Deal or no deal? Barnier slices through the fudge
In early December it was all sweetness and light: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said “we have the assurances and guarantees we need from the UK on the Irish issues” and they amounted to a “cast-iron guarantee” that there would be no hard border on the island of Ireland.
Let us remind ourselves: on 8th December the British said that even if they did not get the bespoke trade deal they wanted with the EU, “the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the internal market and the customs union which, now or in the future, support North-South co-operation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 [Good Friday] agreement”.
So we all heaved a sigh of relief: with full alignment there would be no need for customs, tariffs, VAT at point of entry and so on. We didn’t ask how it would work – that was for the British to figure out – but we all presumed the north – or the whole of the UK – would either stay in the EU customs union or be in some sort of special new customs union with it.
Then last week, Theresa May told the Commons that they would indeed leave the single market and the customs union. A Downing Street spokesperson went further: the UK was ‘categorically’ leaving ‘the’ customs union and would not be in ‘a’customs union or indeed in ‘any’ customs union. That did not seem to leave any room for ‘full alignment’.
“The British positions are irreconcilable,” said a senior source in Dublin. “And we have reached the point where fudging that is no longer tenable.”
So Michel Barnier caught the Eurostar to London: “Once again it is important to tell the truth,” he said. “A UK decision to leave the single market and to leave the customs union would make border checks unavoidable.” For good measure he made it clear that a legally binding and enforceable reformulation of the commitments given on 8th December was an absolute precondition for moving on to Phase 2 negotiations and discussion of a transition period. His team is working on the wording of such a clause to put before the British.
The Guardian wrote that “Officials from the UK and EU are drawing up a plan to in effect keep Northern Ireland in the customs union and the single market after Brexit in order to avoid a hard border.” To us that looks like an extraordinarily optimistic reading of the technical talks between UK and EU teams in Brussels during the week. Barnier provided a rather more accurate summary of the present situation: “The UK has committed to proposing specific solutions to the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland. And we are waiting for such solutions.”