I am very sorry to do this to you, but it turns out that the incendiary extension to the UK’s period as a non-voting member of the EU – the mooted extra months in “transition” – isn’t really an extension. It is an “option” on an extension, the right to have an extension. Yes you guessed it: what we are talking about is another flipping backstop. And yes I too am losing the will to live as these Brexit talks descend from giant geopolitics to nightmarish logical puzzles.
Here is the background. The EU cannot – it insists – agree our preferred version of the Northern Ireland backstop as part of the Article 50 Withdrawal Agreement. And the reason for this, I am told, is that the scope of Article 50 allows only for a Northern Ireland specific backstop, not May’s preferred UK-wide one. And yes, I am puzzled as you about why this should be. But I am told Robbins, Raab and May have accepted it as a fair accompli. So that is that.
And the related problem with May’s backstop – which would keep the whole UK in an EU customs arrangement temporarily rather than just NI in the customs union – is that it requires a change to EU treaties. Which would be time consuming and complicated. So there is a risk it would not be agreed and formalised even by the end of 2020, when the UK’s sojourn as a non-voting EU member, in transition, is scheduled to end. Hence the need for a possible extension – up to a maximum of a year – to finalise May’s backstop and to obviate the need for the EU’s proposed backstop. So far, so bloomin’ mind boggling. Pity the poor PM who had to moot this to 27 EU leaders in a 15 minute discourse last night, before their turbot arrived.
But here is where the associated uncertainties may drive many of you into a panic attack, especially if you are a Tory Brexiter. First, whatever backstop is finally agreed will not be time limited. Ireland’s Europe minister Helen McEntee confirmed that on my show last night. So any Brexit deal May agrees will allow for the possibility that the UK is permanently in an arrangement very like being in the customs union, and which would make it impossible to do free trade deals.
Second, in a business deal options like the one May is considering normally cost money. So will the EU charge the UK simply for the option of possibly extending the transition? It would be odd and out of character if they didn’t ask for cash up front. But Brexiters would go bonkers if we hand over more money.
Third, it is highly likely the EU’s Northern Ireland only solution will also be written into the Withdrawal Agreement, just in case it proved impossible – even with the extension of transition – to secure the treaty change to allow for May’s preferred backstop.
So here we are at the very essence of EU Brexit juridical insanity, discussing the merits and demerits of including in the Withdrawal Agreement a backstop to the backstop to the backstop. A triple backstop no less. Goal!
Or to put it another way, the Withdrawal Agreement is all about the kind of Byzantine complexity that makes it impossible for mere mortals to know what it actually implies for the integrity of the United Kingdom.
Does that revelation make it more or less likely that Tory Brexiters will imminently launch a coup to try and oust May – by triggering the fateful no-confidence vote? I’ve just asked them. They are hopping mad. These are dangerous days for the PM.
This article originally appeared on Robert Peston’s Facebook page