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…