Leavers cannot solve the border conundrum but for many of them that has never been the aimby Rafael Behr / February 7, 2019 / Leave a comment
In the final scene of the last episode of the ninth season of Dallas, Pamela Ewing woke from a troubled sleep to find her late husband, Bobby, taking a shower in the bathroom next door. Bobby’s death a year earlier had been a dream. An entire season’s worth of plot was vaporised. None of it had actually happened.
It is one of the more preposterous plot twists in TV history. It also resembles the experience of veteran Brexit-watchers, seeing Theresa May in Brussels complain about the Irish “backstop.” That was the main plot line for most of 2018. For the best part of a year Britain’s withdrawal from the EU was consumed by the Irish question. The problem was set by the “joint report,” signed by both sides in December 2017. That document expressed a contradiction between May’s Brexit red lines—removing the UK from the single market and customs union—and her obligations under the Good Friday Agreement not to see a hard border return to Northern Ireland.
There were many twists and sub-plots in this tale. The short version is that Leave campaigners failed to understand the legal implications of turning the Irish Republic’s land border with the UK into an external boundary of the single market. They did not understand what it meant for the UK to become a “third country” in trade terms with the EU at all. Meanwhile, the DUP flatly rejected one practical solution, which would be for Northern Ireland to have its own unique customs and regulatory status. That, in Ulster unionist eyes, would be severance from the Motherland.
And so the backstop was born, unwanted child of Brexiter ignorance and intransigence. It was agreed that the UK would move by default into a customs union with the EU if, after the two-year transition period, no other mechanism for solving the border issue had been found.
A particularly bitter irony here is that this formulation was conceived by the British side and granted by Brussels as a concession to May. Many Europeans thought it was a trick by the British to pre-empt future trade talks; that it allowed the UK a two-year window with its foot in European markets while also negotiating external trade deals. This was an unprecedented privilege for a third country and one that officials initially saw as a rare Brexit win for Team GB.
Then May brought the deal to parliament. None of the arguments that had been thrashed out in Brussels appeared to have made it across the Channel. Tory MPs demanded that the backstop be scrapped and replaced with something else, maybe based on new technology to obviate the border problem, as if this has never before been considered; as if 2018 never happened; as if the Chequers plan, and “max-fac” and “facilitated customs arrangements” were just part of some weird dream.
That explains the frustration conveyed this week in Donald Tusk’s intemperate comments on Brexiteers without plans being destined for Hell. Tusk was awake during the negotiations. He has also made it clear that the EU has neither a romantic attachment to the backstop nor a nefarious agenda to see it activated. (On the contrary, many Europeans still see it as a platform from which the UK could get unfair advantages over competitors—half-in and half-out of the single market.) The draft withdrawal agreement makes it clear that the mechanism is supposed to kick in only if long-term trading arrangements are not agreed by 2020, or if no other answer to the border conundrum has been found.
Meanwhile the hard Brexiters believe they have just such an answer. A group of MPs has been touting a draft free-trade deal. It has evolved from a think tank pamphlet, “Plan A+,” originally launched last September. This model wishes the Irish issue away, imagining that a seamless border can be achieved by the UK unilaterally declaring itself uninterested in tariffs or checks. And if those pesky continentals insist on policing their rules, the ensuing obligations can be met with new technology (yet to be invented). This concept was peddled by the same people a year ago. Or did we only dream that?
Even if we accept the premise that the Tory MPs supporting this approach have come up with something new, a revealing question arises. Any plan that claims to solve the backstop issue within the context of a future free trade deal today, must, by definition, also be a plan that can be implemented during the transition period. If it is credible, workable and available, there should be no obstacle to it sliding into place in 2020, just as the withdrawal agreement anticipates. Hey presto, no backstop! In other words, if these Brexiters are so confident in their model—if it is all as easy as they say—they have nothing to fear from May’s deal and should back it. But they don’t. Why not?
There are two answers. First, they have a jaundiced view of EU motives. They see the backstop as a trap or, in their most lurid and paranoid fantasies, as an act of colonial aggression to hitch Britannia to a cruel Brussels yoke. Second, many of them do not expect their proposal to be taken seriously as part of a negotiated settlement. Presentation of unworkable ideas is a piece of theatre that helps run down the clock towards a no-deal Brexit. The simulation of willingness to compromise will later be written into the script blaming Brussels.
Not every Tory Brexiteer is that fanatical. Even some of the hardest leavers are queasy about the consequences of a no-deal scenario, both for the country and for the electoral prospects of the Tory Party. The European Research Group (ERG), chaired by Jacob Ress-Mogg, is not a monolithic bloc. Cracks began to show last year, in disputes over the optimum timing for a no-confidence motion in May as Tory leader. They are appearing again now. Talk of an Article 50 extension and perhaps a softer Brexit facilitated by Labour MPs is echoing around Westminster corridors and that spooks a few ERG types into a more accommodating stance towards May’s deal. Some leavers are bluffing in their readiness to take no-deal; some are delusional, imagining it would be fine; some know it would be a disaster but relish that prospect as a kind of moral and economic purgative treatment to restore the nation’s enterprising vigour. But no-one knows how many are in each category.
Meanwhile, the prime minister’s meeting with Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels on Thursday was unfruitful. Reports of their “robust but constructive” discussion confirm that the substance of the backstop will stay in the withdrawal agreement. The two sides have agreed only to talk further. There are six weeks to go before the UK is due to leave the EU. The Article 50 process allowed two years for negotiation. It is scarcely believable that May could have squandered so much of that time to achieve so little or that so many MPs apparently slept through the whole thing. Yet it is true. The alarm is going off, but this time it can’t rouse us from the waking nightmare that Brexit has become.