20 July 2018

May searches for an Irish border solution as ‘no deal’ looms


It’s been a bad day for anyone hoping for an orderly Brexit, as the hydra of the Irish border reared its head again. At a speech in Belfast, Theresa May rejected the EU’s ideas for some kind of special solution to keep the border invisible, while insisting her “common rulebook” plans would make checks on goods unnecessary.

The Prime Minister also insisted she remained committed to the “two imperatives” of keeping the border open and “no new border that cuts Northern Ireland off from the rest of the UK”.

Meanwhile, at a press conference in Brussels, Michel Barnier in turn gave short shrift to May’s “common rulebook” and said he remained focused on the EU’s “backstop” – the very thing Mrs May has again rejected.

Time is running out for the two sides to come to an agreement. While Barnier expressed a willingness to “amend” and “improve” the EU’s plans, Brussels has made clear that a legally watertight backstop for Northern Ireland must be included in the Withdrawal Agreement. This is not the same as the future trade relationship, which will be covered by a “political declaration”.

May’s approach is based on her government’s poorly received recent White Paper, which suggests the UK remains harmonised with EU rules for industrial goods and agri-foods that would otherwise be subject to border checks. She has also set out plans for the UK and the EU to form a joint customs territory, but apply their own tariffs. It’s a complicated, untried model involving tracking imports so rebates can be claimed if goods were assigned a higher tariff when they entered the territory than demanded by their final destination.

The EU has already expressed a number of concerns about such suggestions, and those were repeated by Barnier this afternoon. He stressed the EU would not allow complete free circulation of goods unless the UK followed all Single Market rules in areas such as pesticides and GM food. The Frenchman also questioned the practicality of the Facilitated Customs Arrangement scheme, which at times has also confused Mrs May.

Notably, the EU’s chief negotiator was silent on the possibility of the UK-wide backstop favoured by Number 10. In Brussels, that arrangement is seen as a way for Britain to try and carve out a partial Single Market deal, while the “common rulebook” also sounds very much like the type of “cherry-picking” the EU ‘s negotiating guidelines explicitly rule out.

As it happens, the EU has already allowed a degree of single market cherry-picking in its deal with Switzerland, while Ukraine has also been promised trade on single market terms in various areas if it meets EU governance standards. But, clearly, the EU is not minded to offer these kind of concessions to a departing state with one of Europe’s biggest economies.

Instead, Barnier suggested today that the White Paper was incompatible with the EU’s own negotiating position. May appears to hold out hope those red lines will be blurred and the guidelines modified. She has tried to toss the ball into the EU’s court, urging them to “evolve” their position to come to a workable solution.

The seeds of the current impasse were sown in December’s Joint Report, where both sides agreed the UK would “maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union” should an Ireland solution not emerge from the overall deal. The parties also agreed then that there would be no new barriers to trade between Northern Ireland and the UK without Belfast’s agreement.

Matters were not been helped in February by the EU producing a legal version of the “backstop”, which suggested Northern Ireland remaining in an extension of the Single Market for goods and staying in the customs union – a solution which would have meant erecting regulatory barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. On this, May remains adamant that her government “could never accept” a new border within the UK.

In her view, the EU should now accept the type of UK-wide backstop the Government partially proposed last month. The language in the Joint Report actually backs May up, as it refers to the “United Kingdom” not to “Northern Ireland”, but the EU negotiators seem unmoved by that point.

Although Barnier certainly has no interest in those proposals, he has recently tried to “de-dramatise” the Ireland issue by claiming that it would only be “technical controls” that would be needed in the Irish Sea, rather than a border. It seems curious that Barnier is willing to countenance these kind of “technical controls” in the Irish Sea, but not on the island of Ireland itself. Mrs May seems to have long given up that argument, though technological solutions were raised again by Boris Johnson in his resignation speech earlier this week.

In what sounded like a clear rejoinder to her former foreign secretary, the PM spelled out that “no technological solution to address these issues has been designed yet, or implemented anywhere in the world, let alone in such a unique and highly sensitive context as the Northern Ireland border”.

The EU backstop stance, May’s refusal of that solution, Conservative dismay at the White Paper, and now Barnier’s dismissal of it mean the Brexit negotiations are in a more perilous position than ever. While continuity Remainers call for further concessions, including staying in the Single Market and the Customs Union, the reaction of May’s own MPs to the White Paper makes clear how little room for manoeuvre she has – a position not helped by her ever-dwindling stock of political authority.

All of this increases the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit, with overblown warnings from Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar this week that UK planes may not be allowed to enter Irish airspace. Failure to reach an agreement would also understandably raise concerns in Irish frontier communities, although Varadkar has said he is assured by the EU that there would be no border infrastructure ordered, and indeed there is little time left to construct any.

There is, however, an alternative eventuality that might prove problematic for Dublin if the EU acts to protect the integrity of the Single Market and Customs Union in the event of a disorderly Brexit.

Or, to put it in the words of one EU negotiator: “Don’t be surprised if Ireland is suspended from the Single Market”.

William Davison is a freelance journalist.