May has only herself to blame for Irish border fiasco

by Hugo Dixon | 22.09.2018

The prime minister has picked a fight with the EU over the so-called Irish backstop. But it’s her own catalogue of errors that has got us into this mess.

Here’s the key passage of her “look-at-me-I’m-tough” statement in Downing Street yesterday: “Creating any form of customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK would not respect that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom…. It is something I will never agree to.”

But Theresa May has, in the past, pretty much proposed exactly that. She has made six terrible mistakes that have led us to the point where a breakdown in talks is now a real possibility.

Triggering Article 50 without a plan

18 months ago, she fired the starting gun to the negotiations without first getting the EU to agree the framework of a deal. As a result, the two-year clock is now ticking rapidly and our negotiating position is getting weaker by the day. She rushed into talks because she was pandering to hardline Brexiters in her party such as Boris Johnson who wanted her to get on with it. As a result, she has screwed up.

It’s not as if she wasn’t warned. Our former ambassador to the EU told the government that we’d get “screwed” if it triggered Article 50 prematurely – and that’s precisely what is happening.

Calling an election

The prime minister made a bad situation worse by calling an election last June – incidentally going back on her promise not to. Because she lost many MPs, she is now dependent on the support of the Brexit-backing DUP – despite the fact that they don’t speak for a majority of the Northern Irish people, who want to stay in the EU. This unholy alliance has made it even harder for May to reach any compromise on the Irish border issue. (See below).

Agreeing a backstop in December

Despite her seemingly uncompromising words now, the prime minister agreed with the EU in December that there would be a Irish backstop. She did this because she was desperate to move on from the divorce stage of the talks to discussing our future relationship. It is worth quoting the key passage in full as some of the prime minister’s supporters have conveniently forgotten that she said yes to the so-called Joint Report:

“In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 [Good Friday] Agreement.”

It wasn’t just May who agreed this language. So did Johnson and David Davis, who were then in the Cabinet. And it’s not being wise after the event to point out the implications of what they signed up to. Here’s something I wrote within hours of the report being published.

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Not producing her own backstop

It’s true that December’s joint report didn’t spell out exactly what “full regulatory alignment” meant – and it was ambiguous whether it was just Northern Ireland or the whole of the UK that should be fully aligned to the EU. The details were supposed to be nailed down soon after.

But the prime minister then made another error. She refused to put forward a detailed proposal, presumably because she couldn’t get her Cabinet and the DUP to agree one. As a result, she left the EU to fill the vacuum in February with its own ideas.

May immediately said she couldn’t agree to the EU’s proposals. But she still didn’t produced a full explanation of how she plans to meet her commitment in the joint report. Yesterday she complained that the EU wasn’t treating her with “respect”. But how is dragging her heels without producing a proper proposal of her own treating our partners with respect?

May’s backstop has a giant hole in it

The prime minister did eventually publish her own version of the backstop in June. But the document didn’t address regulatory standards, merely promising to return to that issue at a later date. This was another failure to treat the Irish issue with the seriousness that it deserves.

What’s more, her complaints yesterday that the EU never spelt out in detail what they didn’t like about her half-proposal is dishonest. Only four days later, it published a forensic analysis taking it apart.

Still no proposal on regulatory alignment

Another three months have passed and May has still not set out proposals on how to keep Northern Ireland and the EU aligned on regulations. By contrast, the EU said it would compromise on its version of the backstop to “de-dramatise” the issue – so that most goods crossing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland were checked at “company premises or at the markets” rather than the border itself.

The prime minister does not like that. But she was not telling the truth yesterday when she said the EU hadn’t made “any counter-proposal”. She even rejected its counter-proposal without even waiting to see the detail.

May did, though, promise that she would set out her own proposal. But again she refused to put a deadline on this. It’s not hard to see why.

The one idea the government floated in the press this week was for regulatory checks but no customs controls between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. This seems to have driven the DUP apeshit. According to the Sun, a “bitter row” with her allies over a proposal to have different regulations between Northern Ireland and Great Britain was the reason she was so uncompromising in Salzburg.

After such a catalogue of errors, it’s not surprising the EU is exasperated. And if May is humiliated about her diplomatic failure, she has nobody to blame but herself.

6 Responses to “May has only herself to blame for Irish border fiasco”

  • “You’re ‘ Gonna Reap Just What You Sow”. Welcome to the NI debacle. Historically NI did not exist culturally or geographically as part of the Westminster bubble. Then the English intervenened.

  • Brexit is not a divorce. A divorce can be quickly done. Brexit is a surgical operation, like separating conjoined twins: after 40 years of economic, trade and regulatory life together, both the UK and the EU are like two organisms that have a shared blood system. You can try and separate the two: but it is a difficult operation, fraught with risks, and the weaker of the two may not survive.

  • There have been a lot of cock ups since the Second World War, but this is the worst by a long way. Today’s papers talking about May wanting respect from the EU is a joke. We have made fools of ourselves in the Referendum, and May”s mad race to add insult to injury just shows how bad Westminster has become. But we all agree with each other on this website!
    However, more ideas needed to divert the charge to an accelerated decline……..

  • Difficult to know how much of May’s swipe at the EU in the aftermath of Salzburg was for the benefit of Conservative Conference delegates, and how much was genuine.
    However, if she genuinely feels affronted by the EU’s lack of willingness to compromise on Single Market access and Irish border, then she misunderstands where we are in the negotiations.
    Like alot of Brexiteers, she seems to think the EU has a duty to compromise on its fundamental groundrules for the Single Market.That’s not how things work in the real world. If you walk out of a club, any club, and then come back the next week expecting the club to bend or compromise its rules, to allow you special access on preferential terms, you will normally be in for a dissapointment. In such circumstances, you are the one who needs to make the compromises.
    The Single Market is one of the EU’s genuine success stories. It is for the EU to judge whether it is in their interests to make a major breach in its rules, not, in effect, a non-member.
    Needless to say, the usual daily rags see it as an excuse to bash the EU, and so deflect blame from the Government’s own inept strategy.

  • The list of our politicians and public figures hurling insults at the EU on a daily basis is a long one. We all remember ‘bully boy, lack of respect, inflexible etc. etc… How does the EU address us? With calm, polite and coherent statements and replies to the various (reworded) proposals offered by us. There is even the occasional offer to put all this behind us and move on to a brighter future. (Of course our side erupt with glee that this offer proves how desperate they are to keep us). We know something of the millions poured down the bottomless brexit pit by our government (instead of supporting our NHS and police&fire services) but we hear few complaints from the EU about what a colossal waste of their time and their money is spent in trying to pin the Tories down to some realistic proposals.

    Where is Corbyn? Get him onside fighting to protect us from the Tory monster machine. That is his job and he should be doing it.