The thoughts of M Barnier get barnier and barnier. Today’s crazy idea from the EU’s chief negotiator was a ‘common regulatory area’ on the island of Ireland. Perhaps he didn’t understand what he was proposing: the break-up of the UK, with Ulster remaining within the EU. This would turn the Six Counties into Brussels’s first colony. As it happens, Britain began its colonial adventures in Ireland so our politicians know a thing or two about annexing hostile territory over there. At PMQs they took M Barnier’s plan for direct rule from Brussels very seriously. Four questioners sought reassurance from the Prime Minister. Answering David Simpson, Mrs May pointed to the flaw in the Barnier Plan. ‘It would create a customs and regulatory border down the Irish Sea. No British prime minister could ever agree to it.’
Michael Tomlinson asked the same question and the PM sounded a bit ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ as she pledged her loyalty to ‘our precious United Kingdom.’ Gregory Campbell was also disturbed to hear of the geo-political fantasies doodled by M Barnier on his Brussels note-paper. ‘If implemented,’ said Mrs May, ‘it would undermine the common market of the United Kingdom and our constitutional integrity.’ Simon Hoare brought up the Good Friday settlement. ‘Peace is priceless,’ he hinted. And Mrs May stated that she was ‘steadfast’ in her commitment to the process.
She several times ruled out ‘a hard border’ between the UK and Eire.
This question is unresolved and Jeremy Corbyn used it to give the PM a nasty dig in the ribs. He quoted foreign secretary Boris Johnson’s statement last year that a hard border was ‘unthinkable’. Then he read a leaked letter in which Boris mentioned that 95 per cent of goods would pass unimpeded, ‘even if a hard border is introduced’. Mr Corbyn’s allies crowed with pleasure at this apparent volte-face. But they’d overlooked a grammatical nicety in the words quoted. Boris used the passive voice – ‘even if a hard border is introduced’ – which acquits the government of responsibility for fence-building. This is a new subtlety in Tory thinking and it seeks to blame the EU for the final Northern Ireland frontier. For many decades, so the argument runs, Britain and Ireland have enjoyed light-touch arrangements at ports and land-crossings. So if new barbed wire sprouts up it must be Brussels barbed wire.
The truth is that all our politicians are fudging this. No hard border? Come off it. Even a ‘soft’ border can look pretty intimidating. The Calais side of the UK-France border features endless miles of ditches and ramparts reinforced with steel posts and razor-wire to protect the channel tunnel. A tank would struggle to punch a hole through these imposing battlements. And yet this border is called ‘frictionless’. The eventual Eire/UK boundary will be softer than Calais but a bit tastier than it is at present. Like a toll-bridge, perhaps, or a particularly rough night-club in Manchester. Scanners and security arches rather than watch-towers and assault rifles.
When it comes the crunch, MPs won’t object to this quick-frisk set-up. Crossing from Ireland to Britain will be like passing from Parliament Square into Portcullis House. And the politicians get waved straight through.