Tuesday 17 September 2019

John Downing: 'Brexit 'fudge' is almost set - but will London find it edible at last?'


Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and British Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and British Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images
John Downing

John Downing

It has been all about giving Northern Ireland some special status without making it look like the North was exiting the EU on different terms to England, Scotland or Wales. That is how things remain. There might be a special EU summit later this month, possibly on November 21, depending on how London reacts to the latest development.

There is a very strong chance, however, that the EU's great tradition in fudge-making will continue. A compromise may be found in the home of the political compromise, Brussels.

The question remains, as it has been for many months; can Theresa May sell this deal in London? Otherwise put, will this Brussels fudge be edible on the other side of the English Channel.

The tentatively emerging compromise plan for Northern Ireland would give the UK stronger guarantees that a customs border will not be required on the Irish Sea. That of itself might allay the fears of the Democratic Unionist Party who are propping up Mrs May's minority government.

But we are still left with the misgivings of the ultra-Brexiteers in England who will ask: Why leave the EU at all so?

In Dublin, officials appear happy that it will not interfere with the guarantee on the so-called 'Backstop' agreed last December. In essence this says that, unless a proper EU-UK post-Brexit trade deal is cut, the North will stay inside the customs union and mirror single market product standards.

Result: no return of border checks in Ireland. If the new emerging deal stacks up, all the better for the Republic - the backstop will not be needed. That is how it was hoped things would always pan out.

In this latest mooted concession to London, the EU would offer an all-UK customs union in Britain's exit agreement. This would avoid the need to negotiate a second EU-UK customs treaty after Brexit.

These temporary measures would remain in place for a number of years until a permanent UK-EU trade agreement post Brexit is agreed. Brexit is set to kick in on March 29 next year, but a transition period during which nothing will change is fixed until December 2020, or possibly for another 12 months beyond that until end 2021.

Negotiators for Mrs May are expected to indicate next week whether they are open to the compromise. That will decide whether the EU will call a special Brexit summit for later this month.

This new compromise appears to give Mrs May some legal certainty that Britain could not be forced to accept a customs border with Northern Ireland. But the numerous potential objections are clear.

Some ultra-Brexiteer government ministers fear the UK being trapped in an open-ended EU customs union. Among remaining EU member states, there are concerns about the absence of a "level playing field" with the UK appearing to get EU market access benefits without its obligations.

There will be talks on restrictions governing on state aid, taxation, labour and environmental standards. There will be concerns about access to fishing grounds around the UK, which will also interest Irish fishermen.

Irish Independent

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