Will it end with a Big Bang on the border?

The Russian plot has rescued Theresa May from the daily Brexit grind for a little while, but the reality checks are piling up on her desk. From where we are standing, absolutely nothing has changed since Theresa May  signed up to ‘backstop’ regulatory alignment on 8th December and reneged on it as soon as the EU wrote it down in clear language.

There were two other options in December which could theoretically render the backstop unnecessary: a comprehensive trade deal between the UK and the EU, or  some sort of special, most likely technological, solution to avoiding a hard border.

To take the last option first, it is only in there because the British side put it forward. No one else has any idea what they were talking or thinking about, but we know they cannot point at a single example of such a border in the world or specify how technology would solve, rather than just speed up, the obvious problems that arise at borders everywhere.

As for a comprehensive trade deal, we know precisely what that will look like: Canada plus very little and certainly not plus financial services.

This week in the European Parliament, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier reiterated that bespoke deals and different baskets for different industries would not be on offer to the UK:  “The four freedoms, including the freedom of movement, are indivisible. You can’t want to participate in our agencies without the legal commitment of applying the law of the union and the jurisdiction of the [European] court of justice … It is a rather surprising idea to think that the 27 member states of the EU and your parliament could accept convergence as wished by the UK at the same time opening up the possibility of divergence where there is a comparative advantage for it. It is time to face up to the hard facts.”

EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said he was prepared to work on Irish border solutions other than the backstop but “we need to receive concrete proposals from the United Kingdom first”.

Otherwise he made it clear that special arrangements to keep Northern Ireland effectively in the customs union and the single market would have to go ahead: “The 27 member states stand firm and united when it comes to Ireland. For us this is not an Irish issue, it is a European issue. It is all for one, one for all. That is what it means to be part of this union.”

All the possibilities for how the border can be dealt with were set out by Katy Hayward of Queen’s University last week (see earlier story). We must remember that the border issue is in fact a hangover from Phase I negotiations; if it is still on the table there can be no movement forward. Specifically, the British side will definitely not be able to shunt the border into final relationship talks.

There is no evidence that this reality has sunk in around the cabinet table in London. We are fast approaching the point at which Barnier will simply refuse to take up any other issues until the Irish border is completely tied off. That was clear between the lines in the EU Parliament during the week and there is rock-solid backing for this position across the EU27.

More and more seasoned commentators are predicting an early train crash – we are probably past the point at which the British side could marshal all their troops to avoid it even if they had a clear strategy and clear leadership. What we in this part of the world need to realise and prepare for if we can, is that if the whole thing ends with a Big Bang, it will happen on this issue, here on the border. It won’t be in Norway, it won’t be in Canada, it won’t be in the City of London, it will be here and it will be very messy.