For once, I think Jean Claude-Juncker might have a point. “Nebulous” was a pretty good description of Theresa May’s mission to Brussels. What, exactly, was she expecting from EU leaders that was also going to please her own backbenchers? She must have known the EU would stonewall her over the backstop. She seemed merely to be asking for ‘reassurances’ rather than a legal guarantee that Britain could not be trapped in the backstop – in spite of knowing full well that reassurances are not going to be enough to win over her Commons critics. To adapt Winston Churchill, May’s strategy has become a nebula trapped inside a smog, hidden within a miasma.
Yet there is such as easy way out of the mess. Why can she not go to Brussels, explain that the backstop will never pass the Commons and propose a simple, alternative solution: that Article 50 is extended, say six months at a time, so that Britain remains a full member of the EU until a trade deal between Britain and the EU has been ratified? That would do away with the need for a backstop because it would mean the Irish border remaining as it is until – hopefully – a zero tariff trade deal came into effect. At that point there would be no need for customs checks on the Irish border, either. The big difference is that the UK would not be trapped in the EU – if trade talks broke down we could leave at any point we liked.
Why would the EU want to object to the rolling extension of Article 50 if its insistence on the backstop was motivated purely by concern over the Irish border? If it did object we would know for sure: that EU negotiators have devised the backstop deliberately as a trap, and fully intend to use it as a means to prevent us from doing our own trade deals, to suppress our economy and to neutralise Britain as an economic threat.
In that case, we would be faced with two clear options: adopt an ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ attitude and rescind Article 50 altogether – as the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled this week we have a right to do. Or, better still, give the EU what it fears most: a WTO Brexit where we unashamedly set ourselves up to snatch business and investment away from the EU, by under-cutting it on taxes, regulations and tariffs – to turn ourselves into a Singapore 20 miles off Calais.
There is a very clear path of action there, if only Theresa May can see through her own fog.