It’s been an ill-tempered week so far in the Brexit negotiations, but at least it has made the EU’s position on Northern Ireland clearer.
Previously, the European Commission portrayed its ‘backstop’ plan for the Irish border as an ‘insurance policy’ that would apply only if the two sides failed to agree ‘alternative arrangements’ during subsequent trade talks. EU negotiators were keen to reassure unionists that they didn’t intend to use provisions contained in the ‘Northern Ireland protocol’.
When Theresa May was still trying to guide her Withdrawal Agreement through parliament, she produced a ‘joint instrument’ with the commission’s president, Jean-Claude Juncker, that promised rapid negotiations on “comprehensive customs cooperation arrangements, facilitative arrangements and technologies”. The prospect of this ‘customs track’ was supposed to prove to sceptical MPs that the EU was prepared to work with the UK to develop an electronic customs border in Ireland that would be seamless and unobtrusive.
The Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox, advised that the text didn’t change the legal risk of Britain becoming trapped in the backstop – an assessment that ensured the government lost the ‘second meaningful vote’ on Mrs May’s deal – but he hinted that it was likely the EU would eventually agree to alternative arrangements.
It now looks like he was wrong to assume any good faith on the commission’s part. The pretext that the backstop is viewed in Brussels and Dublin as anything other than a permanent lock, to keep Northern Ireland in the single market and customs union, has been all but dropped. Leo Varadkar rules out an Irish customs border in principle and, according to No.10, Angela Merkel says Ulster must remain completely aligned with the EU ‘forever’.
None of this is surprising and it is consistent with the statements and arguments Brussels has used since at least November 2017. Now, though, the language is balder, and many of the things that were unspoken are being stated openly.
Yesterday, The Times reported that the EU was ready to make a ‘vital concession’ to resolve the backstop impasse. Its offer supposedly comprises Northern Ireland staying in the customs union and single market until a ‘double majority’ in the Stormont Assembly decides otherwise. That means the province would be divided politically and economically from the rest of the UK until both a majority of unionists and a majority of nationalists vote for a different arrangement.
If the report is accurate, the EU’s ‘concession’ was an extension of Angela Merkel’s alleged remark that “the UK cannot leave without leaving Northern Ireland behind in a customs union and in full alignment forever”. By definition, Irish nationalists believe that the same economic and political arrangements should govern the whole island of Ireland. It’s absurd to suggest that they would consider restoring links with Great Britain at the expense of ties with the Republic.
Superficially, you might claim that similar arguments apply to any unionist veto on single market alignment. That was supposed to be one of the Irish Republic’s chief objections to Boris Johnson’s proposed backstop replacement. Those concerns were not entirely unfounded, but the two situations are not the same.
There is already a mechanism that allows Northern Ireland to align with the Republic (and the EU) rather than Great Britain. It’s called a border poll and, along with the principle of consent, it’s one of the central planks of the Belfast Agreement. If voters in the province choose an all-island state, with all the economic and political consequences it involves, then there is a route available to that outcome via the ballot box.
The EU’s proposal provides no equivalent path for Northern Ireland to get back to the UK internal market, once Great Britain diverges from the single market. There would be an Irish nationalist veto protecting Irish nationalist aspirations that no unionist mandate could ever displace. The principle of consent, which determines that “the present wish of a majority of the people in Northern Ireland, freely exercised and legitimate, is to maintain the Union, and … that it would be wrong to make any change in the status of Northern Ireland save with the consent of a majority of its people,” would be shredded forever.
It’s a pungent irony that the Dublin government and the EU continue to pose as defenders of the Good Friday Agreement against the threats supposedly posed to it by unionists and the British prime minister. They’ve consistently ignored the protections the document provides for Northern Ireland’s place in the UK. If you accept that the Union with Great Britain rests on a democratic mandate provided by its people, it’s an outrage to maintain that you have a right to drive an economic and political border down the Irish Sea.
According to the source that leaked the contents of Angela Merkel’s conversation with Boris Johnson, their chat provided a ‘clarifying moment’ on the EU’s approach to negotiations.
And we don’t have to rely on that disputed account of the German Chancellor’s remarks. It’s increasingly obvious that the backstop is not an ‘insurance policy’ in case things go badly. It’s a plan to tie Northern Ireland to the EU in perpetuity and Brussels intends to make sure that unionists have no way out.