The saying goes that when you’re up to your waist in alligators, it’s difficult to remember that your original objective was to drain the swamp. And much of the discussion around the infamous backstop shows similar signs of amnesia.
The original objective of the backstop was to ensure that the conditions under which the Good Friday Agreement were made – where the border between the UK and the Republic of Ireland became to all intents and purposes non-existent – were retained into the indefinite future. The chosen method of doing that (chosen more by default than design, because no-one has been able to devise a better one) was for either Northern Ireland or else the whole of the UK to remain for the time being in the Customs Union and aligned with the Single Market until such a time as a new comprehensive trade deal could be negotiated which achieved the same thing. So far, so reasonable; but the problem with that, from the point of view of the Brexiteers, is that there is no deal on future relationships with the EU which is both acceptable to them and avoids the need for a border. The result is that all the time and attention of those who don’t like the backstop has been focussed on finding technical means of keeping the hard border at a low level of visibility rather than on avoiding the need for a border at all, as this report from the House of Commons shows. This has nothing to do with the original objective and is all about fighting off the alligators. A hard border is the inevitable consequence of any sort of Brexit which allows both regulatory divergence and the negotiation of inferior trade deals, both of which are key objectives of the Brexiteers.
Before the humiliating defeat of the PM in parliament yesterday, there was some discussion around the ‘unilateral declaration’ made by the PM, which was one of the five documents considered by parliament before taking the vote. It’s a document which the lawyers can argue over – if it’s unilateral, it has no real status say some, whilst others argue that if the EU haven’t explicitly rejected it, then they have implicitly accepted it which gives it some sort of legal status. Let the lawyers argue – I’m more interested in the content, and after reading it, wondered how it actually changes anything. The ‘agreed’ backstop basically says that the UK will remain part of the Customs Union until both sides agree a mutually acceptable deal; the unilateral declaration basically says that the UK reserves the right to unilaterally withdraw from the customs union “under the proviso that the UK will uphold its obligations under the 1998 Agreement in all its dimensions and under all circumstances and to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland”. I’m not sure that there is actually a huge amount of difference between the two positions – in either case, the UK is committed to ensuring no hard border.
As the Commons report shows, however, it’s a commitment which the UK government has absolutely no intention of honouring; all discussion of alternatives has revolved around how to make a hard border not look like a hard border – by minimising the infrastructure, using clever technology, and doing the border checks away from the border. None of this honours the spirit of either the ‘agreement’ which the PM made or the promises made repeatedly over many months. And I doubt that it even honours the letter of the 1998 agreement, let alone the spirit. In essence, the Anglo-British not-nationalists-at-all of the UK Government – to say nothing of its hard line Brexiteers – continue to operate on the basis of an assumption that they are in no way obliged to honour agreements made previously. Why the EU even bothers to negotiate with people taking that view is one of life’s great mysteries.
We saw a classic example of that today, with the twin announcements that, in the event of a no deal Brexit, the UK will slash tariffs on 87% of imports, and at the same time will not impose any restrictions on border crossings in Ireland. Of course, a country which opens its gates to imports from anywhere in the world doesn’t need border controls at all; if it’s happy to see its home-produced goods undercut by cheap imports it can do so. The need for border controls arises in those countries which have higher tariffs and higher standards – an open border between a customs territory with zero tariffs and low standards and a country (or customs territory) with higher tariffs and high standards works for only one of the two territories. The desire to have different tariffs and different regulations is precisely what leads to the requirement for a hard order in the first place. It looked to me like a clumsy and arrogant attempt to force the EU and the Republic of Ireland to say that they will have no alternative but to introduce border controls if the UK pursues such aggressive and provocative policies. Just another part of the blame game – the inevitable consequences of Brexit are the fault of everyone except those who demand it.