Sunday 20 October 2019

John Downing: 'Real case of déjà-vu as talks on backstop circle around to where we were months ago'


British Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Christopher Furlong/PA Wire
British Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Christopher Furlong/PA Wire
John Downing

John Downing

If this seems familiar it is because we have been - bar the odd detail - around this circle before.

In the heart of Brexitland, in the north England fishing port of Grimsby, Theresa May demanded "one last push" from the EU to help her EU-UK Brexit deal over the line next Tuesday. She warned her belligerent party colleagues to back her tweaked Brexit deal or risk losing the entire business to delay.

Later in the afternoon, the EU's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, took to Twitter to offer his version of "the last push". Britain can have a "unilateral exit" from the controversial backstop plan.

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The Barnier offer is aimed at definitively showing London that there will be no attempt to keep Britain, against its will, inside the EU customs union after Brexit happens. Mr Barnier's offer is to be legally binding and is of itself a considerable and wise concession in what was becoming an absurdly false row. But it is also not enough.

The good news for Leo Varadkar is that the backstop would still apply to Northern Ireland, meaning no return of the north-south Border. There is bad news for Theresa May, because she is stuck again with the DUP, which props up her government, and which will not wear it on the grounds that it amounts to the North leaving the EU on terms different to England, Scotland and Wales.

The plan would keep the North, like the rest of Ireland, inside the customs union for purposes of tariffs, and also close to EU single market product standards.

The ironic and circular nature of events is that the EU never wanted to extend continued customs union membership for all of the UK, as both teams of negotiators slugged it out over two intense withdrawal talks.

Brussels finally relented only in the run-up to a crucial EU leaders' summit on November 25 - at Mrs May's insistence. Now that she cannot get necessary ratification for the deal she made, she is obliged to insist on reversing all of this.

The circles continue to turn and Mrs May looks set for another signal defeat in a second House of Commons vote on her deal next Tuesday. Last time, on January 15, she lost by a whopping 202 votes.

The timing of Mr Barnier publicising his offer suggests the EU side already believes this second vote cannot be won. A "result" next week might be keeping defeat under 100 votes, and hoping she might somehow struggle on and further cut the margin, bundling things over the line in a third vote.

If Tuesday's vote ends in hefty defeat, the MPs are due to vote on Wednesday to remove the possibility of leaving at the end of the month without a deal. There is every chance this vote could succeed - much to the relief of everyone in Ireland.

That in turn is expected to lead to a vote on Thursday to agree that the London government needs to seek an extension beyond March 29.

The EU is likely to grant an extension - but unanimous backing is needed from the other 27 member states and some governments will want to know what London's plans are. Watch for some considerable political gaming next week in the House of Commons, especially in the two later votes, with a host of amendments being tried.

The events also raise questions about Mrs May's future and the stability of her government.

Taking what positives we can from this tangle of awfulness, we can strike three more upbeat notes. One is that a no-deal crash-out in 20 days - while not definitively ruled out - is less likely. Second, is that the possibility of a new referendum slowly grows. That referendum is far from guaranteed and its outcome uncertain. The third positive is the growing chance of a cross-party move for a soft Brexit.

Irish Independent

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