Selling Brexit solution will be as tricky as figuring it out
EU technocrats struggling with compromise already dismissed by some as an option
A proposal may emerge from the negotiating “tunnel” where Northern Ireland still could remain fully part of the UK customs union. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP
Should the proposed Brexit compromise for the Border survive the scrutiny of EU technocrats wary of an untidy, highly complex, bespoke solution for Northern Ireland, selling the deal may become a high-risk political Rorschach test.
If it is a solution that achieves the same objectives of the Northern Ireland-only backstop so despised by Democratic Unionist Party MPs and hard Brexiteers, then they may not like what they see in the inkblot.
It all comes down to presentation and, of course, the appetite for compromise
Through other eyes, presenting the compromise as a chance for the whole of the UK to leave both the EU single market and the customs union, as Boris Johnson wants on October 31st – even in a post-Brexit customs arrangement administered out of London for Brussels – then the blot could be viewed favourably.
It all comes down to presentation and, of course, the appetite for compromise.
Even the early political reaction to the speculation around a potential deal that is still being worked on in secret in Brussels – as unequivocal as that reaction might on the surface appear – could be benignly interpreted.
DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said that a solution to avoid a new customs border involving Northern Irish businesses reclaiming the cost of EU tariffs “cannot work” and that “Northern Ireland must remain fully part of the UK customs union”.
Technically, a proposal may emerge from the negotiating “tunnel” where Northern Ireland still could remain fully part of the UK customs union so selling the solution may come down to convincing Dodds and other hard Brexit hold-outs it is a system that can work and it is not the backstop by another name.
It could be argued that Northern Ireland would legally remain part of the UK customs area but technically operate in a system that would keep the island of Ireland administered as part of the EU customs territory.
The rest of the EU will need to be satisfied that any plan will not lead to a leaky border into the single market
At a 17-day remove from Brexit Day, both sides are now in the business of bottom lines when it comes to solving the customs and consent conundrum that stands in the way of an exit agreement.
The complexity of making North-South alignment on EU single market rules a truly democratic decision for Northern Ireland and removing the North’s perennial opt-in clause, along with avoiding a hard Irish customs border while dividing the island between two customs unions, remains stuck in technical talks.
The European Commission released a terse holding statement that pointed to the scale of those challenges.
“A lot of work remains to be done,” said the commission after negotiator Michel Barnier briefed the EU27 ambassadors following “constructive technical-level talks” with the UK over the weekend.
The rest of the EU will need to be satisfied that any plan will not lead to a leaky border into the single market, though the noises from Brussels suggest that the technocrats are struggling to see how the solution could even work in practice.
It is looking unlikely that any deal will be agreed before EU leaders meet in Brussels next Thursday, resulting in an extension, either a short-term one for EU leaders to meet or a long-term one for the UK to exit.