The burning border problem. Is it a gnat or a camel?

Only two things  are sure about the Brexit arguments.  Over the border issue ’they’re hotting up inside the Conservative party. And the binary nature of the exchanges between Theresa and Boris produces only deadlock as binary arguments tend to do.

In her BBC interview no doubt she believes she’s defending “the precious, precious Union” and the will of the Northern Ireland people. But as interviewer Nick Robinson might have reminded  her, they voted in favour of Remain. Does it really help the cause of the Union or the GFA settlement to force a choice between  No Deal and the Union?

“The European Union had basically put two offers on the table. Either the UK stays in the single market and the customs union – effectively in the EU – that would have betrayed the vote of the British people,” she said.

“Or, on the other side, a basic free trade agreement but carving Northern Ireland out and effectively keeping Northern Ireland in the European Union and Great Britain out. That would have broken up the United Kingdom, or could have broken up the United Kingdom. Both of those were unacceptable to the UK.

“We said ‘no’ … we’re going to put our own proposal forward and that’s what Chequers is about … It unblocked the negotiations.”

“What many of these other plans are based on is moving the border. You don’t solve the issue of no hard border by having a hard border 20km inside Northern Ireland, or 20km inside Ireland. It is still a hard border,” the prime minister said.

“What we’ve done is listen to the people of Northern Ireland … They don’t want a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. The only proposal that has been put forward that delivers on them not having that hard border, and ensures that we don’t carve up the United Kingdom, is the Chequers plan.”

But who has suggested that checks should be limited to 20 kms either side of the border of from ports in GB?  To be fair to Rees Mogg and co., what they were saying isn’t much different from the practical measures all sides are now examining – the difference being the elephant in the room – or is it a camel? – the relationship with the  customs union.

In the Daily Telegraph  Boris Johnson again lets his metaphors run away with him

To understand the origin of the disaster, you need to go back a few hundred paces to a fatal patch of oil on the road. It is called the Irish backstop. That was where the skid began. If we are to get out of this mess, and get the great British motor back on track, then we need to understand the Irish backstop, and how it is being used to coerce the UK into becoming a vassal state of Brussels.

By invoking the 1998 Belfast Agreement, the backstop would transform that bilateral and non-justiciable agreement between Britain and the Irish government into a justiciable agreement to be supervised and enforced by the EU. In that sense the protocol would amount to a change in Northern Ireland’s constitutional status without its people’s consent – a total breach of the peace settlement. For Ulster Unionists of any description, for the Tory party, for anyone who cares about the union between Britain and Northern Ireland, it is a monstrosity.

Having agreed the backstop in December, the UK government has then of course protested, and said – quite properly, but a little late – that it will not accept any such threat to the Union. But instead of contesting the absurd assertion that a frictionless border must mean keeping Northern Ireland effectively in the EU, we have responded by going one further. We are now saying that if Brussels cannot be satisfied on our plans for the Irish border, then we are volunteering that the whole of the UK must remain effectively in the customs union and large parts of the single market until Brussels says otherwise.

The block on any such progress is the Irish backstop, which not only forbids infrastructure at the border (which is in any case unnecessary) but also any “related checks or controls” away from the border. That is absurd. Both versions of the backstop are disastrous. One threatens the Union; the other version – and its close cousin, Chequers – keep us effectively in the EU, as humiliated rules takers.

We need to challenge the assumptions of both these Irish backstops, or we are heading full throttle for the ditch with a total write-off of Brexit. We are straining at the gnat of the Irish border problem – in fact we haven’t even tried to chew the gnat – and we are swallowing the camel of EU membership in all but name.

More and more, i t looks as if a lot of reliance  will be placed on the  EU leaders  to bail us out, as the FT reports

A gathering of EU leaders in Salzburg this week will be the first step of what is envisaged as a three-summit jig to a historic UK-EU agreement. Negotiators have even begun considering the choreography of the final act, a denouement expected to be a special summit in mid-November.

But even as the stage is set for the end of this Brexit divorce saga, some are growing increasingly alarmed at how unready the conditions appear. Talks on the toughest issues — notably the Irish border— are virtually static, with both sides dug in. Joint drafting of a blueprint for future relations has barely begun, and there are fundamental differences over the prime minister’s Chequers plan for a free movement area for goods.

Serious as these obstacles appear, they are the easier part of Mrs May’s Brexit ordeal: the real problem is selling the exit package to her seething Eurosceptic MPs. “It is very simple. This is not a negotiation between EU and UK,” says Pascal Lamy, the former EU commissioner and director of the World Trade Organization. “What has to be negotiated has been negotiated. This is a negotiation within London between Remainers and Brexiters.”

The additional complication is whether more Remainers from other parties  shifting towards supporting  a “ People’s Vote” would  join the Brexiteers  in voting against a package agreed in Brussels. But this would spark a general election rather than a second referendum. Not much sense in that either.

Later

What did I tell you?

Times “exclusive

 

The European Union is secretly preparing to accept a frictionless Irish border after Brexit in a move that raises the prospect of Theresa May striking a deal by the end of the year.

In a concession to British concerns, EU negotiators want to use technological solutions to minimise customs checks between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

Under the EU plan, goods could be tracked using barcodes on shipping containers under “trusted-trader” schemes administered by registered companies. This would remove the need for new border infrastructure.

In a development that could help the prime minister to sell her Brexit plans to a sceptical party, Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, is working on a new “protocol” text outlining a plan to use technology to minimise checks. The proposals are to be circulated to European governments after the Conservative Party conference on October 3.

“What is the meaning of the phrase straining at a gnat?”

The phrase comes from the words of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew 23, Jesus launches into what could best be described as a tirade against the religious leaders of his day. He doesn’t hold back in his indictment of them, and calls them names like “hypocrite,” “family of snakes” (technically, he calls them a “brood of vipers,” but that’s the meaning), and “whitewashed sepulchers.”

In verse 23, he says: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.”

What does he mean by this? He’s saying that they’ve picked out the smallest and least commandments to focus on, and take pride in doing those, while completely ignoring the most important matters, like justice.

He follows this up in verse 24 with the phrase you asked about: “Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.”

 

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