Sunday 23 September 2018

How we got from celebration of December Brexit deal to fears that we are right back to square one

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and the North’s former First Minister Arlene Foster
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and the North’s former First Minister Arlene Foster
Colm Kelpie

Colm Kelpie

The deal struck in December was hailed as taking the threat of a hard Border off the table. But two months on, Europe's chief Brexit negotiator has reiterated that, if the UK doesn't change course, Border checks are inevitable. How have we got from there to now?

■ What the December agreement said:

The deal - agreed by the United Kingdom and European Union - had two specific paragraphs focused on the objective of avoiding a hard Border. The first envisages three scenarios.

The core objective is to avoid a hard Border through the new trading relationship between the UK and EU.

If this isn't possible, the UK will come up with specific, bespoke solutions.

A final fallback element, added at the request of the Irish Government, would involve the UK maintaining full alignment with the EU rules that are required to ensure that north/south co-operation in terms of trade, regulations and standards can continue, if the UK crashes out of the EU without agreement.

It was a political form of words that allowed for the breathing space required to move on to the next phase.

It was believed that the details of how it would work in practice would be dealt with then. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Foreign Minister Simon Coveney hailed the deal as politically "bullet proof" and "cast iron".

■ What is now being said:

Fast forward two months and the Border question remains unanswered, with just over a year to go until Brexit and with substantial disagreements over the make-up of the transition period.

Talks between the UK and EU on the future trading relationship have yet to take place, so it's not yet clear how a hard Border can be avoided.

European chief negotiator Michel Barnier was clear, though, that leaving the customs union and single market - as the UK continues to insist it wants to do - would make Border checks unavoidable.

He also said that no solutions had been brought forward by the British on the Border issue.

So that brings the fallback position of regulatory alignment into view.

Mr Barnier said that must now be enshrined in the legally binding Withdrawal Agreement, acting as an insurance policy of sorts to ensure that there was no hard Border.

Mr Barnier's comments on Border checks suggest, once again, that the only way to maintain a seamless Border is for either the whole of the UK, or the North, to effectively remain in both the customs union and single market, or at least mirror a number of EU rules.

Finding a solution that suits both sides is as far off as ever.

Irish Independent

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