It’s a big ask, but soft Brexiteers are now asking Ireland to give ground on the backstop

Vernon Bogdanor is one of Britain’s leading constitutional experts. Although he voted to Remain, his current efforts are concentrating on finding orderly constitutional means for breaking the Brexit deadlock.   Vernon is no hard Brexiteer sweeping aside Ireland’s case. He is utterly sympathetic to Ireland’s interests.

Today he calls the idea of shutting Parliament down for three months to  prevent MPs blocking a No Deal withdrawal on 31 October “ an outrage. The ensuing demonstrations would make the People’s Vote march look like a tea party”.

He asks: Is there any other way of breaking the deadlock?

Before Theresa May’s resignation he took a benign, pragmatic view of the backstop. and shared the Irish reading of the GFA .

… the Agreement’s provisions for North-South cooperation clearly require a degree of congruence between trading rules in the two parts of the island of Ireland. That indeed is the basis of the backstop, a backstop confined to very limited areas, primarily those necessary for North-South cooperation under the Good Friday agreement. From this point of view, the DUP’s hostility to the backstop is self-defeating since a hard border could lead nationalists in Northern Ireland to call for Irish unity so as to achieve a closer relationship with nationalists in the Republic. The backstop, paradoxically, is a guarantee for Northern Ireland not a threat.

Now Bogdanor’s opinion has shifted as the pendulum appears to have swung towards No Deal.

 The EU has declared that an amendment (to the withdrawal agreement)  is not possible. But, though rigid in theory, the EU is often flexible in practice. It has indeed already shown flexibility on the backstop – for the withdrawal agreement allows Northern Ireland to remain in the EU internal market without accepting more than a fraction of the regulations of that market. The EU, with the consent of Ireland, now needs to show further flexibility by providing for the backstop either to be unilaterally terminated by Westminster, or, alternatively, to allow a sunset clause to be attached to it so that it automatically comes to an end after a certain period of time.

The danger of such an amendment, some might object, is that an extreme Brexiteer such as Raab, freed of the backstop, would allow a hard border in Ireland. This would go against the spirit, though not the letter, of the Good Friday agreement.

But this danger is more apparent than real. The vast majority of MPs are determined to avoid a hard border, and the extreme Brexiteers, as well as the Brexit party, would be disarmed once parliament had passed an amended withdrawal agreement.

Of course, EU agreement to an amended backstop must depend upon the consent of the Irish government. But if that consent is refused, and the EU remains adamant, Tory MPs might conclude that the EU has been unnecessarily hostile. In those circumstances, their hostility to a no-deal Brexit might well evaporate, as it in effect did yesterday. The only alternative, given Tory opposition to a further referendum, would be a general election, leading to huge gains for the Brexit party and a possible Corbyn government.

But why, in any case, should the EU grant a further extension? The only argument for it would be that MPs had not been able to make up their minds. That may not prove very persuasive to the leaders of the other EU member states over three years after the referendum. Nor is it at all clear how a further extension could break the deadlock.

A no-deal Brexit would be worse for all concerned, and especially for Ireland – which would suffer both from a hard border and from damage to its economy. Generosity, therefore, on the part of the Irish government would, not for the first time in Anglo-Irish relations, be more sensible than intransigence; and it would help renew the good relations between Britain and Ireland – relations that have been so badly damaged by the Brexit process.

The position is complicated by the astounding  neglect in the Brexit debate of the impact on trading in services which accounts for three quarters of the UK’s output and 44% of its international trade. A new report, Elephant in the Room by Ireland’s Institute for International and European Affairs   highlights the  dominant importance of the sector and the importance of the single market to sustain it. The facts argue for a longer negotiation and a soft Brexit outcome which leaves the border solution very much as proposed in the backstop – but this time by consent. The entire subject is very far away from the internal struggle for power going on within the Conservative party.


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