The Telegraph: Drop backstop for a free-trade agreement

The 320-mile land border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic runs through towns, along rivers and even divides individual farms. Most of the 270 or so crossing points are marked, if at all, by a simple sign or white line on the road.

“The hard-won peace in Northern Ireland is built around this seamless border,” says Theresa May – and she’s right. Since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the military sentry posts and border checks of “The Troubles” have gone. Nobody wants them back.

Yet the vexed Irish border question now dominates British politics. Having overshadowed the Article 50 process for months, this issue last week halted Brexit – and could yet reverse it. “It’s clear,” said May in the Commons, postponing the vote on her proposals, “that while there is broad support for many of the key aspects of the deal, on one issue – the Northern Ireland backstop – there remains widespread and deep concern.”

In a recent Spectator article, I argued the UK’s ghastly Brexit impasse is due to “a combination of home-grown shortcomings: weak leadership, venal party politics, anti-democratic mandarins and an overwhelmingly Remain-supporting political and media class”. I added that “a mighty contribution … has come from Dublin”.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar “has over-played his hand”, I argued, “teaming up with Brussels to adopt a maximalist, ultra-legalistic approach to the Irish border”. The significant UK-Irish trading relationship, on top of our intertwined cultural and family ties, means Ireland has much to gain, more than any EU27 country in relative terms, from a UK-EU free trade agreement. But “by asserting the ‘impossibility’ of avoiding ‘a hard border’ after Brexit”, I wrote, “Varadkar has made such a deal less likely, acting against his country’s economic interests”. My article provoked a highly critical letter from the Irish embassy in London – denying my assertion that, since becoming Taoiseach in June 2017, Varadkar’s approach has been far more hardline than that of his predecessor Enda Kenny. Yet that’s just a statement of fact.

Kenny’s well-documented instinct was to find a negotiated solution. Soon after the June 2016 referendum, UK and Irish civil servants set to work, examining Authorised Economic Operator (AEO) and trusted trader schemes to cope with cross-border trade flows, which, while important to local communities, are rather small.

On taking office, Varadkar instantly disbanded these working groups, ordering an end to direct UK-Irish collaboration. “The shutters have come down in Dublin,” one senior mandarin told me at the time. In November 2017, Varadkar then dramatically upped the stakes, demanding Britain sign a “backstop” – making it impossible to leave the EU’s customs union unilaterally, while drawing a border down the Irish Sea.

Varadkar’s poll ratings improved – there are votes in hammering the Brits. As the leader of a minority Fine Gael government, he needs all the support he can get. But having gone in so hard at the outset, Varadkar has since been pressured by Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil to turn the screw even more. And now, just when negotiation is needed, this inexperienced Taoiseach has no domestic room for manoeuvre. Showing flexibility, loosening the backstop to avoid “no deal”, would be entirely in Ireland’s best interest. But doing so would see Varadkar suffer an almighty loss of face.

In reality, this “backstop” issue has been cooked up by Dublin and Brussels to derail Brexit and keep the UK in the customs union. Why? One reason is UK consumers and businesses then keep paying the Common External Tariff on imports from outside the EU, sending 80pc of such revenues, billions annually, directly to Brussels.

Another is that, inside the customs union, London can’t cut bespoke trade deals, suiting British rather than French or German interests, with the rest of the world – particularly the fast-growing Asian giants. The UK’s business nous and global connections mean it would thrive outside the customs union, encouraging others to leave the EU’s protectionist bloc. Brussels knows it, which is why the Eurocrats must keep us in.

I fully understand, of course, that sectarian sensitivities remain very real with regard to the Irish border. They could easily be inflamed if, post-Brexit, new customs posts or other new infrastructure appears on what has, in recent years, thankfully become an almost invisible frontier.

But technological and other solutions can solve this problem. The existing largely virtual border already copes with different currencies, excise duties, VAT rates, income and corporation tax. There is no reason minor trading rule variations can’t also be managed, variations which would be even smaller if the UK and EU got beyond this backstop nonsense and negotiated a free-trade agreement.

I’ve previously cited customs specialists who’ve confirmed the Irish border issue is “fictitious”. Such testimony has been heard by numerous select committees but – surprise, surprise – been barely reported.

The Irish embassy says such experts are “not familiar with the specifics of the Irish border”, even though they are. I think we can also assume Niall Cody, who runs Ireland’s tax system, is also “familiar” with the Irish border. In May 2017, he was “almost 100pc certain” there was no need for Irish border posts if Britain left the single market and customs union, highlighting the suitability of AEO schemes and behind-the-border checks. Since Varadkar took office, Dublin’s tax officials have changed their tune.

The WTO, visiting Ireland last month in a bid to impose some common sense, confirmed no new border infrastructure is needed. But common sense has long ceased to matter. Even the backstop text itself concedes “facilitative arrangements and technologies will be considered” to develop “alternative arrangements for ensuring the absence of a hard border on the island of Ireland on a permanent footing”.

Such arrangements can be made, then, but apparently only after the UK has signed a cul-de-sac agreement, with from which it can only escape by making endless additional concessions – in the form, no doubt, of freedom of movement, fishing rights and yet more cash. The Irish embassy and others assert the backstop protects the Good Friday Agreement. This is the most dangerous untruth of all. For by changing the constitutional status of Northern Ireland without its consent, this egregious and entirely unjustified protocol imperils not only that landmark 1998 settlement but also the precious progress since made in UK-Irish relations.

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