Toxic language is defining the attempt to reach a Brexit deal

The UK worries about being “trapped” in a backstop – but can’t present an alternative

Toxic language is defining the Brexit debate. It is turning an intensely complex and complicated subject into something being argued over emotionally, certainly in the UK.

As the negotiators fly from London to Brussels they are being sent on a mission impossible to achieve an ill-defined and contradictory set of objectives. To ensure " Brexit means Brexit". To negotiate the oxymoron that would be a "time-limited backstop".

They met EU officials ready to help – to an extent – but baffled by the lack of engagement about the details of what are really technical and tricky issues.

The UK attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, is the latest to be called into action, a lawyer sent to do a politician's work, with a goal of ensuring the UK is not "trapped in the backstop".

Here is the latest pejorative phrase which immediately turns the complicated effort to marry Brexit with the avoidance of a hard Irish border into an imposition from which the UK wants to be able to escape.

It ignores the big concession last year from the EU which agreed to allow all of the UK to remain in a basic customs union with the EU after Brexit if required to avoid a hard Irish border.

You could present this as allowing the UK to have favourable access to EU markets after Brexit. Many other countries would be delighted to get this kind of arrangement. At very least it would provide the UK with a useful card in future trade talks with the EU.

But, no, it is a “trap”which the evil EU must not be allowed to spring.

Free to diverge

One way forward, as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and EU negotiator Michel Barnier both pointed out on Friday, would be to go back to the original backstop plan. This had the North aligned to EU customs and regulatory rules – to avoid the need for border checks – with the rest of the UK free to diverge.

This could offer the North a unique position as a kind of special zone free to sell into the EU and UK, with the small price being some checks on goods crossing from the UK and, yes, some rule-setting from Brussels.

An economic opportunity?

No. Despite wider public support for this in the North, as shown in the latest Irish Times poll, it is presented by the DUP and the Brexit lobby as a “border down the Irish Sea” and as “breaking up the union”.

It is all part of the delusion of Brexit, the big sell that the UK could leave the EU, still retain access to European markets, and at the same time be free to do its own trade deals around the world.

The idea of a new “global Britain”. The concept that in an intricately connected world you can somehow “take back control of our borders, money and laws while protecting our economy, security and union”.

This unwillingness to move the UK debate from this emotionally-driven language to the dull and complicated reality of a damage-limitation exercise has brought us to this extraordinary point. Just 21 days before the Brexit date, we have no idea what is going to happen.

Trade rules

It is a deeply uncertain and dangerous situation. To take one example, businesses in the UK – and Irish exporters – have not been told what trade rules the UK will apply if it leaves without a deal. This is the kind of stuff usually negotiated over years.

There are goods already on boats from the Far East to the UK, and it is not clear what tariffs they might face when they land.

To suggest that a new trade regime can be introduced at a few weeks’ notice, over one weekend, is insanity. If it happens – at the end of March or a few months later – it would trigger a period of major risk for the UK, its economy and its politics. So much for a “ Brexit dividend”.

It is this threat which could at some stage lead to the House of Commons approving the withdrawal agreement, but there is no sign yet of a breakthrough which will allow it to do so.

As this plays out into next week, keep watching the language. The withdrawal agreement may be voted down again on Tuesday. May’s prospects would then depend in part on how heavyily it was defeated . Then MPs will be asked to vote first on their view on a no-deal exit, and then on whether they want an extension to article 50.

But here again we are back to the language and to the enduring view in UK politics that this is all about them.

The no-deal vote will be presented as “taking no-deal off the table”. The second vote – in favour of an extension – as “removing the risk of a cliff-edge exit”.

Yet under EU rules a no-deal exit can only be ruled out if some other way forward is agreed. And an extension of article 50 needs to be agreed unanimously by the 27 other EU members, who will not want to do so just to allow more time for pointless discussions. And here the context in British politics will be important. Will, for example, there be a move by a sufficient number of MPs to try to gain control and move to a softer form of Brexit?


Interestingly, there are increased mutterings among EU politicians about the need now to just get on with it, and an expectation that a no-deal could be handled on their side – albeit painfully. Even businesses are saying that clarity, above all else, is what is now needed.

Many in Europe reckon that the UK would be forced to restart talks quickly such would be the economic pain. However, having left the EU these talks would recommence on a different basis.

Trying to forecast what will happen here is pointless, but the mood heading into this weekend is poor. Technical talks will continue over the weekend and there may be some political action moving into next week. This one could go the distance right up to the EU summit just a week before Brexit is due to happen

The two sides now look worryingly far apart. A couple of weeks of extraordinary drama are in prospect.