Richard North, 21/04/2018  
 


It says something of the nation that BBC TV chose to run as its lead item on the main evening news yesterday the resignation of a football manager. And while such news might be of very great interest to some individuals, it was not the most important thing happening in the world, or the nation – not by a long chalk.

High on that list must be the failure of the talks in Brussels, once again on the vexed issue of Irish border – now being picked up by diverse newspapers, but mostly down page. Whatever their "take" however, there can be no dispute that the developments over the last few days have been very serious and we are headed for dangerous waters.

In a marginally more intelligent report than it managed yesterday, the Telegraph offers the headline: "Britain risks 'disorderly' Brexit, Michel Barnier warns after EU rejects Theresa May's Irish border solution" – thus indicating the nature of our peril.

The headline comes from Michel Barnier's statement on the talks, where he confirmed on French television that "substantial parts" of the Withdrawal Agreement – and especially the Irish border issue, remain to be agreed.

He then declared, in his role as the Union's negotiator: "there are still difficulties, still a risk of failure. On 25 percent of the text, we don't have agreement. If there is no agreement, there is no orderly withdrawal, there is a disorderly withdrawal and there is no transition".

Then asked if the UK could obtain a "single market a la carte" deal, he replied: that the EU had repeatedly said that Britain will not be able to do what the British call "cherry picking", adding "no way".

Nothing here warns us that we are going then to be locked into the customs unions, as the Telegraph idiots are insisting, leaving the Guardian to put it more directly with the headline: "Leaving EU rejects Irish border proposals and says Brexit talks could still fail".

However, according to the hired help, Stefaan De Rynck, reports that talks have ended for the moment are not correct. The EU and UK, he says, have before the June European Council planned four rounds of talks, with the next round in the first week in May. The talks will cover the Irish issue, plus other withdrawal issues, including the future relationship.

Yet, not a great deal more clarity comes from other newspaper reports, although we do have a more ruminative piece in the Irish Times. This reminds us, in terms, that the view at EU level on the border question is that the UK has been trying to serve a "reheated casserole of ideas" that London has persistently dished up – and Brussels has consistently sent back – since last August.

But, even here we see the customs union "infection" which is blighting any discussion of the issue – a fantasy non-solution that has swamped the discourse and is now blocking any possibility of sensible developments being explored.

The only thing consistent is the EU's refusal to accept ideas that have already been presented and explored, an action which embodies a rejection of the so-called "technological solution" upon which the UK government seems so keen to rely. Nor will the EU accept the so-called "customs partnership" that would see Britain collect tariffs for the EU on European-bound goods and apply tariffs to imported goods. Tariffs are the least of the issues here.

As always though, what is being lost in the torrent of noise is the basic principle involved here – the unalterable fact that, once the UK leaves the EU, what was once an internal border between EU Member States becomes part of the EU's external border.

In that context, the current levels of traffic across the border – and the nature of the traffic – are largely irrelevant. What matters, as the EU has pointed out so often – is that the integrity of Single Market is maintained, which means that the same rules which apply elsewhere between Member States and third countries must also apply to the Irish border.

There is absolutely no point in arguing, therefore, that traffic levels from the North to the Republic are so slight that they are insignificant in the grander scheme of things. Once there is an unguarded "back door", goods from Northern Ireland can enter into the Republic and, once there, they must be allowed free access to other Member States, with no checks at the internal borders.

Thus, should a low-profile "technological" border be established, the way would then be free for exporters, not only in the UK but also right across the world, to use Northern Ireland (via mainland Britain if necessary) as a portal into the EU, evading most or all of the checks that would normally apply to third country goods.

We are not, therefore, dealing with what is, but what could be once Brexit is place. And once the rules have been agreed, it is very hard for the EU to go back and demand that they should be tightened up. The net effect could be that the EU would have to reintroduce customs controls between Ireland and all the other Member States – something that would put it in breach of its own treaties.

This prospect coincides with the formal naming (the Irish Times calls it a "christening") of the MV Celine in Dublin Port, to which we introduced readers last October.

This is the ship that can carry more than 600 lorries and is almost twice the size of any ferry currently operating out of Dublin Port. If all the parking lanes on the 235metre vessel are laid end to end, they would stretch to almost five miles, making it the world's largest short sea roll-on roll-off vessel.

The hopes for this vessel are high, with plans for hundreds of thousands of additional tons of freight go to and from the Continent each year, bypassing Britain and any border controls and paperwork that may be inevitable if a hard Brexit becomes a reality.

Should there be, contrary to expectations, minimal controls on the Irish border, the starting point for those "hundreds of thousands of additional tons of freight" may be outside the Union. And there would be nothing to stop them - something the Muppets simply haven't worked out yet. Knowing some of the characters involved, it is unlikely they ever will.

On the other hand, if it's sense you are after, go to Ivan Rogers in The Times, who advises us that Britain's preferred solution the Irish border after Brexit has been dismissed as a "fantasy island unicorn model" by European leaders.

Solving the issue with a free trade agreement is not considered a "runner" by EU nations and neither Brussels nor the Irish government believed using technology to manage the frontier was realistic. Rogers thus suggests that the "backstop" is the only viable model – the very option the UK has rejected.

Thus, to put it succinctly, the EU has rejected everything the UK has to offer and the only thing acceptable to the EU has been rejected by the UK. There is no middle way.

That brings us right back to square one and, unless this can be sorted, we have to confront Michel Barnier's warning that the Brexit talks could fail. In fact, there's no "could" about it. We have been told often enough, if there is no settlement of the Irish question, then the talks will fail.

This is a reality which the UK government doesn't seem to understand. There is going to be no last-minute change of heart from the EU and no movement from its insistence on the backstop, where North and the Republic maintain regulatory alignment.

But if the backstop creates a "wet" border between the mainland and Ireland, there is a whole new world of grief awaiting HMG. Not only can ports such as Holyhead not handle the burdens of managing this border, the creation of a whole new infrastructure will cost hundreds of millions and take years to implement.

With no plans in place, and a transition period that is scarcely long enough, the UK, even if it agreed to it, could not deliver on the "backstop". And whether it "can't" or "won't", the effect is the same. Mrs May has driven us up a one-way street to a dead end, in a car with no reverse gear.

And yet, all the Guardian can suggest is that we stay in a customs union. Is this the end of intelligent life as we know it?






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