Richard North, 24/09/2019  

This has been going on too long without going anywhere. If it was going to be solved, we would probably have seen a resolution by now. It is unlikely, therefore, that we will be seeing a positive outcome, unless we see a significant change in the UK's stance.

I refer, of course, to the Irish backstop question and now, it seems, Michel Barnier is close to agreeing. Yesterday, he told reporters that the "current state" of UK thinking meant that a replacement for the backstop looked improbable and it was "difficult to see" how a Brexit deal on the Irish border could be reached.

Barnier was standing alongside the German foreign minister, Heiko Maas following a meeting in Berlin, declaring that the UK government's position had to change for there to be any hope of success.

"The new UK government wants us to get rid of this solution", Barnier said, "the so-called backstop. I am sure you understand this is unacceptable. My mandate is clear: safeguarding peace and stability in Ireland and protecting the integrity of the single market".

Asked whether digital technology could help with the border, Barnier said: "Objectively, there are possibilities. I don't know how to inspect a cow with virtual methods".

The thing is that, while we're reading this afresh in diverse newspapers, there is nothing new here – nothing we haven't heard recently from other EU actors, in more or less the same terms. And, furthermore, we didn’t really need to take our cue from EU spokespersons. It's been pretty obvious right from the start that the UK proposals were not going to fly.

Nevertheless, that didn't stop the likes of The Sun reporting earlier yesterday that Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson was "pushing ahead" for a deal in New York, where he was to meet Merkel and Macron, as well as Donald Tusk.

Johnson himself, on the flight over to New York, was telling hacks he was "cautiously optimistic" about an agreement, although he conceded that a "breakthrough" was unlikely. "I would caution you all not to think this is going to be the moment", he said.

That much Johnson got right. The evening brought a tweet from Donald Tusk tersely (even by Twitter standards) announcing: "No breakthrough. No breakdown. No time to lose". There had indeed been no breakthrough.

PA reported sources saying there were "big gaps in substance" while another source said: "The EU will need realistic, operational proposals in legal form" – something which hardly comes as a surprise to anyone who has been following this drama.

An EU diplomat was then rather less than complimentary about Johnson's administration, suggesting that it was sticking to a counter-productive approach imposing "its own, self-made problems on us and demand that we fix them". And in what does not augur well for the future, he mused: "...Why would we bend our rules for a country that is leaving? Why put ourselves at risk for a third country? Why help smooth their departure at our own cost?"

Johnson, on the other hand, is said to have told Tusk that "movement and flexibility were needed from the European Union" if a Brexit deal was to be reached – another restatement of a familiar position.

Still, though, UK proposals have not been fleshed out beyond vague "concepts", with EU officials saying that what they had been given almost resembled the kind of thinking proposed by British negotiators during the early days of May's premiership. These are ideas that have long been dismissed, failing to prevent border checks, damaging the integrity of the Single Market and facilitating smuggling.

The situation is hardly going to be clarified by today's events when the Supreme Court rules on the legality or otherwise of Johnson's prorogation, even if it provides a welcome distraction from the dire proceedings of the Labour Party conference.

However, what we don't know, and none of us can predict, is what happens next. I've already speculated that Johnson's administration might be trying to throw the game, but if he is to evade the Benn Act which would otherwise require him to apply for an extension, Johnson needs the very deal that Barnier says he's unlikely to get.

This basically leaves the Brexit debate in the doldrums. The positions of the opposing parties have long been fixed and there is no movement either way – and nor can there be.

On the UK side, Johnson has nailed his colours to the mast on removing the "undemocratic" backstop and, even if he were to accept the full text of Mrs May's Withdrawal Agreement, he wouldn't get it past parliament. In fact, it is very far from certain whether the MP collective would accept any agreement Johnson might offer, even while rejecting the prospect of a no-deal.

As for the EU, notwithstanding the Good Friday Agreement and its aspirations for a frictionless border, the need to maintain the integrity of the Single Market is a "red line" on which there can be no compromise.

Some pundits point to the relatively low level of cross-border trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic, especially if agri-products are discounted. But to focus on current volumes is to miss the point. As with the boy who plugged the leaky dyke with his finger, what matters is the potential volume of leakage.

Already, there is concern that crime gangs in Northern Ireland will seek to exploit Brexit, finding new opportunities for money-making ventures.

What is not always fully taken into account is the potential cost of any loopholes that might be exploited. It should be recalled that in 2007, the Commission informally estimated the loss from all VAT fraud at up to €250 billion annually, amounting to between 2-2.5 percent of GDP.

Although not in any way Brexit-related, more recently we have seen the so-called "cum-ex" fraud, which is estimated to have plundered at least €60 billion from the state coffers of several EU countries, with Germany being the biggest loser.

This serves to underline the scale of some fraudulent enterprises, and warns that leaving a back door open into the Single Market could have dire consequences for EU Member States, whereas lack of controls on the UK side could also open up vulnerabilities of considerable scale.

The possibility that organised crime will move in to exploit border vulnerabilities is one of the important reasons why the EU cannot offer the "flexibility" that Johnson demands, while any concessions made to the UK might also set precedents which will also have to apply to other trading partners.

Altogether, with little scope for movement on either side, we seem doomed to a static debate, with very little dialogue as the parties endlessly restate their own positions. Like becalmed sailing ships, caught in the dreaded doldrums of old, Brexit is undergoing its own period of stasis.

In the olden days, ships could run out of water and food before they caught a breeze. One wonders if Brexit awaits the same fate.

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