The realisation that no-deal Brexit leads to Backstop 2.0 is setting in, writes Peter Foster from London
It has been a feature of the Brexit process that the British side has often been so consumed with its own internal political wrangling that often it seems barely to notice what is happening on the other side of the Channel.
This week Westminster will again be ablaze with Tory party leadership plots and factional in-fighting over competing flavours of Brexit – but at the same time the European side will continue to get its ducks in a row for whatever comes next.
The crux of that conversation is how to manage the Irish Border in the event of a ‘no deal’ – which is why Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron will this week hold face-to-face meetings with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.
Varadkar will travel to Paris for talks with the French president on Tuesday, while on Thursday the German chancellor will make her first visit to Ireland since 2014.
Anyone in the UK who assumes that a no-deal Brexit is now off the table, should ask themselves why Europe’s two most powerful leaders are both making time in their schedules for Leo Varadkar in the same week?
Europe has no appetite for a no-deal Brexit – but equally Europe has fast-diminishing confidence that a moribund British political system will actually be able to prevent it happening.
To do so, the British government now has just 10 days to translate the House of Commons’ clear 160-400 vote against a ‘no deal’ into a commitment to holding EU elections during May, and a plan which – to quote Leo Varadkar last week – should “fundamentally reconsider” the UK’s approach to Brexit.
It is rising concern that a ‘no deal’ might sooner or later become unavoidable that leads Europe’s two big political beasts to Leo Varadkar’s door to seek clarity on how the Border in Ireland would be managed.
Because a ‘no deal’ presents the European Union with a political trilemma – balancing the need to show solidarity with Ireland, while supporting the Good Friday Agreement and ‘no hard border’, and protecting the integrity of the EU single market.
The British side has already said unilaterally that it will hold no checks on goods flowing from the Republic northwards across the Border, producing what has been condemned both in Brussels (and among Northern Irish business leaders) as a “smugglers’ charter”.
But what will Europe do for goods flowing the other way? Where will it set the cursor for checks and controls? And how ready is Leo Varadkar for the political fallout from the re-establishment of the Border in Ireland?
For many months now, Dublin has simply ducked these questions (and the ‘no deal’ preparation paper last December ignored them entirely), but as became clear on the fringes of last month’s European Council, that is no longer possible.
EU members states – who care more passionately about the integrity of the EU Single Market than many in the UK would suppose – want to know how Ireland will actually manage that external frontier if it comes to a ‘no deal’.
The EU talks warmly in terms of solidarity towards Ireland – but, as so often with the Europe Union when it comes down to it, the position is steelier than it looks.
Varadkar is himself suspended on the horns of a dilemma, needing to be both a ‘good European’ standing sentinel over the Single Market, while at the same time fighting to minimise the return of a border that, from a trade perspective, will belong to Brussels.
He says that it will not be a “a hard border, with physical infrastructure, checks. It’s not going to be that” – but listen carefully and that is at odds with the position of the European Commission.
As Michel Barnier told the European Parliament last week, “there are going to have to be checks carried out somewhere”, and in the case of animals and food products, such as milk, which criss-cross the border, there are clear limits as to how unobtrusive these checks can be.
As one senior EU official says, “‘no deal’ is how to avoid a border ‘as far as possible’” – not a commitment to no border at all. Everything else you hear this week, as one UK official working on the border puts it, is “window-dressing” designed to save Varadkar’s blushes.
In the event, perhaps this new border will only survive a matter of months, since the UK has itself acknowledged that its own smugglers’ charter is “strictly temporary” and that it would “urgently” open discussions with the European Commission and the Irish Government.
Which is where the EU and Dublin can perhaps find solidarity – solving that trilemma by determining jointly to refuse to deal with the British in a ‘no deal’ world unless London first agrees to terms on money, citizens’ rights and the Irish Border.
In short, a no deal leads straight to backstop 2.0. And the checks on the Border would only help to press the European Union case that a backstop-type arrangement is inevitable in order to avoid a border.
As one senior EU official put it rather chillingly: “A ‘no deal’ Brexit will show the beauty of the backstop to everyone.”