Richard North, 05/02/2019  

It doesn't matter where you go at the moment on the news web. You cannot avoid bumping into the Theresa May soap opera, a grotesque re-run of the Brexit farce that has our prime minister chasing after the chimera of "alternative arrangements", with no apparent chance of success.

And so it was that yesterday brought the Dutch foreign minister Stef Blok into the fray. He was visiting Co Louth to learn more about the implications of a crash-out Brexit on Border communities, whence he delivered the bad news: an alternative to the withdrawal agreement was "not realistic".

The backstop was not there because the European Union asked for it, said Mr Blok. It was there because the UK has drawn a number of red lines. "It is the result of more than two years of negotiations, so after 2½ years of negotiations, it's not very realistic to expect that there will be a completely different outcome".

Any one of a million people could have delivered these words, a chip off the old Blok one might say, especially when he added a happy homily to go with the predictable negativity: "The EU has shown unity throughout negotiations and there is no reason to change that unity. We are willing to listen to any proposals made by the UK, but until now there haven't been any specific proposals".

Nevertheless, Brussels seems to be trying its best to give Mrs May something to work with. Martin Selmayr, secretary general of the European Commission, offered a legally binding assurance that the backstop would not lock Britain into a permanent customs union with the EU.

This is a move which could enable the prime minister to claim she had secured fundamental changes to her deal, thus paving the way for the vote next week when MPs will be given another chance to ratify the withdrawal agreement.

But things are never that simple. The offer was made known to the members of the Brexit select committee, who were visiting Brussels. But the Brexiteers on the committee, including Andrea Jenkyns and John Whittingdale, immediately rejected the idea.

That doesn't mean the idea won't fly, of course. A sprinkling of unicorn horn powder on the Labour party may work miracles – or not. And maybe even the intervention of Angela Merkel could help. In a public statement, she insisted that the "riddle" of the Irish border could be solved by compromise on both sides. The German chancellor was determined to do "everything" to avoid Britain crashing out, apparently echoing Sajid Javid by declaring that this was possible if "everyone shows goodwill".

That leaves Mrs May to strut her stuff in Northern Ireland today and tomorrow, when she is expected to show her commitment to the province and signal her unwillingness to bow to Brexiteer demands to get rid of the backstop policy altogether. She will, we are told, use a speech to acknowledge that it is a "concerning time" but "we will find a way to deliver Brexit" that honours commitments including avoiding a hard border with Ireland.

Basically, though, everybody is playing with words in an attempt to find a magic formula which will convince enough MPs to vote with Mrs May and thus avoid a no-deal Brexit. The game has long lost any meaning and most of those who have followed the issue closely are having trouble finding enough will to continue living. The general sentiment is that, whatever it is that they are going to do, they need to do it quickly and get the torture over. There is only so much that warm bodies can bear.

Privately, though, the Guardian says, there is "scepticism" among many in government about the prospect of a breakthrough before the prime minister returns to parliament to make a statement about her Brexit plans on 13 February. "She's just burning down the clock", says one cabinet source.

And, if that is the case, then the situation is beyond analysis. We are just recording noise, filling in time until 29 March until we leave and face the no-deal music. It might be better if Mrs May was more open with us and told it as it is. We could then stop playing empty games and concentrate on preparing for the inevitable.

Meanwhile, we are actually seeing some evidence of preparation from HM Revenue and Customs, which has announced that it will implement simplified importing procedures for businesses importing from the EU, in the event that we leave without a deal.

This concession, which will last a year, means that importers will be able to transport goods from the EU into the UK without having to make a full customs declaration at the border, and will be able to postpone paying any import duties.

The process delaying import duties actually already applies to the bulk of imports from the rest of the world, thus ensuring that there are few delays at the ports. Verification inspections are done on the basis of risk assessment, and are most often done at the business premises, where forensic accounting is used to reveal any discrepancies.

That much, of course, can apply to goods being exported to the EU, where Member State customs authorities will not need to carry out a high level of port inspections in order to administer their revenue-gathering activities. Such inspections as will be needed will be devoted to identifying criminal activity, such as counterfeiting and to ensuring regulatory conformity.

But, for all the rush to ease the flow of goods at the ports, there is yet another element that has been overlooked – the possibility of VAT fraud. Once we have left the EU, traders will be able to recover VAT from goods exported to EU Member States. It is the easiest thing in the world to over-claim on the volume of goods exported, or to slip the goods back into the UK, thence to claim again for VAT refunds.

The idea that we are potentially dealing with criminals came up yesterday, and puts something of a damper on the giddy aspirations of Brexiteers for a frictionless border. If the UK is overtly committed to maintaining a low level of import checks - and we are no longer receiving intelligence from EU customs operations - then we become a target for scammers and fraudsters seeking to unload dodgy goods on UK consumers.

Similarly, if the Irish border is open, it becomes a portal not only for British goods but for imports from the rest of the world, where the UK is being used as a back door into the EU.

Thus, we have Sabine Wayand declaring that relaxing border controls "would not be goodwill" but a dereliction of duty by public authorities in the EU "that have a duty to ensure public health and safety of consumers, protect against unfair competition and enforce public policies and international agreements".

That does indeed cut through the idle rhetoric of the "ultras" and bring them back down to earth. Where borders do exist, delineating different regulatory regimes, they must be policed – otherwise there are plenty of predators who would exploit weakness, to the detriment of honest citizens.

The backstop, therefore, is not going to melt away, no matter how much it is seen as a barrier to the agreement of a deal. Even the BBC has realised that, although the EU would prefer the withdrawal agreement to be settled, they will tolerate a no-deal as the price for protecting the integrity of the Single Market.

Eternally repeating the mantras, therefore, is going to have no impact at all on events. The positions are settled and, while the EU is prepared to make cosmetic gestures, there is no chance of any substantive change. Going through the same arguments again and again brings us nothing more than an infestation of groundhogs – and a collapse of patience. This has gone beyond the point where we've had enough of it.

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