To Brexit, or not to Brexit…rather not: 10 Downing Street, London

8 June 2018. Prime Minister Theresa May speaks at the G7 summit held in Charlevoix, Quebec, Canada. (UK government photo, some rights reserved).

Almost exactly two years have elapsed after the Brits voted to leave the European Union. Tomorrow, Tuesday 12 June, the elected lower House of the Parliament, the Commons, is expected to open the way for Britain to remain in EU’s customs union and the single market for an extended period of time. Most probably, Prime Minister Theresa May, is to suffer another defeat there. The relevant law is ingloriously named ‘EU Withdrawal Bill’. But the more interesting text isn’t this law, but the UK’s proposal for at least two more years in the EU. This is  the ‘Technical Note’ for Brexit, which 10 Downing St. sent to Brussels last Friday foreseeing a backstop for Ireland.

Actually, it took a memorable and bloody fight at 10 Downing Street for Prime Minister Theresa May to finally be forced to include in her ‘backstop’ proposal an end date for the ‘provisional’ stay in the club until 2021. The initial text didn’t contain a similar reference. It was her Brexit Minister David Davis who forced her to include an ‘expected’ end of the interim period, by brandishing his resignation. If nothing else, Ireland, both Northern and the Eire, the Republic, had a perfect case to get their revenge, turning the Brexit into a nightmare for London. Let’s see why.

The Irish conundrum

The truth is that the insurmountable obstacle for London in finding an honorable way out from the EU, proved to be the Irish border line of 400 km, separating Northern Ireland, still a part of Britain, from the Republic of Ireland, the Eire. From the very first moment, when the negotiations for a Brexit deal between London and Brussels started in September 2016, both sides vowed there won’t be a hard border line enacted in Ireland after the UK leaves the Union. They did that for a very good reason, to avoid a new bloodshed in the North of the island.

Today, there are completely free and unchecked movements and communications between the two parts of Ireland. To safeguard this freedom, the UK and the EU pledged to honor the ‘Good Friday or Belfast Agreement’ between the catholic nationalists and the protestant anglophiles of Northern Ireland. This Agreement ended a decades old bloody and catastrophic civil war in the North.

The signing of the Agreement by the two perennial enemy sides was made possible through securing completely free movements for people, goods and services up and down the border line. This was possible because both parts of the island were members of the European Union, the Northern Ireland as a part of the UK a full member of the EU and the Republic of Ireland on her own account a member state of the club.

Peace through assimilation

So, the border line lost its segregationist role and after a while of free movements the enmity almost vanished, securing a long peace. Actually, the left nationalist Sinn Fein Party of the Catholic side is active in both parts of the island and is represented in both of the two legislatives. To be noted, in the Brexit referendum of June 2016, Northern Ireland voted ‘remain’. However it became clear that the implementation of Brexit and the UK leaving the EU would necessarily entail the enactment of a hard border in Ireland, controlling, monitoring and eventually blocking the movement of people, goods and services.

Soon, this prospect turned the political situation in the North noxious, and a return to the catastrophic past of civil conflict started to look likely. In Eire also there was dismay and unrest with the prospect of a hard border. Dublin has promised to veto any solution containing a hard border. The old enmity with the anglophiles of the North took hold of the population.

EU and UK vow no border in Ireland

The whole affair was too close to a boiling point, obliging the UK and the EU to guarantee there won’t be a hard border in Ireland. Come the Brexit though, Northern Ireland is to leave the EU and the club – comprising the Eire – has to protect  its customs union and the single market from a third country, the UK, with a border.

Brussels made it crystal clear that since a hard border cannot be enacted in Ireland after Brexit, Northern Ireland must stay in EU’s customs union and the single market. But, in such a case, this part of the isle has to be estranged from the UK and border checks and controls to be introduced in the communications between Northern Ireland and the rest of the Kingdom. No government in 10 Downing Street could accept this option, since a part of the Kingdom would be isolated by border checks and controls. The unity and the sovereignty of Great Britain would have been directly diluted.

Squaring the cycle

As a result, a clear impossibility arises. Either cutting the Irish island in two by enacting a hard border, or estranging Northern Ireland from Britain are both two infeasible solutions. Logically, the only solution remains that the entire UK to remain ‘provisionally’ in EU’s customs union and single market, together with both parts of Ireland.

This is exactly what May is now proposing to Brussels. It took two years to her Brexiteer Conservatives to understand this was the only way out or rather in the EU. Actually May didn’t want to include an end date for this ‘temporary’ option, because she knows squaring the cycle is to remain an impossible ad infinitum. Still, the Brexiteers exhausted their ammunition and gained a mention in the backstop document about ending the provisional status at 2021.

Until 2021 or beyond?

It remains to be seen if Brussels will accept this latest London’s proposal as it is. Michel Barnier, the chief EU negotiator for Brexit, tweeted “I welcome publication of #UK proposal on customs aspects of IE/NI backstop. We will examine it with 3 questions: is it a workable solution to avoid a hard border? Does it respect the integrity of the SM/CU? Is it an all-weather backstop?”. In practice, the May document is, in its general provisions, almost identical with what Barnier had proposed to London in December 2017 which was accepted then by 10 Downing Street.

Still, there are a lot of details which have to be clarified and Barnier makes it clear with this three lines tweet. He insists it has to really offer the avoidance of borders in Ireland. He also notes that while the entire Britain remains in the SM/CU (Single Market/Customs Union) it has to respect the full package regulating it, along with the supremacy of the European Court. And, finally, his ‘all weather’ condition for London’s backstop proposal, means there should be no legal end time for the interim period.

Rather indefinitely

Barnier bases this last request on the fact that the British document refers to the end date as just an ‘expectation’. The text of the document includes, “The UK expects the future arrangement to be in place by the end of December 2021 at the latest. There are a range of options for how a time limit could be delivered, which the UK will propose and discuss with the EU”. This is the 26th and last paragraph of this British Government document, entitled ‘TECHNICAL NOTE: TEMPORARY CUSTOMS ARRANGEMENT’. Obviously, there is no guarantee or legal reassurance that before the end of 2021 Britain would have managed to…square the cycle.

All in all, what Barmier said in his tweet denotes that 10 Downing Street representatives will be badly pressed in Brussels to accept all the initial EU terms as briefly described here above by Barnier. The European Union doesn’t ask for anything, it’s Britain that voted ‘Leave’.

 

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