Rumour, speculation, leaks and unattributed briefings seems to be the order of the day, as the Irish and British media obsesses over the latest twists in Britain’s never-ending Brexit story. Has the Tory premier Theresa May hit upon a cunning plan to win over her divided cabinet? One that will permit the United Kingdom to withdraw from the European Union with the minimum level of disruption at home and abroad, while putting the question of the backstop agreement for the UK legacy colony in the north-east of Ireland on the long-finger? The Guardian certainly thinks so:
Theresa May’s hopes of finally securing a Brexit withdrawal agreement have been boosted after she edged a step closer to winning her cabinet’s backing to resolve the final major sticking point in negotiations with Brussels.
The prime minister tasked her Eurosceptic attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, who has emerged as a key figure in winning the support of cabinet Brexiters, with drawing up legal plans for a “review mechanism” to resolve the Irish backstop issue.
Whitehall officials will spend the next few days thrashing out the detail of the proposal, under which the UK could leave a temporary customs arrangement with the EU without being forced to accept an border down the Irish sea.
A backstop is deemed necessary to ensure there is no return to a hard border in Ireland if the UK and the EU are unable to secure a long-term free trade deal after the end of the Brexit transition period in 2020. The EU has hinted that it would accept the whole of the UK temporarily staying in the customs union.
Cox, who has emerged as a significant player in May’s plan to get her cabinet on board, said compromise on the Irish backstop was a “major step” in removing the final obstacle in reaching agreement on the withdrawal deal.
As already reported, London appears intent on securing a “temporary little arrangement”, to borrow a quote from the late Albert Reynolds, with its former partners which it can break at any time. Including walking away from the semi-legal guarantee previously given to Brussels, and Dublin, ensuring no return of a “hard border” around the UK-occupied Six Counties. This get-out-of-jail card will be music to the ears of the hibernophobic Democratic Unionist Party, which would happily see a Partition 2.0 in Ireland to match the Empire 2.0 in Britain that its xenophobic backbench allies in the ruling Conservative Party believe is all-but imminent.
Thankfully, Deutsche Welle is pouring some cold water on this fevered dreaming, noting Europe’s insistence that Irish peace must come well ahead of British revanchism in any proposed Brexit settlement:
The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier will seek a full exit agreement with Britain, provided a solution is found to keep the Irish border open. Otherwise, Britain faces a no-deal, no transition divorce from the bloc.
The European Union will not approve a Brexit deal unless it permanently avoids a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, the EU’s chief negotiator said on Tuesday.
Michel Barnier’s comments lay bare the EU’s unequivocal position on the situation in Ireland after the UK leaves the bloc.
Perfidious Albion may be up to its old tricks again, and Leo Varadkar may be tempted to go all Love Actually in Downing Street, but hopefully saner counsel will prevail in both Dublin and Brussels. A UK withdrawal deal which includes a specific time-limited or discardable backstop clause is no deal at all. Meanwhile, The Washington Post asks the truly important question, the one the British seem not to give a damn about: “Could Brexit bring new troubles to Northern Ireland?“
My sense is that the British strategy now is to accept the backstop but
a) Achieve their veto over it ever coming into force
or b) if it does come into force, enable them to unilaterally renage
Either of these you could probably sell to the DUP.