Richard North, 07/07/2019  

As the storm clouds gather, there is a "battle for Brexit" emerging, the nature of which will determine the final shape of Brexit, and its outcome for many years to come.

That the battlefield is the Irish border is entirely coincidental – the battle could have been fought on any number of grounds. But it has confused the issue, leading people wrongly to believe that we are seeing a straightforward border management dispute, one which is local, arcane and technical. They fail to see it in the broader context as the battle for the heart and mind of Brexit.

Reportage, therefore – as one might expect – is fragmented and disjointed. The political soap opera of the Tory leadership campaign is being given the lion's share of attention on Brexit-related issues. The different aspects of the fight in Ireland are reported without a unifying theme, and without the first understanding of the forces involved, obscuring the epic nature of the battle.

What is at stake is the survival of the Withdrawal Agreement, as the final instrument which should determine the next stage of Brexit, or whether the published draft is – contrary to the beliefs and assertions of the EU-27 – merely a stage on an ongoing negotiation process, the end point of which has yet to be defined.

If it is the former, then it stands as a statement of principle – agreed unanimously by the Member States of the EU-27 – which sets out the conditions on which the EU is prepared to continue to the next stage. It preserves, in their view, the integrity of the EU treaties, and thereby provides a firm legal foundation on which to base negotiations for a longer-term relationship.

However, both Tory leadership candidates have unilaterally chosen to take the view that the final draft of the WA, agreed by the UK government but not ratified by the Westminster parliament, is not a definitive document.

Rather, they see it as an interim step towards the final settlement, open to a final stage of negotiation. And, as with their unilateral stance on continuing the negotiations, they are also seeking, unilaterally, to define the terms of that negotiation – by-passing entirely the established structures, expecting the EU negotiators to fall in with our way of doing things, on a timescale determined by us.

Seen in these broader terms, it is hardly surprising that the response of EU-27 has been unwaveringly firm. From there, the UK is not demanding a few minor, technical concessions. It actually wants the EU to undergo fundamental changes to their established order, effectively handing over control of the negotiations to the British government.

Should this have been expressed in such stark terms, it would perhaps not be so difficult to understand why the "colleagues" have been so unequivocal in the rejection of the UK ploy. But, mainly because they, themselves don't understand what it is they are asking, the Tory leadership candidates are expressing their "demands" in terms of what, precisely, they are not – simple technical concessions.

That these unattainable – and ungivable – concessions are related to the Irish backstop is, as I said earlier, entirely coincidental. But what Johnson and Hunt both are doing is demanding that the terms of entry for the EU's Single Market – and the management of many related systems – should not be set by the EU itself, but by a third country, in this case the UK.

That these are dressed up in terms of technical issues - the supposedly "alternative arrangements", is neither here not there. What the UK is seeking to do is define EU policy on part of its external border, largely – it would seem – on a unilateral basis.

Essentially, though, this is the evil of Shanker Singham's Alternative Arrangements Commission (AAC), although it is probable that he has little idea of the fundamental nature of the shift he is demanding from the EU. His understanding of EU politics and structures is slight, making him the perfect fool to rush in with something even a moderately competent angel would be giving a wide berth.

Perhaps it is only someone who is a startlingly ignorant as Singham who could propose something as stunningly unrealistic as the scheme set out in his interim report, while its technical nature obscures the fundamental nature of the changes being demanded.

But what needs to be realised is that we're not just dealing with dry, technical issues here. It is not a remote Irish battle, and even those tend to have far-reaching consequences. The "battle of the backstop", as we must call it, goes to the very heart of the Brexit debate, and constitutes a root challenge to the authority of the EU and it powers to set its own laws, for its own borders.

As to border policy, the UK can only decide the conditions in terms of a single direction of travel. Having decided to leave, the Tory leadership candidates must recognise that we can no longer have any say in how the EU makes its own decisions in territories which come under its jurisdiction.

And probably without even realising it, the UK is treading in a particularly sensitive area, where there are already complex issues to manage. Borders still exist in the EU and the free movement of goods, of which the Commission is so proud, is fragile.

Very recently the Commission has confirmed that it will intervene in what is turning out to be a major crisis at the French-Spanish border crossing of Biriatou-Irún where trucks lose a daily average of 3.6 hours because of the long queues arising from extended control processes carried out by the French authorities.

Apart from this being a long-running issue, cooperative arrangements between the French and Spanish authorities are redefining the nature of border management, and calling into question long-held principles.

The very last thing the Commission needs is self-centred Brits clouding the bigger picture with ideas intended for local implementation but which may have international implications.

At the heart of any EU calculations will be the WTO rules, about which our own "ultras" are so enthusiastic. Under MFN non-discrimination rules, all third countries must be treated in the same manner. Concessions made in terms of cross-border access to the Irish Republic may well have to be applied to other trading partners, if charges of discriminatory action are to be avoided.

Thus, what is proposed by the Singham AAC may appear to be innocent enough in isolation, but the EU needs to judge a scheme in the context of the response by other trading partners.

Crucially, therefore, we need to stop looking at the "Irish question" merely as a local, Irish issue. The baUpdateckstop is a mainstream Brexit policy and not just another Irish battle. And, as the colleagues have made abundantly clear, no backstop – no deal.

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