As the Brexit negotiations approach some sort of climax it’s unwise to take any public statement entirely at face value. Indeed any statement may have the opposite significance to the words usually mean. Thus when Juncker imitates the Dancing Queen and tells the world: “The rapprochement potential between both sides has increased in recent days, the Dancing Queen interprets the optimism as pressure on her to give more concessions on the backstop. So she threatens to refuse to sign a £39 billion “divorce” settlement with the EU if it fails to give Britain a “precise” future trade deal within weeks.
Downing St is spurning EU optimism and moving on to the verbal offensive to counteract the Brexiteers’ charge that the terms of a deal are being dictated by the EU.
Brexit secretary Dominic Raab has postponed a Brussels negotiating session this week. The EU Commission have responded usefully by withholding a document outlining a Canada style deal as it’s too sensitive. It would have run slap bang into the border problem as such a deal unamended would trigger the notorious backstop on Northern Ireland.
All very confusing if you’re being asked to be optimistic – unless you’re using Alice’s looking glass.
On a lengthy visit to Brussels, Arlene Foster has joined the tea party. This is the analysis of the Spectator’s political correspondent James Forsyth.
One source of tension between Number 10 and the DUP is the following section of the 2017 joint report, which was added in after the DUP objected to the original text:
The United Kingdom will ensure that no new regulatory barriers develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, unless, consistent with the 1998 Agreement, the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly agree that distinct arrangements are appropriate for Northern Ireland. In all circumstances, the United Kingdom will continue to ensure the same unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the United Kingdom internal market.
I understand that some in government are arguing that this means there can be checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, as long as there are no checks on goods travelling from Northern Ireland into Great Britain. The DUP, needless to say, don’t take this view and object to the idea that goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland should be checked.
Interestingly, though, Arlene Foster’s statement tonight suggests a slight shift in emphasis from the DUP. Ahead of meeting Michel Barnier, she has said that the DUP’s only red line is ‘recognising that Great Britain is Northern Ireland’s biggest market. Over 70 per cent of all goods leaving Belfast port are destined for Great Britain. To create a barrier to that trade would be catastrophic. We want to see an exit deal which means Northern Ireland has unfettered access to and from the GB market but also fully beneficiaries of any new trade deals with the United Kingdom after Brexit.’
This suggests that while the DUP doesn’t want any regulatory checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, it regards this as a lesser issue than the ‘red line’ of checks on goods going from Northern Ireland to Great Britain. This does give Theresa May a little more wriggle room”
Maybe this is just the latest spin from Downing St.
The UK’s previous argument ran up against an EU brick wall, that any divergence between NI and GB should be time limited and jointly guaranteed by the UK and the EU. The EU are refusing to agree to a time limit without legal guarantees preventing a future British government opening a back door to the EU through Northern Ireland to goods from non-EU countries.
The Irish Times reports a significant change in the UK’s backstop proposal, even though they now look like withholding the details until the 11th hour before the EU summit in a fortnight.
Unlike initial UK proposals, the backstop is not likely to be time-limited but will be replaced if and when a comprehensive future relationship deal is agreed.
(This is not actually new but it’s s worth repeating)
Up to now the DUP have been opposed to regulatory checks in GB full stop. While the elements of a deal have been taking shape for over a week, the public volume has been growing louder to counteract any impression that one side is winning at the other’s expense in our old bogey, a zero sum game. The FT see it this way.
Theresa May is demanding that Brussels offer “precise” guarantees that Britain and the EU will enjoy frictionless trade after Brexit, in an attempt to unlock a withdrawal agreement covering the Irish border. The British prime minister is prepared to make concessions to Brussels on the Irish border, but she fears talks could yet founder unless the EU commits to a deal on the future relationship with the UK that involves no barriers to trade. “We have to jump together,” said one British official..
Mrs May will try to unlock talks on the so-called “Irish backstop”— a guarantee by both sides there will be no return to a hard border in Ireland — by meeting EU demands that Northern Ireland remain aligned to Brussels’ single market rules after Brexit. Mr Barnier for his part will say that although this might in theory mean regulatory checks at ports on goods moving from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland, in practice they could be conducted in factories or shops. The next crucial element of the Brexit deal sought by Mrs May would see the EU agree to a “temporary” customs union between the whole of the UK and the 27-member bloc, to eliminate tariffs until a future trade agreement was in place. Finally Mrs May hopes the EU will allay Mrs Foster’s concerns that the “Irish backstop” could see a permanent regulatory split in the UK..
She is pushing for a joint statement establishing that the long term relationship between Britain and the EU would involve no barriers to trade. Mrs May’s spokesman told reporters on Monday. “I will just make that point . . . that there can be no withdrawal agreement without a precise future framework [on trade].” Mr Barnier’s top Brexit official, Sabine Weyand, told ambassadors from the EU27 on Friday the bloc would enter a 10-day negotiating “tunnel” after which it would emerge with “something” on the withdrawal agreement and the future trade relationship.
There will be more ups and downs before it’s finished.
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