EU ponders Irish backstop protocol to help May
The Times has the story that the European Union is preparing its own version of a technical solution for Northern Ireland. Under this plan goods would be tracked using barcodes on shipping containers under a trusted trader scheme. There would still be controls, but not at the border. We note that these are proposals the EU flatly rejected until not long ago, so a political shift has clearly taken place. The EU now seems resigned to the fact that the UK has ruled out - per parliamentary vote - any suggestion of a customs border in the Irish Sea. It is good news for the success of the Brexit negotiations that the EU is moving away from what would have been an untenable political position. Hard Brexiteers like Boris Johnson have been claiming that the EU was proposing to annex Northern Ireland. With this protocol this claim will no longer be possible to sustain.
The EU‘s technical solution differs in some respects from that of Theresa May, but the technical details are not the critical point at this stage. More important is the legal procedure itself. The EU is offering a protocol to the Irish backstop clause in the withdrawal treaty, which sets out possible technical solutions in case no agreement on a future trading relationship is agreed. As long-standing observers of technically complex EU-level treaty discussions, we are not surprised to witness the grand entry of the protocol, an important legal device in EU diplomacy that often succeeds in overcoming seemingly insolvable problems. Important as it may be, in historical perspective the Irish backstop is not the most difficult obstacle EU diplomats ever had to surmount.
The main purpose of the protocol is to help Theresa May to sell the plan to her troops. We got an inkling of the coming debate this weekend when Michael Gove, environment minister, said there was no point in hyperventilating about the withdrawal treaty since the nature of the relationship will be up to future governments to decide in any case. If the Irish backstop is qualified in the withdrawal treaty, and if the political declaration about the future relationship is fudged, it will be harder for the Brexiteers to reject it on grounds of principle - since all the important future decisions have yet to be made. The Labour Party already said it would be against the deal, no matter what, clearly hoping to benefit from the chaos of a no-deal Brexit. There was a revealing bit in this morning Financial Times’ Big Read, according to which Angela Merkel suggested to May that a successful Brexit deal should be celebrated in some form or other. What this is telling us is that once a deal is reached, the EU, too, will be pro-Brexit. We sense that the Remain camp is not sufficiently prepared for this shift. This comes with an observation that a sufficiently flexible withdrawal agreement will be key to get the Brexiteers in the Conservative Party on board.