Brexit backstop mirrors 18th century war of manoeuvre

London Letter: Brexiteers complain that Border talk is holding negotiations to ransom

President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, has said that Ireland has to be part of an Brexit deal.


When EU leaders meet in Brussels next week, they will focus on the two biggest preoccupations for 26 of the 28: migration and money, including the EU budget, euro reform and trade. Brexit, which is only a priority for Britain and Ireland, is expected to be disposed of in a matter of minutes and to take up just four paragraphs in the Council conclusions.

A draft text suggests that the leaders will call on “all member-states and all stakeholders to step up their work on preparedness at all levels and for all outcomes” – in other words, get ready for a no-deal Brexit.

Calling for more clarity from Britain on what kind of future relationship with the EU, the leaders will identify the impasse over the Border as a major obstacle in the negotiations.

“The European Council expresses its concern that no substantial progress has yet been achieved on agreeing a backstop solution for Ireland/Northern Ireland,” the draft text says.

The dispute over the backstop is seen as a problem on all sides, with Brexiteers complaining that the Border issue is holding the negotiations to ransom, while Irish politicians accuse the British government of seeking to wriggle out of its responsibilities. Meanwhile, the EU and Britain are proposing wildly different versions of the backstop, with Brussels insisting that it should apply only to Northern Ireland, while London insists it must extend across the whole of the UK.

Wars of manoeuvre

The battle over the backstop sometimes seems like one of the wars of manoeuvre in 18th century Europe, where armies used shock and disruption to incapacitate an enemy and shift the terrain of the fight. Napoleon’s conduct of such wars formed part of the inspiration for Carl von Clausewitz’s eight-volume On War, now chiefly remembered for the aphorism “war is the continuation of politics by other means”.

Unfortunately for Clausewitz, who died before his book was published, the phrase is misunderstood to mean that war takes up where diplomacy leaves off. In fact, he believed that war and diplomacy worked separately but in parallel and towards an identical objective. The function of military force was to shift the context in which diplomacy was conducted, to the advantage of one party.

Could the Border backstop shift the terrain on which the Brexit negotiations are taking place? And if so, to whose advantage?

The Border issue has already allowed Theresa May to move towards a creative interpretation of the red lines laid out in her Lancaster House speech last year, when she ruled out staying in the customs union, the single market and under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

But her backstop proposal would allow the whole of the UK to remain in the EU customs territory and she has promised more details on how to achieve regulatory alignment with the single market. In her Mansion House speech this year, she said that Britain would accept the jurisdiction of the ECJ over any EU agencies it remains part of after Brexit.

No cherry-picking

The EU’s deepest red line is that there should be no cherry-picking of the single market and that its four freedoms must remain indivisible. But EU officials admit openly that cherry-picking is precisely what they are offering Northern Ireland in their version of the backstop, which envisages sectoral access to the single market.

EU negotiators insist that such licence cannot be extended to the whole of the UK and they have warned from the beginning that Britain would seek to use Europe’s flexibility towards Ireland to win advantage in the broader negotiations.

After the summit, May will invite her ministers to her official country residence at Chequers to agree an approach to Britain’s future relationship with the EU. The outcome of that meeting will form the basis of a White Paper to be published in the week beginning July 9th, which is seen in both London and Brussels as the prime minister’s final opportunity to say what she wants from the negotiations.

Thanks in part to the dispute over the backstop, both sides have cast their red lines in a new light, a move that could open up a creative space in the negotiations. The question of who will win the advantage will then be decided, as Clausewitz said of war, in a trial of strength and a clash of wills.

“If we desire to defeat the enemy, we proportion our effort to his powers of resistance,” he wrote.

“This is expressed by the product of two factors which cannot be separated, namely, the sum of the available means and the strength of the will.”

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