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Can you hear that? It’s the sound of gentle back pedalling. It’s Jacob Rees-Mogg writing for the Daily Mail that he’d be willing to back Theresa May if the backstop could be tweaked with a further appendix. It’s the DUP’s Sammy Wilson saying his party will back the deal if there is a time limit on the backstop. It’s the sound of Tory Brexiteers saying they’ll back the deal if Theresa May promises to step down (as I said she should).
That’s right, there’s movement. As the deadline looms, it looks like the politics of Brexit are evolving, and a deal will be reached close to the wire. If Geoffrey Cox can come back to Britain with a concession a deal will be done in March and we could even leave on schedule. Tory hardliners have demanded the backstop be removed or be amended to include a right for unilateral withdrawal, but they were negotiating with a brick wall. Now they realise that Brexit itself is at risk and they want a ladder to climb down.
The ladder will come in the form of a “codicil”, the new Brexit buzzword, an interpretive declaration that clarifies the operation of the backstop and may lead the way to a majority for the Withdrawal agreement. It could be a clarification of precisely what is needed to avoid the backstop, which should essentially mean no physical infrastructure on the border. There may be increased bureaucracy, even infrastructure within the supply chain, but as long as the future framework avoids any kind of hard border, the backstop should not kick in. This interpretation would get the deal through parliament.
There are precedents here, as an Open Europe briefing pointed out this week. In the past, when negotiations have hit major roadblocks due to national politics, the EU has been flexible and found ways to facilitate the ratification of the deal. The Republic of Ireland secured legally binding guarantees on the Lisbon Treaty, Denmark secured guarantees to help ratify the Maastricht Treaty, an interpretative instrument overcame Wallonian objections to CETA and an addendum cleared the way after voters in the Netherlands rejected the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. Where there is a will, there is a way.
If the government is able to secure its own codicil then this, combined with the joint UK-EU working group set up to explore alternative arrangements to the backstop may be enough to seal the Brexit deal. The political declaration already commits to considering “facilitative arrangements and technologies” to alleviate trade and customs barriers on the Irish border, which looks ahead to the future systems and digitisation that will evolve the customs arrangements negotiated in the next stage.
The Withdrawal Agreement is not the end of Brexit, indeed it is not even the beginning of the end, but it is the end of the beginning. Crucially, the negotiations of the future framework are unlikely to be the hot political topic every week for the next few years. The political heat will turn down, the trade talks will move into the background for the most part. This will allow the government to develop and deliver a domestic agenda, and this country desperately needs a proactive government focussed on addressing its needs.
There is a majority in the country between the two polarised Leave/Remain camps that just want to move on. We’re nearly there.