Theresa May gets dose of buyer’s remorse but without returns policy on Border issue
British leader signed up to set of binding commitments
British prime minister Theresa May: with the publication of the EU’s draft withdrawal agreement, slow-moving chickens have come home to roost over Irish Border. Photograph: PA
There was always a strong suspicion back in December that British prime minister Theresa May was perhaps more interested in getting on to the next phase of Brexit talks than in the detail of what she was signing up to.
Maybe she didn’t realise, or, if she did, didn’t care, that her commitments to avoid a hard border were contradictory, or as some described them, a “fudge”.
Or maybe it was that British affection for the Belfast Agreement was perhaps being oversold?
Nevertheless, she signed up to a set of binding commitments that included the fallback option of a special deal for Northern Ireland that would mean customs posts down the Irish Sea. And now, with the publication of the EU’s draft withdrawal agreement, these slow-moving chickens have come home to roost.
We have now a serious case of buyers’ remorse, and there is no returns policy to fall back on. Dublin and the 27 are saying to her that she must deliver on her promises.
The rising clamour from Tory backbenches against the Belfast Agreement will also be causing serious concerns in Dublin.
Yesterday, moreover, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier explicitly for the first time confirmed unionists’ fears by admitting that, yes, if no future full trade deal with full-blown regulatory alignment can be agreed between the EU and the UK, then the “fallback” would come into play .
And there would have to be “controls” at Northern ports and airports on goods moving into Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, which Barnier insisted would not be a “border”.
To sugar the pill an EU official mentioned current controls on plant health as an example of treating Northern Ireland as being regulatory apart .
Both the UK and the EU hope it won’t come to this, but the truth is that the preferred border option one, a comprehensive free trade deal, remains pretty unlikely unless Jeremy Corbyn’s embrace of a customs union forces a Tory U-turn.
It is only referred to as an aspiration in the agreement, though Barnier has promised the “fallback” position will be abandoned if a better deal can eventually be achieved.
Closer examination of the detail of the regime proposed for the all-island “common regulatory area” will, one suspects, fuel unionist rage even further
And closer examination of the detail of the regime proposed for the all-island “common regulatory area” will, one suspects, fuel unionist rage even further. It has something of the joint administration qualities of the Belfast Agreement’s provisions, with the EU substituting for the Republic on the proposed joint committee that will oversee implementation.
And that implementation will be accountable to the EU’s legal institutions like the European Court of Justice and its anti-fraud unit, Olaf.
The EU 27 are adamant that the UK’s signing up to an agreed version of the withdrawal agreement is a prerequisite for progress on talks on the future relationship.
Ministers signed up to what Irish diplomats call a “no backsliding” clause back in December precisely to prevent agreed issues again becoming the subject of renegotiation.
And they will agree at the end of March to negotiating guidelines for the future relationship – trade talks – as long as they are assured “sufficient progress” is being made on the withdrawal agreement and the transition deal which is part of it.
That means that May has a couple of months at least to prevaricate over the Border and other disputed issues before the crunch comes and the DUP pulls the plug on her. Time perhaps for Corbyn to shift the parliamentary arithmetic.
But the crunch will come, at some stage before the autumn. And London will have to decide which horse to ride.