will break “the logjam” and show willingness to Brussels.

One source said: “The ERG don’t care enough about Northern Ireland. But they are now very worried about a ‘no deal’ and time running out. They don’t want Ireland scuppering everything.”

They argue that EU officials checking trucks in British ports is no different in principle to having French police in St Pancras station in London checking passports of Eurostar passengers, or British border force operations in Calais.

The proposal has not been tabled officially in Brussels but Barnier confirmed it was one of the options under consideration.

In a transcript of his conversation with the Brexit select committee in Brussels, he told MPs that plant and animal checks could be done “on board vessels, in ports outside Ireland”.

Under the proposal, ports such as Liverpool, Holyhead and Fishguard would have red and green lanes for freight. All trucks carrying food and animal produce would be required to have checks under EU law and, along with any trucks without correct paperwork or deemed to be potential smuggling suspects, would be directed into the red channel to be examined.

Trusted traders with non-agrifood loads assessed not to be a smuggling risk would pass through the green channel unchecked provided customs declarations forms, which can be completely electronically, were submitted in advance.

Animals and agrifood that go from other parts of Britain to Northern Ireland, and to Ireland, are already checked to protect against the spread of diseases such as BSE and TB and implementing this for other goods would just be an extension of the current system, said one source close to negotiations.

Leheny said having checks at British ports would protect the island of Ireland and could even boost Northern Ireland’s exports.

“If poultry and beef coming in from Britain to Northern Ireland passed through the red channel it could be enough to satisfy the EU,” said. “The meat exporters would also be happy because it would mean they could send their products to GB and across the border into Ireland and the EU.

“They would still have both markets. We have always said if we are going to do checks, we should do them when the wheels aren’t turning, when the trucks are in the port or at sea, that way there is no interruption in the flow of traffic.”

The papers are in a lather over just how many Conservative MPs support of the Chequers plan.  But it’s the terms of withdrawal than matter first, with the Irish border to the fore. The crucial Commons votes come later when the terms of a final deal begin to emerge, based initially at least on Chequers. The pressure on the DUP will be immense.

It is hard to improve on this analysis by Sam Lowe of the highly regarded Centre for European Reform

 It is no surprise that there is growing frustration. But in all of this there is a crucial point that is underappreciated: May needs Brexit to go to the wire, or at least close. She needs the threat of attributable, actual peril. Only then will she win domestic support for the withdrawal agreement.

It’s easy to forget that the EU and UK are not currently negotiating the depth and scope of their future relationship. They are negotiating the terms of the UK’s withdrawal—the “divorce.” There will be a political declaration, setting out joint aspirations for the future relationship, but neither party will be legally bound to deliver it.

The EU will not back down on its demands for the withdrawal agreement. It will insist that geographical indicators for food products must be protected (trust me on this one), and consensus on governance provisions will be found. The EU is equally unlikely to budge substantively on the Irish backstop, though here there might be some scope for additional riders. I have previously proposed a “backstop to the backstop,” which would see the Northern Ireland-specific protocol supplemented by text allowing for the customs union to be temporarily extended to the whole UK, conditional on post-withdrawal agreement.

Such an idea, or at least similar, is reportedly being considered by both the EU and UK. But if adopted, it will still draw criticism from across the political spectrum.

 

It is still difficult to see how the withdrawal agreement clears parliament. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) won’t like it, and neither will the pro-Brexit European Research Group, Labour, or Remain-leaning Conservatives. Yet, UK capitulation hiding beneath aspirations for the future composed of ambiguity and fudge is probably the only way the UK can leave in an orderly manner, thereby ensuring a further two years’ worth of breathing space to negotiate the terms of the post-Brexit relationship.

May needs Brexit to go right up against the deadline. A parliamentary vote in December, for example, would be too soon. MPs will not be sufficiently terrified. The consequences of saying “no” to Europe will be too remote.

As the heavily signalled March deadline moves closer, this will change. With no deal on the table, markets will have adjusted further, and more business contingency plans will have been triggered. The choice will be portrayed as “this deal or no-deal.” The considerable perils of no deal will be staring parliament in the face, and it will be on them to decide whether to fall into its embrace, or not.

While the hardline Brexiteer contingent might not like the deal on the table, it is unclear that this group—which seems far more comfortable shouting from the sidelines than being held accountable—will really want to be responsible for the chaos of no-deal.

If Chequers remains the basis for the next stage of  negotiation – assuming it’s reached – how great is the opposition in the Commons?  Just as a warning, William Hague, once conservative leader and lastly leader of the Commons, lays out more clearly than ever in the Daily Telegraph the worse case scenario of complete deadlock for the governance of Britain- and the effect on its nearest neighbour. His message is: negotiating on the basis of the Chequers plan is better than this.

Under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act passed in June, any agreement can only take effect if approved by the House of Commons – and indeed a great deal of legislation including a whole new Act would need to be passed as well. Take the 80 MPs at their word that they will vote against it. That would mean it could only be passed if around 70 Labour MPs voted the other way and supported it.

The chances of such a large number of Labour MPs rescuing the Government from an impending crisis, even with so much at stake for the country, is virtually zero….

The Commons thus votes to delay Brexit and to hold another referendum. So that’s decided then? No, wait a minute. The Act says that a regulation would have to be passed to change the “exit day” and only a Minister of the Crown can initiate that. The government refuses to do so and says Brexit must go on. And only they can put forward legislation to hold another referendum, at least with any chance of passing it, and they announce they will not do that…

The crisis could precipitate a general election, either through some Tories joining a motion of no confidence or the Prime Minister deciding it was unavoidable. In that case, exit day would indeed have to be deferred, and the EU would agree to it in such circumstances since it would hope we would never leave. From such an election, anything could emerge – not only a Corbyn government or the long agony of another referendum, but quite possibly both. Or, on current polls, another hung parliament and the crisis still unresolved.

It would be no exaggeration to say that this would be the most serious constitutional crisis in Britain for at least one century, and possibly two

The outcome of such a sequence of events is unknowable, except that it would either be that we leave the EU accompanied by unremitting domestic chaos, or that we stay in it, despite the clear result of the vote in 2016. Either eventuality would cause grevious harm to the country, its international reputation, our economy and the standing of our politics. And before Brussels starts licking its lips over this, the uncertainty or sudden exit would cause massive problems for the Irish Republic and other countries too.

 

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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