It’s time for some statesmanship from Leo Varadkar

It’s time for some statesmanship from Leo Varadkar

The path to a negotiated Brexit deal is now broadly dependent on the statesmanship of one man.

The Prime Minister’s letter to the EU with a new Brexit offer has landed well in the UK with the support of the DUP, the ERG, Remain-supporting Tories, an important number of Labour MPs, even possibly some Liberal Democrat MPs. So there is a path to a parliamentary majority.

In the EU, there has been opposition from Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator, but as we now know from his own words, he is an EU imperialist for whom Brexit is an opportunity to acquire new territory on the fringe of his Empire. Hopefully he will remain on the fringe of EU thinking. Wiser EU heads, including Jean-Claude Juncker, Michel Barnier and Angela Merkel, seem to be making more constructive noises.

The key decision-maker now is the Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar. Does he recognise the concessions the UK has made and push forward to more serious negotiations in the tunnel? Or does he reject the offer and open the path to months or perhaps years more of uncertainty which will plague both the UK and Irish economies?

Unfortunately, the Remain lobby in the UK has made the latter path more tempting for him with their efforts to take away the threat of No Deal and so throw Prime Minister Johnson naked into the conference chamber. However, even with the ropes tied around Johnson’s wrists, a failure of the negotiations at this stage would carry significant uncertainty for both Ireland and the EU.

Mr Varadkar has said he is pleased with the concession that Boris Johnson has made in goods alignment, taking Northern Ireland a long way towards a full alignment with the Single Market.

Two major issues remain. First, Mr Varadkar is not comfortable with the DUP’s wish to remain part of the UK’s customs arrangements. If and when the UK negotiates differential tariff rates there is a risk of an increase in smuggling rates. Prosperity UK have written on this extensively. Three types of smuggling risks already exist on the Irish border: human smuggling, prohibited goods (like drugs, firearms etc) and restricted goods where there is already regulatory divergence on excise duties (e.g. alcohol tobacco, fuel, oil and gas). Adding the risk of tariff variance to this can surely not be a deal breaker. Is Mr Varadkar really worried about the undetected smuggling of cars across the border should the UK operate on a zero-tariff basis instead of the EU’s 10% wall?

As Tony Smith, former Head of both UK and Canadian border controls made clear at our recent Alternative Arrangements Commission conference in Dundalk, borders are no longer physical frontiers, they are a series of transactions. It is time to embrace the path of progress and technology.

If Mr Varadkar is not happy either with a time-limited backstop or with the facilitation provided by alternative arrangements, then the question that he has to answer is: is there any date or scenario for which you accept customs sovereignty for Northern Ireland ?

The other issue is the one of consent. Boris Johnson has engaged much more intensively with the DUP than Theresa May even began to, and the result is a proposal which grants Stormont consent on the way into the four-year alignment period and also every four years to its continuation.

This leaves the question of EU or Irish consent. A time-limited backstop would not appear to be sufficient for the EU as it theoretically allows the 2021-2025 arrangement to terminate without any EU sign-off on the alternative arrangements that have been put in place. This is why Prosperity UK developed a draft protocol for agreement by both sides on the conditions that need to be met. We understand that a protocol of this kind has been included in the UK proposal. This is the path to legal operability which the EU has requested. It should grant Leo Varadkar the protections he needs – and if it does not I am sure the UK would be open for negotiations in the tunnel.

As Boris Johnson said when he visited the Taoiseach in Dublin, this is a time for Statecraft. Let us hope he rises to the occasion.