Editorial: Britain is heading for an elaborate and futile bluff with the EU over the backstop
It is sometimes hard to know what Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson are playing at. Obviously, as Rory Stewart put it so memorably earlier on in the leadership contest, they are trying to out-macho one another on Brexit. But beyond that?
It is like watching two men at an auction, bidding ever higher with money that's not theirs for a perverse national economic disaster. It is not edifying. It is also extremely dangerous. The latest high bid from both men is a promise that the famous Irish backstop clause in the UK-EU withdrawal agreement must be deleted in its entirety; "remitted" as Mr Johnson puts it.
Where previously even the most recalcitrant of the European Research Group would have been content to have the backstop time-limited or subject to a unilateral British ability to abrogate it, now the entire idea has to be jettisoned.
It may be that both men, figuring that the European Commission will remain intransigent, are preparing to push their luck and make ever more outrageous demands of Brussels (and Dublin) in the belief that they will then come back with more than if their demands had been relatively timid.
Perhaps they imagine themselves to be like union boss Len McCluskey; if he asks for 8 per cent from the employers he knows he won't get it, but he calculates that has more chance of getting 4 per cent than if he asked for 4 per cent in the first place.
Well, it might work; it probably will not. The European Union, unlike the UK, has much more experience in this game, and can spot a bluff a kilometre off. The EU, as we see, has rather a good record in negotiating international economic agreements, also by dint of its sheer size.
It is, then, quite a gamble to try to abolish the Irish backstop, but everything associated with Brexit and the Conservative leadership is now something of a lottery. It is perhaps not surprising that this latest addition to a veritable stable full of political unicorns should appear.
Let us imagine that the EU accedes to this latest British demand, and a Johnson or Hunt government still actually desires a deal and the envisaged two-year transition period (meaning continuing membership of the customs union and single market). For that period, nothing will change.
However, when the transition eventually runs out, the same problem will remain. The question of what kind of border will exist on the island of Ireland, and between the UK and the rest of the EU, will remain open and crucial.
And if no "alternative arrangements" or magical technological solutions are discovered, then the default position will be a hard border. This will be bad for the Irish and Northern Irish economies, bad for cross-border peace, and bad for the British and European economies too.
The damage to the Irish economy will be greatest of all, proportionately, as so much of what it exports either goes to the UK or through the UK to continental Europe. The taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has warned of the hit to GDP, jobs and living standards.
Instead of the Irish backstop equating to a default indefinite UK membership of the customs union and aspects of the single market, it will instead, by the wish of the British and the British alone, amount to the default of a hard border, the last option remaining when all else has failed.
This very fact, it is argued, will concentrate minds wonderfully during the transition period. The finest minds in Europe will be devoted to the conundrum. Some believe that, like Alan Turing and his computers featured on the new £50 note, they will be faced with a seemingly insurmountable technical challenge but, as in the past, with brains, hard work, goodwill and what Mr Johnson calls "positive energy", the code will be cracked.
Except it will not. There is nowhere in the world where such arrangements work seamlessly. You cannot protect the integrity of a single market and a customs union without some method of enforcing its rules, at the border or away from it. Either way there will be friction and tension in the relationship, and, in Ireland, the arrangements would be especially resented.
It might be that Dublin will eventually cave in, but the Irish might be more frightened about a return of the Troubles. It would also represent a breach of the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, and possibly the letter of it in international law.
And so, in the pit and pendulum world of Brexit, we are left preparing for the trauma of no deal. The Ministry of Justice's contribution to planning is to warn of prison riots prompted by a shortage of food and medicines. It is a perfect metaphor for Britain itself, post-Brexit, punished and hammered by its own decisions, and quite unable to escape.Read Full Article