Without the issue of the Irish backstop, it is reasonably safe to assume the UK would be leaving the EU on Friday with a withdrawal agreement. The government would not be falling apart and businesses and investors would know where they were. But of course, as we have been told constantly by the EU, the backstop is essential. It is absolutely the only way of ensuring, post-Brexit, that the Irish border remains open.
What, then, if the whole thing was a hoax – if Britain and Ireland are capable of agreeing between themselves on a customs arrangement which eliminate the need for customs formalities? That is exactly what it appears may be about to happen, if we are to believe Irish PM Leo Varadkar. According to a Bloomberg report talks between the two governments have already begun, aimed at keeping the border open even in the event of a no deal. Whatever checks were needed could be carried out away from the border.
What does that tell us? That the Irish border issue was exaggerated all along. There never was a problem which could not be resolved by the UK and Ireland between themselves. That the EU decided to make such an issue of the backstop has rather more to do with the desire of Michel Barnier and Jean-Claude Juncker to keep the UK trapped in the customs union, to neutralise the threat that a United Kingdom free of the customs union and single market could deregulate and open its economy to the rest of the world and suck trade and investment away from the EU.
That the EU’s insistence on the backstop was motivated by something other than practicalities was already obvious from the fact that it already operates a perfectly well-functioning border with Switzerland. Income tax, VAT and corporation taxes are collected without officials standing over businesses and individuals at the point of transaction. You don’t have an HMRC official standing next to you at the till at Marks and Spencer to check that VAT is paid. So why should tariffs post-Brexit need to be enforced at the border rather than through declarations and audits? In any case, if the EU had spent the past couple of years negotiating a free trade deal rather than fussing over the Irish border there might have been no tariffs to collect.
Now Varadkar has all but admitted that the backstop was a scam, why is the EU continuing to insist that it forms part of the withdrawal agreement? Moreover, why isn’t our own government willing to make this point? It is, sadly, indicative of Theresa May’s failures that she never tried harder to get rid of the backstop – without which her deal could have passed.