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Brexit - EU Affairs

The EU is politely but firmly calling Boris's bluff

In the era of fake news and spin-masters, the coverage of the Boris visit to Merkel and Macron by the Tory media in Britain should come as no surprise. Victory salutes and breakthroughs were trumpeted. Boris was accorded a triumph by the right-wing newspapers who were ardent supporters of Brexit.

But the truth is very different. If Macron and Merkel and afforded him a public cold shoulder, Johnson would have sold the outcome as an outrageous display of bloody-minded  intransigence on the part of the EU.

Instead, they chose to be courteous and polite. That may have shocked the pro-Brexit media in Britain. But it showed the wilyness of the EU leaders.

They gave Boris the task of showing how a controlled,hard border in Ireland can be avoided. They asked him to set out his proposals for a deal. they told him that he must do so well in advance of 31st October.

Interestingly, the capacity of the Tory media to see a triumph for Boris in this week's polite rebuff augurs well for his capacity to dress up any climb-down as a victory. That is reassuring in a way. They will not weaken him for fear of advancing the cause of Corbyn in any way. He has room to manoeuvre without risking accusations of weakness or capitulation.

In tennis terms, the  EU returned his serve with a light little fore-hand drop-shot that now has him running in towards the net to prevent him looking as a clumsy and incompetent loser.

His silly pre-condition that the backstop be removed before any deal can be negotiated was ignored and forgotten. And by spinning his "diplomacy" as a triumph, he has carefully side-stepped any domestic acknowledgment that his demand for the backstop to be taken away was politely blown away by the EU 27.

The EU is politely but firmly calling Boris's bluff.

He now faces, as his EU interlocutor, Michel Barnier who has a simple task -  to demand from the UK a clear and realistic alternative to the backstop that can be immediately implemented without border checks on the Irish land border or at channel ports.

That can't be done in 30 days. It can't be done in 100 days.

Any alternative to the May cabinet's version of a withdrawal agreement which leaves the Irish border open and the channel ports functioning without customs checks necessarily entails a transition period, no matter what technical solutions are proposed or accepted  - even in principle.

Boris knows that.

It follows that he must accept that he cannot leave the EU on 31st October unless he has agreed a transition period to implement any deal he has negotiated. That must entail regulatory alignment of some sort for the duration of the transition period.

The EU cannot accept that the single market becomes entirely porous pending the proposal, agreement and implementation of technical solution-based alternatives to regulatory alignment.

Although Angela Merkel's reference to a 30 day period must have caused momentary heart flutters in Iveagh House, the result is that Ireland has complete cover from any British charge of intransigence.

Ireland's position is identical with that of Paris and Berlin - "if you are committed to no hard border, you must demonstrate in short order how that is feasible and you must accept that it entails a transition period".

But if, by mid-September, Boris has publicly failed to show how a hard border can be avoided, he will be in a very difficult position.

I don't believe that his parliamentary opponents on the issue of a no-deal Brexit will conjure up an alternative government of national unity.

The most they can aspire to is some form of legislative prohibition of a no-deal exit involving a suspension of the Article 50 declaration until agreement on a withdrawal agreement has been reached. Whether that is possible is being studied behind the scenes at Westminster.

The 30 day "put up or shut up" period proposed by Merkel does not, as the Tory press claim, torpedo such an initiative. If a legislative prohibition is possible, it can be done in late September by which time it will have become obvious whether Boris has any alternative to the withdrawal agreement to whch he assented at the cabinet table.

I still believe that the most obvious solution is to offer the EU a special regulatory alignment for Northern Ireland which entails checks at the Irish sea.

Boris claims that such an arrangement somehow undermines the Good Friday Agreement and is undemocratic. That claim is nonsense. It was conjured up by David Trimble. The majority of people in Northern Irelnad do not object to special regulatory status to sustain an open border.

The DUP's hardline position is not the view of the majority of people in Northern Ireland, as opinion polls have shown. Nor is the DUP/ERG position that special regulatory staus for the North is a danger to the union accepted by ordinary voyers in the wider UK.

It is not necessary to end or qualify UK sovereignty in the North just because special regulatory arrangements can apply there to facilitate an open border. By entering into the Good Friday Agreement, the UK has already given special status to Northern Ireland.

Unlike Scotland or Wales, the right of a majority in Northern Ireland to secede from the UK is already acknowledged as part of the UK's unwritten constitutional order.

The DUP has in the past aspired to a corporation tax regime in the North to compare with the Republic. If Westminster was prepared to cede such rights to Stormont, it doesn't mean that the UK's sovereignty or integrity is thereby diminished.

If special corporation tax arrangements were to be established in the North, one might well imagine anti-evasion regulation of the movement of some goods or services across the Irish Sea. It really isn't a matter of high principle or profound constituional significance.

The same applies also to the DUP's insistence on the exclusion of Northern Ireland from the marriage equality and abortion laws operating in the rest of the UK.

I am confident that special regulatory alignment in support of an open land border would be supported by a majority in a Northern Ireland plebiscite on the matter - and even more confident that it would be supported in a UK-wide plebiscite if that were needed.

In short, the claim made by Boris Johnson in his letter to Donald Tusk that the  Good Friday Agreement would be undermined in an undemocratic way by any special regulatory alignment required for an open border is simply nonsense. There is no part of these islands where it would be a rejected by a majority of voters if they were consulted.

When we see newspaper headlines dealing with the possibility that an Irish Taoiseach might be afforded a phone call by a UK Prime Minister, it shows just how far the relations between Merrion Street and Downing Street have deteriorated.

I remember vividly the warm close and positive relationship that existed in the Blair-Ahern era. It was a genuine political friendship based on a commonality of interests. There was no stiffness. A problem for either country on the level of domestic, Northern Ireland, or European affairs was immediately and sympathetically considered by the other.

That relationship has steadily degraded under the Tories. I don't know whether any suggestion that recent Irish governments must share the blame has any substance. But I entirely agree that everything must be done to repair and rekindle the relationship.

I do not think that the Irish government has been belligerent or insensitive; I feel that we have done the minimum to stop Ireland - North and South -being thrown under the ideological bus that was - and is - Brexit.

Finally, there is the problem of Jeremy Corbyn. His mere presence as leader of the Labour party has allowed the Tories to behave as they have to each other and to the rest of us.

A huge responsibility rests on the shoulders of those blithering idiots who signed his leadership nomination papers while wholly opposed to his policies. They share the blame with the weak-minded Cameron who held a Brexit referendum against his own beliefs.

Actions, as we all know to our regret, have consequences.






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