I was proud of our Parliament this week. Despite all the divisions, Parliament – primarily Conservative, DUP and some Labour MPs – came together to reject all the amendments that would delay or block Brexit and, as importantly, vote in favour of a clear way forward. By backing the Brady amendment, it is now clear to the EU that there is a deal, not so different from the one on the table, that the UK would accept.
It’s worth saying that, even without the backstop, almost no Leave supporter I know is happy with everything in the withdrawal agreement. There are some major problems, not least handing over £39bn without any guarantee of a future trade deal. On a personal level, I’m in two minds of whether or not it’s better than No Deal. But that’s compromise for you. On the plus side, it delivers Brexit and resolves some important issues, in particular the status of UK and EU citizens living outside their own countries – and it’s a deal which Parliament has backed.
The Backstop and the Irish Border
The backstop is obviously unacceptable. It either keeps the UK yoked to the EU or, in its original form, detaches Northern Ireland from the UK. A time-limited backstop might just about be accepted, but a permanent one negates the purpose of the referendum.
As this BBC Factcheck makes explicit, the Good Friday Agreement does not forbid border checks. The prominence of the Irish Border in the negotiations has been driven by those seeking to block Brexit, with the commitment to ‘no hard border’ a Trojan horse designed to stymie negotiations.
The very phrase ‘hard border’ is a misnomer; rather like the false dichotomy of ‘hard Brexit’ and ‘soft Brexit’, this is not a binary issue, but a continuous scale. The phrase ‘hard border’ conjures up the fortified checkpoint and fortified watchtowers present in Troubles – these are, indeed, forbidden by the Good Friday Agreement, but it is inconceivable that any form of departure, including a no-deal departure, would necessitate their return.
Customs checks are another matter, though of course all sides would hope that these could be minimal and interfere with the day-to-day lives of people as little as possible – something amply achievable by technology, as I have written about before. Land borders are remarkably common in this world – most countries, I’m told, have them, many of them more than one – and the sooner the EU accepts that the border will look like any other relaxed border between friendly, amicable nations, the better. The border between Norway and Sweden, for example, may end up being a very helpful model.
The ball is in the EU’s court
It’s important to remember that the EU has never negotiated in good faith. In 2016, the EU’s lead negotiator, said “J’aurais réussi ma mission si, à la fin, le deal est tellement dur pour les Britanniques qu’ils préféront rester dans l’Union” – or, in English, “I will have achieved my mission if, in the end, the deal is so hard for the British that they prefer to stay in the Union.”
One may argue that it was in the EU’s interests to act in this way – and that might be correct. But it makes a mockery of the position, primarily put forward by Remain supporters, which has consistently argued that the UK should be ‘nice’ and make concessions to the EU, on the grounds that this will cause the EU to reciprocate. No: if the EU is to hard-nosedly pursue its national interest, so too must the UK.
Now the EU has a choice. The deal supported by Parliament does not cherry-pick; it does not seek, for example, to end freedom of movement whilst remaining in the Single Market. If the EU can compromise on the backstop – perhaps by inserting a time-limit – and take a deal which gives it much of what it wants, that arguably is better for it than the UK (particularly with the free gift of £39bn), or it can face No Deal. If its priority is, as it has claimed, the Irish border, the choice is obvious: though both sides will aim to keep the border as soft as possible, there will clearly be more barriers under a No Deal scenario than under the Withdrawal Agreement, even without the backstop.
The EU, like all large powers and empires throughout history, is used to bullying smaller powers to get its way, confident in its ability to use the threat of negative consequences to enforce its will. The brutal way it treated Greece – a catastrophe that caused human hardship in western Europe unseen since the collapse of Yugoslavia – is perhaps the most salient example, and one that should explode any myth of EU beneficence or the idea that being a member state offers any protection. But in the UK, it may have at last met a nation which will not be bullied.
Nevertheless, a deal would be better for both sides. We have now put an entirely reasonable one. The ball is in their court.