I am hearing that the PM’s Brexit advisor Olly Robbins has made meaningful progress in talks with the EU’s negotiator Michel Barnier on that contentious “backstop”, or insurance policy to keep open the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland pending agreement on a permanent long-term trading relationship that achieves the same. Depending on who I talk with, there’s either been a breakthrough or things are moving in the right direction. My sense therefore is that it would be premature to crack open the champagne bottles, but maybe a half-bottle should be on ice.
The most important development would be that the EU seems close to agreeing that the backstop would apply to the whole UK and not just to Northern Ireland, as it originally demanded – or at least it would apply to the whole UK for customs. That would represent a big victory for the PM – although there is a nightmarish tinge for her, because her Brexiter colleagues see this backstop as a backdoor to keep the UK in the customs union forever and thus prohibited from doing trade deals with other countries.
Under pressure from May, via Robbins, Barnier is undertaking to find a way to convincingly present the backstop as temporary – even though he will never actually agree a legally binding end date to it.
“We understand the underlying concern though” said a Brussels source. “And we are looking for ways to make it more palatable.
“The backstop is meant to be temporary. We just cannot decide now on an expiry date. An insurance policy only ends when the risk is gone. And we cannot decide that now before negotiations on a future solution have even started”.
Which is the logic of Alice in Wonderland. And will satisfy only those desperate to avoid a hard Brexit at all costs, so not the Tory MPs of the true Brexit ERG wing of the party. So far, so well sourced.
What is flakier is a putative proposal that although Northern Ireland would remain in the single market for goods and food, regulatory checks on stuff flowing from GB to NI would simply “intensify existing checks” but would not represent “new” checks – and would therefore not represent a “new” border in the Irish Sea to cause shame, hurt and outrage to Northern Ireland’s DUP (without whose support May cannot govern, lest we forget).
The point is that if there is the progress I’ve described, a deal on a Brexit withdrawal agreement could be reached at the EU council next week, which would then pave the way for a political declaration on the basics of a future relationship at an emergency summit the following month.
But don’t get carried away with the idea that the risk of a no-deal Brexit would have been eliminated. Any such agreement of the sort I’ve described would need to be approved by MPs. And that is by no means guaranteed, to state the egregiously obvious.
This article originally appeared on Robert Peston’s Facebook page