Richard North, 02/10/2019  

Tony Connelly, RTÉ's Europe editor, seems to have let his judgement lapse yesterday when he trailed a "leak" purporting to reveal the UK's proposals to the EU for a replacement of the Irish backstop.

Of course, there were no such proposals and the story was dismissed within hours of being posted on the RTÉ website. What he'd got hold of were extracts from one or more of the UK's "non-papers", which were never intended to convey the UK's position.

The error allowed Johnson on his morning round of interviews to deny the thrust of Connelly's story, that the UK had proposed customs posts on both sides of the border in a bid to replace the backstop – even though the prime minister in office was to concede that the "reality" of Brexit was that "there will need to be customs checks on the island of Ireland after the UK leaves the EU".

Connelly's intervention also brought a corrective from Leo Varadkar, when asked about the "leak" during the Irish equivalent of PMQs. He was aware of the existence of the "non-papers" but hadn't seen them, yet was happy that Johnson had disowned them. Had he not, in my view, Varadkar said, "it would be hard evidence of bad faith by the UK government".

The Irish premier went on to say that the UK government had promised no hard border or associated controls or checks. "We expect", said Varadkar, "the British government to honour that promise made in the withdrawal agreement. People here don't want a customs border between north and south and no British government should seek to impose customs posts against the will of the people on the island of Ireland".

One should recall that it was long before the Withdrawal Agreement had been finalised that Mrs May promised that there would be no return to the "borders of the past" in Northern Ireland, even though the then chancellor George Osborne had predicted there would have to be a hardening of the border if the UK voted to leave the EU.

Mrs May's promise had been on 25 July 2016, only a month after the referendum but even then, Johnson had got there first, declaring on 29 February 2016 that, "Brexit would not affect Irish border". Brexit, he said, would leave arrangements on the Irish border "absolutely unchanged".

With Connelly rampant yesterday, though, almost the entire media corps seemed to have piled in, coprophagia to the fore, fuelled by precisely no hard information to sustain a tsunami of speculation.

Wild claim of the day, however, was delivered by Bloomberg which had EU governments discussing giving the UK "a major concession on Brexit", by possibly time-limiting the contentious backstop mechanism for the Irish border.

This was according to two (anonymous) people "familiar with the matter", with the agency then managing to contradict its own story by quoting the European Commission, a spokesman for which said, "The EU is not considering this option at all". The spokesman added: "We are waiting for the UK to come forward with a legally operational solution that meets all the objectives of the backstop". An Irish government spokesman then killed the story. "It hadn't been discussed".

But that's how you do news reporting these days: you fill space with totally unsupported tosh and then get a double hit by reporting denials from official sources. Put them all together and you've got yourself a story, then to be dutifully tweeted as "breaking news" by an idiot BBC politics producer.

Meanwhile, the Johnson fanboys have been hard at work, presenting for this morning's Telegraph the actual plan which the prime minister in office intends to send to Brussels later today, after previewing it in his conference speech, with "major EU capitals" having been briefed yesterday.

This, apparently, is to be a "take it or leave it" offer, with Dominic "Second" Cummings having told his team that the UK "won't be hanging around to negotiate". He is reported to have said: "If they reject our offer, that's it". And that much is confirmed by Downing Street which says that, if the EU is unwilling to "engage" with the final offer, there will be no further negotiation. Britain will leave without a deal in 29 days' time on 31 October.

As to the "offer", it has been characterised as "two borders for four years", supposedly set to leave Northern Ireland in a special relationship with Europe until 2025, remaining in large parts of the EU single market until at least 2025 while leaving the Customs Union alongside the rest of the UK.

The UK is to accept the need for both a regulatory border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the Irish Sea for four years - and customs checks between Ulster and the Republic of Ireland. After four years, the Northern Irish Assembly will be free to choose whether to remain aligned to the EU in the future or return to following British rules, which by this time are expected to have diverged from Brussels.

At the end of the four year period, Northern Ireland would be free to either accept a harder border with Ireland by moving closer to Great Britain’s trading arrangements, or continue with its ‘two borders’ arrangement if the Northern Ireland assembly agreed.

For all that, it seems that the exact plans for customs checks have yet to be finalised: it is expected that they will be subject to "tough" negotiation, which seems to contradict the Cummings dictum. Nevertheless, No 10 is playing down reports that there would be new centres located a few miles from the Irish border, even if Johnson has conceded that customs checks "away from the border" are inevitable if the EU sticks to its red lines.

Yet, even the Telegraph is conceding that the plan is expected to face fierce opposition from EU leaders. They (or the EU) will be asked to grant the UK sweeping exemptions from EU customs rules to facilitate a Northern Irish customs border. And that is without the Irish government, which will claim that the plan risks violating both the Good Friday Agreement and the integrity of the Single Market.

Locked in his own fantasy world, though, Johnson is expected to use today's speech to describe his proposal as a "fair and reasonable compromise". Yet elements, particularly the creation of two borders, are understood to have puzzled senior European diplomats and officials.

One of those magic anonymous sources says the proposal means you need to do declarations for goods flowing between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and manage a new border between North and South. "It leaves Northern Ireland marooned, with frictionless trade with no-one", he says.

With senior EU officials warning that the chances of a deal are "very, very low", other EU sources warn that there is no sign that senior EU leaders like Angela Merkel are prepared to undermine the EU Single Market in order to help Johnson deliver Brexit. Varadkar is more direct. He accuses the UK government of failing to listen to Northern Irish industry and trade groups, which have rejected the idea of any customs checks.

And those industry and trade groups have been quick to respond. Manufacturing NI (the Northern Irish equivalent of the CBI), note that the promise of unfettered and frictionless trade has evolved to "full on frictions", complaining: "We're thrown under the bus!" 

"Instead of banking the good bits and repairing the bits causing problems", they say, "it looks like EVERY aspect of the deal made by the previous government has been made much, much worse. Even the stuff everyone found inoffensive", adding: "This is dire".

What is puzzling, though, is that this proposal is so far distant from anything the EU, or Member States such as Ireland, would be prepared to accept, that there can't be any serious expectation of this closing the deal. On the face of it, Johnson needs that deal in order to circumvent the Benn Act. But this plan seems designed to fail.

Thus, as we approach the end game, the real play is anybody's guess.

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