PM in frightful pickle over Irish border

by Hugo Dixon | 19.03.2018

Theresa May has agreed further concessions over Ireland to get her transition deal. In the process, she has backed herself into a miserable set of choices.

The government is so desperate for a 21-month standstill deal to cushion the blow of Brexit that it has accepted that either Northern Ireland or perhaps the whole UK could stay in large chunks of the single market and customs union even after we quit the EU.

It has reiterated its commitment, first made in the so-called joint report last December, to such a “backstop” solution in the event that it can find no other way of avoiding border controls in Ireland. What’s more, it has said that it accepts that this backstop needs to be put into legal language in the withdrawal agreement specifying the terms of our exit from the EU.

The government hasn’t agreed the European Commission’s proposed legal text – which May said last month that “no UK prime minister could ever agree”. But it has accepted a detailed agenda of meetings in the coming weeks to try to nail down language. It will be under severe pressure to come to terms as the Commission made clear that the transition deal is conditional on reaching a deal on the Irish border. As Michel Barnier, its Brexit negotiator, said pointedly: “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”

All options miserable, but one

So what are the prime minister’s options? Much depends on what she meant by the key section on the backstop in paragraph 49 of December’s joint report. It reads: “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.”

The key question is whether May was promising full alignment with chunks of the single market and customs union for just Northern Ireland – or for the whole UK.

Many commentators, including this one, thought she was promising full alignment for just Northern Ireland. That, too, is how the European Commission has interpreted it in its legal draft. The problem is that this would effectively turn Northern Ireland into a vassal province of the EU and create a sea border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. No UK prime minister should agree that.

An “alternative” interpretation is that May was promising full alignment for the whole UK. That is how the House of Commons Brexit committee has interpreted it. If so, there would be no need for any sea border. But the whole UK would then become a rule-taker for large chunks of our economic policy. How is that taking back control?

The government hopes it can come up with an ambitious trade deal between the UK and the EU that avoids the need for this backstop. But it is hard to see what that is – unless it involves at minimum staying in large chunks of the single market and customs union – in other words, something on the lines of the “alternative” interpretation of the backstop.

Failing that, the prime minister still clings to the hope that she can somehow come up with a technical fix to the problem. But even the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which is chaired by a Tory Brexiter, rejected that as “blue sky thinking” in a report last week.

So all the realistic choices are miserable. Except one: cancelling Brexit. If we did that, we wouldn’t have any problems with the Irish border, no concerns about turning either Northern Ireland into a vassal province or the whole UK into a vassal state, and no need for a transitional deal either. It’s the only sensible solution.

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5 Responses to “PM in frightful pickle over Irish border”

  • Hi lets stay in E. U. Its the only way for the nation, the old racists are dying off, lets have votes for 16 year olds, one more thing, how come all the Brits living in the EU were deprived of a vote, just a thougjt

  • There’s a much better solution: give the Six Counties back to Ireland. And let Scotland go too, while you’re at it.

  • To suggest cancelling the democratic process of Brexit as the only sensible solution is crackers!

    We gave back Hong Kong, we will eventually give back Gibraltar and the Falklands. So let’s do the truly sensible thing and give Northern Ireland to the South and form a new EU neighbour – the United Island of Ireland. Sorted!

  • The most obvious solution, which would give the country the best deal it could ever get, and allow “control” to be exercised would be to cancel the whole stupid nonsense of Brexit and remain a fully paid up member of the EU.

  • In the 21st century, all countries world-wide trade with each other, and therefore trade under rules and regulations, which are adjudicated by a third-party organisation.

    The UK will not and cannot win back “control” and “sovereignty” unless it decide to give up on trade with other contries completely.

    Quite simply, leaving the EU does not win back “control” and “sovereignty”.