New November “deadline” for agreeing withdrawal terms puts pressure on all sides

The mantra “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” may be joined  with a new one, “ nothing changes until everything changes.”

This  applies in spades to the border backstop wrangle. Rather than face crunch point at Salzburg on Thursday, EU leaders have confirmed that the terms for UK withdrawal will be settled at a special Brexit summit in November. So that’s all good, then. But the backstop still nags and Theresa May has said nothing to wish it away, rather the reverse.

Brexit secretary Dominic Raab  urges ” flexibility”and says “the ball is a little bit in the EU’s court.”  (How can it be ” a little bit?” It’s either in or out .  Does this little phrase expose a certain lack of confidence, making a point but with  palms stretched  outwards in a placatory gesture to the  other side, so as not to attract a slapdown?)

Donald Tusk the President of the Council (of government leaders ) tweets that if “we all act responsibly we can avoid a catastrophe, ” i.e of no deal.

RTE’s Europe Editor Tony Connelly has among the best sources presumably mainly Irish contacts

 EU officials have been redrafting the Irish backstop protocol in a bid to make it more palatable to London, but the EU Brexit Task Force remains convinced that Northern Ireland will have to remain part of the EU’s customs regime if a hard border is to be avoided, RTÉ News understands.

Sources say the Task Force has been trying to meet UK concerns by changing both language and emphasis in the original text.

This includes the idea that British inspectors in UK ports could carry out limited checks on their own – and not in the presence of EU inspectors – to ensure customs and standards compliance for goods moving to Northern Ireland.

Officials are also looking to reinforce the idea that any future trade relationship that obviates the need for a hard border on the island of Ireland would “supersede” the provisions of the backstop.

A re-drafted text could also highlight the fact that elements of the backstop would automatically fall away if the future relationship is sufficiently comprehensive as to render customs and regulatory checks on the Irish border unnecessary.

The British government objects to the current draft of the so-called backstop because it would imply that if the UK were to be outside the single market and customs union, with Northern Ireland effectively remaining inside, then it would mean a customs border along the Irish Sea.

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, has said on several occasions that the EU could “improve” the draft protocol, which was first published last February.

This has also been acknowledged by Irish officials.

n February, British Prime Minister Theresa May told the House of Commons that no British Prime Minister “could ever accept” a backstop that led to customs controls on the Irish Sea.

However, a wholesale purge of the original draft is not thought likely.

RTÉ News understands that the redrafting has been influenced by negotiations and conversations between the Task Force and British officials over the summer and into September.

The specific elements to assuage UK demands, however, are not necessarily nailed down and agreed between London and Brussels.

The Irish Times’ Pat Leahy warns of a “misunderstanding- wilful or otherwise.”

On Monday, senior Irish Government figures strongly disputed suggestions that EU Brexit negotiators would accept that technological or electronic Border checks between north and south could be the basis of an operating backstop.

“Just wrong,” said one senior source in Dublin, “a misunderstanding, wilful or otherwise.” Irish officials believe the suggestion of the Irish/EU concession on the backstop – carried in British newspapers – was a misrepresentation of a briefing to EU ambassadors by Sabine Weyand, deputy to the chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.

What the EU was actually suggesting, several sources insisted, was that the electronic/technical checking of goods take place on shipments travelling to Northern Ireland from Great Britain – not between the North and the Republic.

They play down the significance of any proposed checks. They point out there are already checks on agricultural goods moving between the North and the rest of the UK. They stress it could be “British not EU officials doing the checking”, says one source. They say that and customs checks (“the hard one,” says one official) could be handled like the unobtrusive regulatory checks.

This is all of a piece with Barnier’s stated intention to “de-dramatise” the backstop.

 

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