The prime minister may not have the numbers but options are running out for the DUP and the Tory Brexiteers

 

With a week to go before the hoped for ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement, Nigel Dodds has grabbed  Dominic Raab’s reading of the Withdrawal Agreement  as a lifeline.  It  may  confirm his worst fears coming from someone who only four days ago was in the inner circle, but now, much good may it do him.   In his Sunday Times article, Raab is withering about the European Commission’s approach to the talks and accuses Brussels of deliberately trying to wound the UK by pursuing a deal that treated Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the country. (This from the  man who was the titular negotiator of the deal).

There were certainly swirling dark forces in the commission, which you would hear rumbling that Northern Ireland was the price the United Kingdom must pay for leaving the EU,” he says. “That’s totally irresponsible and reckless and not something we should give in to.”

Nigel agrees:

“Even Jeremy Corbyn gets it, although nationalists and republicans here are desperate for him to stop saying it. I understand why some people fear a ‘no deal’ scenario. But the choice is between this very bad deal and the right deal.

So what sort of deal is Nigel proposing?  Answer came there none,  other than endorsement of Raab’s to tough it out in some undefined way with the EU because “we are the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.” Cue cries of derision.

No doubt Nigel relishes the interpretation gleaned by cross referencing several Articles of the Withdrawal Agreement by the formidable thinker Paul Goodman, the Brexiteer editor  of Conservative Home, that the customs arrangement alone “,means a hard border in the Irish Sea.  

All of that is the legal stuff, written I admit,  in most obscure terms.  The practical people take a different view.

After twenty years of being kowtowed  to, the DUP are  clearly taken aback that no doubt emboldened by massive pressure from business across the water, the local business organisations have dared to take  them on for second time in three months, the first being when they declared that that the DUPs refusal to accept  gay marriage was hampering the recruitment of outside talent. They endorse the verdict of veteran economic commentator John Simpson.

There is a price to secure the best of both worlds for Northern Ireland. Goods exported from Northern Ireland to GB would proceed as now  , The so-called border in the Irish Sea will be a series of some checks that goods landed in Northern Ireland, with acceptable UK standards – but lacking EU standards – do not find a ‘back-door’ into the EU through the Republic of Ireland.

The extra degree of business administration as envisaged by the UK-EU deal should be small and very acceptable as a method of protecting Northern Ireland business. The business organisations have now made a clear and overdue statement that the draft UK-EU deal is a worthwhile compromise.

It would be helpful if detailed models of the regulatory and customs regimes were produced, to confirm concerns or reassurances, either way.

Otherwise, is there any wriggle room to change the terms over the next seven days “such as giving Britain a unilateral right to end any “backstop” arrangement over Northern Ireland”? The message from No 10, Dublin and Brussels is a firm “ no,” but as  in all such things, we shall see.  In her Sky News interview, the prime minister sought to divert attention from the Withdrawal Agreement to the next stage, the negotiations on the final deal. With a few days to go she has made no hint of compromise.

Raab and the five pizza club cabinet ministers must know this.   They will have it confirmed today. As the Commons are more united in opposing No Deal than anything else, their only other option to put to the EU is  to beg for an extension of Article 50 to give more time to work something out. One problem with it is that Brexiteers will fear it would be be exploited by others to build up support for cancelling Brexit.

Dan O’Brien’s discussion of that option in the Sunday Indo is backed by his experience as  former Commission official.

The UK could seek to stop the withdrawal clock if it ends up staring down the barrel of a no-deal exit. This could be done by halting the legal mechanism by which countries can end their EU membership, contained in Article 50 of the EU treaties.

As it happens, the EU’s supreme court is about to rule on exactly how this can be done. In the coming weeks, it is due to decide whether a departing country can unilaterally revoke Article 50. If the Court of Justice of the European Union decides that the UK can do this, the option will gain traction. It might become the only option that Westminster can agree on if no deal begins to look inevitable.

However, even if the court decides that individual countries can unilaterally revoke, many in the UK, most notably and obviously Leavers, will oppose any such move.

If the court finds that all the member countries must have a say, it is even less likely that Article 50 is revoked. On the EU side, there is very limited appetite to drag Brexit out any longer. Recently I heard a someone in Brussels say that the Remainers’ “unicorns should be killed”. In other words, that the hopes of those in Britain who want the UK to remain an EU member should be ended by a firm declaration by the 27 remaining members that there is no going back. Although that is not a universal view by any means, patience with Britain has worn thin. With so much else on the EU agenda, ending the Brexit saga once and for all is what many countries want.

Another matter that militates against a stopping of the clock for anything other than a period of weeks is the European Parliament elections, which will take place just two months after Brexit day. UK seats in the parliament have already been redistributed, and member countries do not want to reverse all these changes so that British MEPs can take their seats for what may be a few weeks or months. This is not an insurmountable obstacle, but it would be a significant consideration for the member countries.

A central factor in any decision by the members to revoke Article 50 would be whether the context in the UK had changed to any great extent. The biggest change to the context would be the holding of another referendum on whether to go ahead with Brexit on last week’s terms, or whether to abandon the whole project.

The FT are reporting that Michel Barnier  is proposing an extension of the transition period to 2022 

Mr Barnier told ambassadors of the EU27 that any one-off extension to the transition period — during which Britain will continue in effect as a non-voting member of the bloc — could run for a further two years after the original proposed cut-off, according to a diplomatic note seen by the Financial Times. The EU negotiator also noted the “volatile” situation in Westminster but urged governments not to consider reopening the Withdrawal Agreement to help Mrs May. “There’s no need to reopen the text”, he said.

Mrs May said in October that the UK would seek to extend the transition only “for a matter of months” but many diplomats believe more time will be necessary.

Such an extension, which would be agreed jointly, would give the UK and EU more time to complete a trade deal. But it will also fuel the suspicions of Brexiters that the break from Brussels will be in name only. Britain would be expected to make a significant contribution to the EU budget which EU diplomats said would be in the range of €10bn-€15bn a year. The disclosure came as British business prepared to intervene on behalf of Mrs May’s draft withdrawal agreement, with a warning that investment is already being lost because of uncertainty over the terms.

 

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