The headline of one tabloid screamed “Brexit back on course”.
The polite reception in Brussels – and Dublin – for the UK’s latest Brexit paper on the “backstop”, prompted by relief that at last they had something to talk about, led some optimists in London to the view that a robust UK had pulled one over on Brussels.
And he will be rapidly disabused of the hope that all the UK had to do to win brownie points for effort at the end of June summit was to demonstrate a plausible willingness to address the backstop issue. No-one really expected them to resolve the issue, they believe.
That hurdle passed, the summer would allow them to engage in chasing the real prize, a comprehensive EU-UK agreement on their future relationship that would make the politically embarrassing backstop agreement redundant. It is only there, after all, to provide a guaranteed fallback should no other deal be done.
Barnier on Friday made clear that that strategy would not wash. For a start the UK document paper can not be described as a plausible attempt at addressing the issue. Politely, he demolished it brick by brick.
Crucially, he explained, member states were prepared to make an exceptional case of the North, waving common EU rules and practises for the first and last time, to preserve the frictionless Border and the Belfast Agreement. Such privileges were not on offer to the rest of the UK by virtue, not of malice, but its decision to leave the union. To imagine you could simply extend the backstop provisions UK-wide was presumptuous nonsense.
The British paper’s failure to even discuss the EU-UK regulatory alignment that would be essential to any border-control-free regime is bizarre. As is its attempt to equate an “expectation” of a time limitation to the backstop with a specific commitment to one – as Barnier pointed out a time-limited backstop is no backstop, no guarantee.
EU diplomats warn that the next couple of weeks will see as tough talks as any so far. They remain adamant that no acceptable deal on a backstop will see no deal on a Withdrawal Agreement and no transition.
But there is another fatal flaw at the heart of the British strategy – an assumption, endlessly repeated, that a comprehensive deal will actually remove the necessity for the backstop and the inevitable Irish Sea checking of goods, food and animals.
For one thing, the negotiation of an alternative deal is not a given. It will be a hugely complex process and most unlikely to be completed by the autumn.
Moreover, should the deal not be able to provide the same level of safeguards required to deliver and maintain the North’s frictionless border – most unlikely if the UK maintains its refusal to stay in the customs union and single market – there will be an insistence by the EU that the “fallback” backstop remain in place.
It’s not a case of either/or, but both. And there is no way for May – or the DUP – to indefinitely avoid confronting the hard choices that the backstop will require.
Brexit analysis: Barnier lays waste to UK plan – Irish Times