May’s Belfast Speech is another step on the wrong road to Brexit

May’s Belfast Speech is another step on the wrong road to Brexit

Theresa May was in Belfast today to make a speech reinforcing her position that the UK will not accept a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK as part of any deal with the EU. After a tacit admission that the Chequers proposal has significantly “evolved” her own position, she called on the EU to “evolve their position in kind” and “not simply to fall back onto previous positions which have already been proved unworkable.”

Of course, the EU had already undermined their own hardline position on the border earlier this week when Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar revealed that Jean-Claude Juncker and the EU had told him “on many occasions” that physical infrastructure and customs checks would not be required on the border even in the so-called “doomsday scenario” of no deal.

Given that the UK, Ireland and the EU have all committed to no hard border even in the event that nothing is agreed whatsoever, the logic that a “backstop” is required is wholly redundant. The fact that the EU has promised Ireland this necessarily means that they have already worked out a genuine backstop – and one that doesn’t involve annexing Northern Ireland or forcing vassalage on the whole UK. If the EU had any sincere concern for the stability of Northern Ireland they would be sharing their plans for a genuine no deal backstop instead of continuing to play brinkmanship and ramping up tensions.

However, a sterling example of how not to engage in brinkmanship came from Varadkar himself this week, as he succeeded in soaring to new heights on the pettiness scale by threatening to close Irish airspace to British planes in the event of a “hard” Brexit on Wednesday. The extent of his statecraft was on full display as he declared “you can’t take back your waters and then expect to take back other people’s sky.” Is the logic of this to stop British planes from catching Irish birds as revenge for Irish fishermen no longer being able to catch British fish?

Leaving aside the fact that it would put Ireland in breach of the first freedom (of overflight) of the Convention on International Civil Aviation which it has been a signatory to since 1957, his threat backfired spectacularly as it emerged that the Republic of Ireland is entirely surrounded by airspace regions under the remit of UK air traffic control. Varadkar is not going to put himself in a position where he is forced to take a boat to European Council summits in Brussels post-Brexit, only to be told that the EU taking away Ireland’s low corporation tax rate anyway.

But joking aside, it is startling that one ally has threatened to close its airspace to another’s civilian aircraft, something which hasn’t even happened during times of war on certain occasions, and it could have stark implications for the geopolitical stability of Europe, as Professor Tom Gallagher wrote on BrexitCentral today.

After these missteps from Varadkar, the stage was set for the UK to take advantage of the incoherence in the EU’s position as well as Varadkar’s hopelessly naive attempts to overplay his hand. Instead, the Belfast Speech entirely squandered the opportunity to get on the front foot strategically over the Irish border issue.

What the speech did do was to firmly dispel any¬†illusions that Brexiteers may have had that May was going to change course from her Chequers plan and Brexit White Paper. May launched into a lengthy defence of her common rulebook plan, while rejecting outright any sort of Canada-plus style Free Trade Agreement with the EU of the kind that the Department for Exiting the European Union had prepared prior to David Davis’ resignation.

She also parroted the Remainer refrain about no equivalent technological solution for the border having been designed yet anywhere in the world, implying that the “unique and highly sensitive context” of Northern Ireland made it impossible to try. This is a fatuous reversal of the logic around the border – the very reason why an unprecedented technological approach was proposed in the first place is precisely because of the unique and highly sensitive context of the Irish border.

Even more worryingly, she dismissed any notion that she would try to call the EU’s bluff if they refused to come to a sensible agreement, thereby undermining the entire strategic rationale of her speech:

Some argue that the right approach is for the UK to declare that we will not impose any checks at the border after we have left. If the EU required the Irish Government to introduce checks, the blame would lie with them. As I said at Mansion House, this is wrong on two levels…

Of course, no-one wants a situation where the border arrangements aren’t well-defined, even though all sides have made clear that there wouldn’t be a hard border under any eventuality. But by backing down from her unilateral position, May has removed any incentive for the EU to back down from its own entrenched position and come to a sensible deal. It is another needless blunder in a negotiation that has already seen far too many.

Michel Barnier’s press conference a couple of hours later in Brussels was the final nail in the coffin for the myth that the Chequers will be¬†the end of the road in terms of concessions from May’s Government. While Barnier superficially adopted a constructive tone, as he was expected to do to avoid putting too much pressure on May domestically, the long list of (rhetorical) questions he rattled off about the workability of numerous key components of the Chequers plan made his position clear. He stressed that he would not be negotiating on the basis of the White Paper but on the basis of the European Council’s Guidelines, while dogmatically repeating the EU’s doctrine of the indivisibility of the single market.

EU diplomats have privately made clear that they do not see the Chequers plan as a serious basis for negotiation at all. Instead, the Chequers plan appears to be viewed in Brussels principally as a domestic political exercise in the UK for May to face down Brexiteer opposition en route to a significantly softer Brexit yet. The four Brexiteer amendments to the Customs Bill which the Government accepted on Monday do little to affect the substance of May’s Chequers plan, nor indeed to prevent her from softening her position further.

Neither was there any movement from Barnier on the backstop. As had been reported before his press conference, Barnier’s approach was to try to “de-dramatise” his version of the Irish backstop by claiming that the border it would create between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK would amount to nothing more than a few “checks on goods”.

This is an olive branch covered entirely in thorns. It changes nothing of the substance of his proposal, which is that Northern Ireland will be in a fundamentally different jurisdiction and customs territory from the rest of the UK. As Barnier glibly protested, “We have never wanted to create a border in the Irish Sea, but…”

The UK’s resolve has been so flimsy that it is now the European Commission – at Martin Selmayr’s direction – which is taunting the UK about a potential no deal outcome, rather than the other way round, as it was at the outset of the negotiations. It has been obvious for months that May will do everything within her power to avert a no deal outcome, but at the same time, it is nonetheless an outcome that the EU is also very determined to avoid.

May should be paying attention to the one question that got Michel Barnier flustered at the press conference, when he was challenged over whether – given the self-evident difficulty of agreeing an Irish backstop – he would really force a no deal outcome in March 2019 rather than do a deal on everything apart from the Irish backstop, and then use the extra 21 months of the transition period to resolve it. As Barnier himself said, only 20% of the Withdrawal Agreement remained to be negotiated, the majority of which was issues related to the Irish border. And obviously, if there is no deal, then there is no backstop.

If the UK’s negotiators had any shreds of strategic nous remaining, they would be jumping headfirst on the opportunity to call Barnier’s bluff on this. Were the negotiations to reach March 28, 2019, and the entire Withdrawal Agreement was agreed with the exception of the Irish backstop protocol, it is inconceivable that the EU would tear up everything else that had been agreed – including billions of euros of British cash from the financial settlement – instead of compromising on the timing of agreeing the backstop. Varadkar too would be forced to come down from the brink as his endless posturing finally collided with the cold reality that a no deal outcome would be disproportionately damaging to Ireland.

Unfortunately, the events of the past two weeks will have done nothing to dispel the suspicions that the UK’s Brexit negotiators are more interested in bluffing the domestic political audience in the UK – and perhaps even May herself – rather than bluffing the people they are actually negotiating with: the EU. One unworkable plan after another is wheeled out as the way is paved for further concessions until the UK is left at a dead end with nowhere to go but full single market and customs union membership, or permanent transition amounting to much the same thing.

Either way, the UK is stuck on the wrong road to Brexit and is fast running out of time to get back on the right path.