After weeks of speculation, Michel Barnier has finally revealed the concession Brussels is willing to grant Theresa May on the backstop. The only problem is one could argue it’s not actually a concession. Instead, it’s the Northern Ireland-only backstop the UK negotiating team previously vetoed.
This afternoon the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator told ambassadors the EU is willing to give Britain a unilateral exit from the UK-wide parts of the backstop plan for Northern Ireland. He has since taken to social media to set out exactly what the EU is offering:
4/5 EU commits to give UK the option to exit the Single Customs Territory unilaterally, while the other elements of the backstop must be maintained to avoid a hard border. UK will not be forced into customs union against its will.
— Michel Barnier (@MichelBarnier) March 8, 2019
The fact that Barnier has chosen social media as his medium suggests the EU is keen to show it is offering something after May used a speech this morning in Grimsby to suggest it was on Brussels if her deal falls.
Scratch the surface and it appears that Barnier is saying the UK can choose to leave the backstop on the condition they… then fall into the original backstop the EU offered and the UK rejected. Under the conditions of this fallback backstop, there would be no border in the Irish sea now but if a future UK government wished for Great Britain to diverge from Northern Ireland and leave the customs territory they could – but then an Irish sea border would emerge.
To say this falls short of Attorney General Geoffrey Cox’s demands would be an understatement. The UK side have been looking for ways to show that the whole of the UK – including Northern Ireland – won’t be trapped in a customs union. Today’s package of promises does not satisfy that demand. It is likely to dismay the DUP because it would do exactly what they have been warning – see Northern Ireland treated differently to the rest of the UK. The European Research Group are likely to veto it on the grounds it tears up the UK – even if it gives Great Britain an option of a Canada +++ Brexit. Given that the DUP are unlikely to back it, the deal passing could see Conservative party losing the support of their confidence-and-supply partner permanently.
The only ray of light in this package is a promise that the commitments Donald Tusk and Jean Claude Juncker made in letters about the backstop not being permanent will have legal force. However, if the reason the backstop won’t be permanent is because the UK will fall into a Northern Ireland-only backstop then it will do little to ease concerns. Today’s move from Brussels has not made it any easier for May to pass her deal – in fact, it may have made it even harder.