(Photo by Alberto Pezzali/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
The EU’s draft withdrawal agreement has now been published. Even more of a ruckus than expected ensued. For those of you who have lives and haven’t yet got round to reading the 120-page document, the big news is that if the UK cannot solve the Irish border question, and the EU gets its way, Northern Ireland will be considered part of the “customs territory” of the European Union.
The draft legal text would, if brought into force, also establish “a common regulatory area comprising the Union and the United Kingdom in respect of Northern Ireland”.
The border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, over which a lot of blood has been spilt, has long been one of the biggest points of contention in the Brexit negotiations, and the uncompromising legal text published by the EU today has elicited some of the strongest reactions we have yet seen from all of the many different parties who would be affected.
So what does it mean? Below is a breakdown:
The European Union:
Michel Barnier claims that the plan is not new and should come “as no surprise” to the UK government as it “is only a formal interpretation of what Theresa May agreed in broad terms when she struck a preliminary deal in December”. Speaking immediately after publication, Barnier explained that the agreement was only a “backstop” (a default if no other agreement could be reached), and the EU would happily consider “alternative proposals” put forward by the British Government if such alternatives could “work in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement”.
Of the claims that the move would create a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK he said: “In ports and airports there will be controls, but I would not refer to a border … I am not trying to provoke anyone here”
He also reminded reporters that Brexit day is only 13 months away, and this document had to be published in order to “up the pace” of negotiations.
Michel Barnier is being deeply disingenuous. He is well aware that any proposal which would draw a line across the Irish sea could not be accepted by any British Unionists, in England or Northern Ireland. He claims he is being “happy to work with Northern Irish politics” while at the same time patently ignoring the express wishes of the largest political party in the province. He claims that the draft is just an “opening position” and says that the EU will listen to proposals from the British Government, but it’s hard to see in what concessions he could make on such an uncompromising position. As Emily Thornberry pointed out today (in relation to Boris Johnson) a border is either there, or it isn’t – there’s no such thing as a “little bit pregnant”.
The UK Government:
Speaking during PMQs today, Theresa May said: “The draft legal text the Commission has published would, if implemented, undermine the United Kingdom common market and threaten the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom by creating a custom and regulatory border down the Irish Sea.”
The Prime Minister added: “No United Kingdom prime minister could ever agree to it. I will be making it crystal clear to President Juncker and others that we will never do so.
“We are committed to ensuring that we see no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.”
This is all very well, and it’s refreshing to see an embattled Theresa May being decisive, but it still doesn’t actually answer the question of what is to be done about the Irish border. If she will neither accept a hard border between Britain and Northern Ireland, nor stay in The Customs Union (rightly so) she is going to have to come up with a clearer solution than “we can probably do something techie”. And fast.
Simon Coveney, Foreign Minister in Dublin, said he was “very happy” with the legal document. “People will judge for themselves. They will see it is an accurate reflection of what was politically agreed in December,” he went on. “It will be faithful and true to the agreement.” He said that Ireland and the EU were of “one mind” and that there will be “quite a lot of detail” but “some additions will be needed over time”.
President Leo Varadkar agreed saying: “We are also committed to exploring specific solutions to be proposed by the UK. At the same time, there is now the necessary legal provision to implement the backstop of maintaining full alignment in Northern Ireland with the rules of the Single Market and Customs Union necessary to protect North South cooperation and avoid a hard border. This is very much a default and would only apply should it prove necessary. This is about delivering on our shared objectives of protecting the Good Friday Agreement and the gains of the peace process, no less, no more.”
This is an uncompromising approach. Veteran Irish politicians like Bertie Ahern (who worked with Tony Blair and Jonathan Powell on the Good Friday Agreement) have suggested Varadkar should persuade the EU to allow the governments in Dublin and London to work out a solution to the border themselves – but the Taoiseach has not paid heed. It is said that he does not get on well personally with the Prime Minister, and his lack of confidence in the British Government is evident. It is worth noting that just yesterday he took the unprecedented step of urging Sinn Fein to take seats in Westminster to “make things better in Ireland”.
Democratic Unionist Party:
Speaking to Radio 4 this morning, Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson said: “The EU has been trying to manoeuvre the negotiations to ensure that the United Kingdom as a whole stays within the single market and customs union and have been using — or abusing — Northern Ireland to try and bring that situation about. It seems that the EU have made it quite clear that the only option they are interested in is regulatory alignment which would either remove Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom, separate us from our main market and politically create an issue where we are separated from the rest of the United Kingdom, or else force the whole of the United Kingdom to stay in the single market and the customs union.”
The DUP’s Westminster leader Nigel Dodds said his reaction to the publication was one of “amazement” that the EU thought it “could possibly fly with either us or the British government”.
“We did not leave the European Union to oversee the breakup of the United Kingdom,” he told the BBC, adding that it would be “catastrophic” for Northern Ireland to be “cut off” from UK markets.
This furious response was completely predictable, and should have been foreseen by the EU, perhaps it was. Tom McTague summed it up pretty well this morning when he tweeted: “Imagine for a moment the UK accepted the Commission’s proposals for Northern Ireland. What does Michel Barnier expect the reaction to be in Belfast? When I worked in the city there was a riot over the removal of the union flag from the town hall.”
Labour says it would solve the Irish border question by entering into a new customs union with the EU, meaning checks are not needed as people and goods pass between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
Shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Kier Starmer said: “The EU-UK Government war of words needs to end.
“There can be absolutely no deviation from the solemn commitments made to Northern Ireland at the end of the first phase of Brexit negotiations. That means no hard border or any agreement that would undermine the Good Friday Agreement.
“Theresa May’s failure to offer any viable solution to the border in Northern Ireland has come back to haunt her.”
The Labour Party is (fairly) rather smug today. Where Theresa May has failed to solve the Irish border question, Jeremy Corbyn – by promising to keep the UK in a customs union – claims to have succeeded.
The only problem is, the Labour leader’s plan to cherry-pick the aspects of EU membership he wants, while refusing to accept the bits which would stop him nationalising everything, wouldn’t – when it came down to it – actually wash with the EU. And if a Corbynite version of a customs union wouldn’t work, then the Corbynite solution to the Irish border doesn’t work either.
So, we’re back to square 1.