The sequence of events is as follows. First, earlier this week, Margaritis Schinas, the EU Commission’s chief spokesman, said: “If you push me to speculate what will happen in Ireland after a no deal Brexit I think it is pretty obvious, there will be a hard border.” Next, Michel Barnier, in seeking to calm the troubled waters that Schinas had stirred, succeeded only in lashing them up even more: “my team have worked hard to study how controls can be made paperless or decentralised, which will be useful in all circumstances,” he said.
This sounds remarkably like the maximum facilitation plan that David Davis advanced on behalf of the Government during the summer of 2017 in a position paper – and which has been floated by him and others since, including the European Research Group. Readers will remember that it was dismissed last year, apparently by Sabine Weyand, as “magical thinking”. She may also be responsible for describing it as “a hunt for the unicorn”. Now Barnier has mounted this mythical beast himself, and galloped off into the distance.
It’s important to add that he also did so quite some time ago – arguing that customs, tax and regulatory checks wouldn’t need to be done at the border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. (For the deal that the Government has reached with the EU, of course, posits precisely such a border in regulatory and arguably customs terms.) If a Northern Ireland border with Great Britain can be other than hard, why can’t a border between Ireland and Northern Ireland? When is a unicorn not a unicorn?
Furthermore, the Irish Government knows perfectly well that there will be a hard border between the United Kingdom and Ireland in the event of No Deal. Simon Coveney, the Tánaiste, was caught out admitting so recently. Or rather, we should say, a harder border. After all, there is a tax, VAT, currency, excise and security border already. But checks are not usually done on it: given its 300 crossing points, that would not be possible as a rule. Instead, they tend to be done away from it. So could customs checks, given a bit of time.
What has happened since the Brexit negotiation began is that no-one has wanted to take responsibility for admitting that the border will be harder – not the Irish Government, not our own, not the Commission. None the less, the stark fact is that the EU, led in this matter by France and the Commission itself, is not going to allow an unpoliced land border to open up between itself and the EU, into which a mass of unregulated goods and products could pour into the Single Market unchecked.
Now it is important not to assume that customs is the only contentious issue relating to the border’s future – and that if it could be solved, everything else could be solved, too. There is also the question of future sanitary and phytosanitary arrangements on animals and plants, product compliance, and cross-border arrangements on transport, healthcare, and other matters. It is all this and more that gave rise to the proposal for a border in the Irish Sea – and, of course, the backstop.
As March 29 draws closer and the possibility of No Deal lingers, there is rising concern – even a touch of panic – not just in Downing Street, or on Labour’s front bench, or among the drawers-up of the Cooper/Boles amendment, but in Ireland and Brussels, too. Leo Varadkar knows that his gamble could backfire: that Brexit may not be revoked or even postponed but take place on the due date, whether a deal is in place or not. And if even a deal would be damaging to Ireland, compared to the status quo, No Deal could be devastating.
This rising pressure on Ireland – its central bank is reported today as saying that No Deal could lead to food shortages – may explain the Taoiseach’s weird suggestion yesterday that there would have to be “full alignment on customs and regulations” in the event of No Deal. This is precisely the wrong way round. There will not be full alignment in the event of No Deal – because No Deal means No Deal. And if No Deal happens, it may well be precisely because of the proposal in the deal for full alignment: i.e, the backstop.
We apologise to our readers. The spectacle of Barnier astride his unicorn has distracted us from the end of the story we began. The Irish Government was straightaway on the blower after Schinas’s original remarks, and he was duly forced to issue a “clarification”. “The EU is determined to do all it can, deal or no deal, to avoid the need for a border and to protect peace in Northern Ireland. The EU is fully behind Ireland and has expressed, on numerous occasions, full solidarity with Ireland,” he then said, perhaps through gritted teeth.
But yesterday, James Crisp of the Daily Telegraph quizzed Schinas about Barnier’s remarks, making precisely the same point as we seek to do today. He writes: “I asked the commission why the backstop was needed at all if it is possible to carry out checks and controls without putting a hard border in place, as Mr Barnier suggested.” At which point, Schinas appears simply to have given up: “Write what you like”, he replied. Crisp has duly taken up the invitation.
We are about to find out, as the EU ponders Brexit, whether theology or politics will win out. If the former, the EU will make no move on the backstop, wait hopefully for a second referendum and revocation, and be inclined only to extend the deadline briefly, in the event of a request being received. If the latter, it will make a meaningful concession on the backstop, and May will then have a fighting chance of getting her deal through the Commons.
If the Government had paid Ireland proper attention; if Downing Street were better versed in Northern Ireland’s affairs; if DexEU had been more engaged with the island, and if the Northern Ireland Office had more collective expertise, we might not be where we are now. Number Ten would have spotted the significance of the backstop. It would have called in David Trimble and other veterans of the Belfast Agreement. It might have nipped the problem in the bud: instead, no-one is now in a position from which they want to back down.