Richard North, 06/11/2018  

It must be pretty clear by now that The Sunday Times claim that Mrs May had secured a "breakthrough" deal on Brexit simply wasn't true – further underscoring the unreliability of the media on this issue.

One cannot say that the paper was lying as such but, it over-interpreted very thin, secondary source material to come up with a speculative conclusion which it then presented as a done deal. As such, we're looking at the sort of shoddy work which typifies the legacy media and has characterised the entire Brexit debate.

Now, in the manner of the grand old Duke of York, having been marched up to the top of the hill of speculation, the rest of the media is now marching us back down again, as it rushes to present us with the accumulation of denials and other events which make it clear that there isn't and never was a deal in the offing.

Even in supporting the denials, however, there is not much in the way of coherence from the media, with much chatter still focused on the UK being tied to a "customs union" as the outcome of some putative future deal.

This is the line taken by the Guardian, which re-affirms the unchanging Irish position that a "backstop" must be permanent and, therefore, cannot be called off unilaterally by the UK.

Somehow, though, this gets translated into a scenario where the UK is locked in a customs union in order to avoid a hard border, heedless of the fact that a customs union is not sufficient to give us frictionless trade and, in these days of beyond border checks of such things as rules of origin, isn't even necessary.

For all that, there is no mention of regulatory alignment in the Guardian story and even to get a mention of "regulatory checks", one has to go to The Times.

Here, we learn that European diplomats have made clear that there has been no breakthrough on the key issue of regulatory checks between Britain and Northern Ireland. And this is one of two issues that remain sticking points, the other being the longevity of the backstop.

Elsewhere, we are getting the legend that the longevity of the backstop is the only outstanding issue, yet The Times puts us back in regulatory territory and the need to avoid a "wet border" between Northern Ireland and the UK – exactly back where we started.

Thus, for all the torrent of speculation, when you drill back down into the issues, we see that there really hasn't been any progress. The UK is confronted with the same-old, same-old dilemma: there must either be regulatory alignment between the EU and Northern Ireland and a "wet border" with the rest of the UK, or there must be an all-UK solution where EU-UK alignment is secured.

The point where we must emphasise once again is the "regulatory alignment" begets conformity with Single Market legislation, and with the "regulatory ecosystem" which must include the four freedoms.

I have lost count of the number of times Mrs May has rejected this option yet the media still cannot cope with it. In the Sky News website, for instance, we get Theresa May stating "repeatedly" she will not accept any formulation of the insurance policy to maintain an invisible Irish border if it means Northern Ireland alone remaining in the EU's customs union.

So here we go again. The issue is actually about Northern Ireland remaining in the Single Market (or certain parts of it). Yet this has been translated unequivocally into "the EU's customs union".

Even that is incoherent, as it is difficult (if not impossible) to see how Northern Ireland can remain in the customs union. Amongst other things, this would mean the Northern Ireland administration having to collect tariffs on goods imported from the rest of the UK (and from the rest of the world), and remitting 80 percent of the proceeds to Brussels.

Therein lies an illustration of what happens when you start messing about with terminology – something which completely bypasses the media as it pours out its babble.

The confusion even infects the Irish broadcaster RTÉ which is returning to well-worn phrasing that we've seen before. "London", it says, "is pushing for a single UK-wide customs arrangement, with additional measures for Northern Ireland to cover regulatory controls, as the single entity that will avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland".

Again, this does not compute – any more than the first time we saw it. In the first instance, a "customs arrangement", taken to be a UK-wide customs union (if that is what is planned), plus limited "additional measures" for Northern Ireland, does not seems to be an adequate formula to secure frictionless trade across the border with the Irish Republic. But as importantly, with the UK apparently avoiding regulatory alignment, it cannot escape checks on mainland goods sent to Northern Ireland.

Nevertheless, RTÉ is telling us that – according to "several sources" - the EU has conceded that there can be a "bare bones" customs union outline that would be inserted into the Irish Protocol of the Withdrawal Agreement, or divorce treaty.

This, it says, would be a UK-wide arrangement, meaning there would be no differentiation between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK when it came to customs controls. But then comes the "killer" line: "A customs union alone", it adds, "will not remove the need for all checks and controls".

There we have the point confirmed, leaving the situation completely unresolved. We really are back where we started – yet the background chatter is completely obscuring the reality. There is no sense of the crisis that should be attending such a lack of progress.

Instead, having come down to earth with a bump, we are set to be marched up another hill, with a story in The Times which asserts that "Brussels [is] to offer compromise in Brexit boost for Theresa May". From the same source which had Mrs May making a breakthrough at Salzburg, this seems contrary to everything we've been reading over the last 24 hours. 

Central to this is that Dublin and Brussels are at one. Simon Coveney has stated that the Irish position remains consistent and "very clear" that a "time-limited backstop" or a backstop that could be ended by UK unilaterally would never be agreed to by Ireland or the EU – a position endorsed by Barnier's deputy, Sabine Weyand.

Nevertheless, The Times is convinced that Brussels is preparing to back a compromise proposal to resolve what it calls the "last big sticking point" in the Brexit negotiations. As so often, it comes from anonymous "senior EU figures" and in this case they have "indicated" that the EU is prepared to offer Mrs May an "independent mechanism" by which Britain could end a temporary customs arrangement with the EU.

The Times further asserts that Leo Varadkar had told Mrs May he was "open" to the idea of a review mechanism for the backstop, in a telephone call between the two leaders. What the paper did not say though was that the openness was conditional. Any such review "could not involve a unilateral decision to end the backstop". The Irish prime minister had also "recalled" the prior commitments made that the backstop must apply "unless and until" alternative arrangements are agreed.

There is no possible doubt that we are looking at conflicting statements here, although the attempt to square the circle comes with a fudge on the wording. "The essence of a backstop is that it is not time-limited", an EU source is cited as saying. "If the idea was a review mechanism, then that would imply mutual decision-making on the future. In that case it is a revision clause, not a termination clause", he adds.

As we get to the top of that hill, though, we anticipate that by some time today – or perhaps tomorrow – we will be marching down it again. And between now and 29 March, there will be a lot more hills to climb.

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