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Brexit backstop: An iceberg lies dead ahead, yet we have no plan


Britain and Europe do not agree on anything substantive when it comes to Brexit, but on one point there does appear to be a consensus: as things stand, “there is no plan”.

In previous Brexit stand-offs, over the Brexit bill or EU citizens’ rights, there were back-channel discussions and ideas being floated that paved the way for subsequent breakthroughs.

But that is not the case here. Senior sources in Brussels describe a process that is fundamentally moribund: the majority of the Withdrawal Agreement is agreed, but on the questions of the Irish backstop, customs and British cherry-picking, there is impasse.

For now, Europe is just a spectator as the Cabinet tears itself apart over a backstop planthat the EU has already made plain will not, on its own, deliver the invisible Irish border both sides have pledged to maintain.

“We don’t have any leverage on what’s happening in the UK,” says one senior EU diplomat. “We’re spectators, watching them beat each other up.”

FAQ | The single market

So for now the EU seems to have moved to a new, second stage of grief with the UK: from rage to resignation.

Three weeks ago, senior European Commission officials derided Britain for its Brexit “fantasies” after a round of talks when the UK had presented slides requesting what one official called “the same old cake-and-eat-it” approach to single market access.

But as the prospect of the much-heralded customs backstop paper drew nearer, there was a quiet attempt to make the best of it, to welcome a step forward rather than ridicule it.

“Everyone is in the mood of trying to welcome the UK customs paper as much as we can,” said a source not known for giving the UK an easy ride.

That was on Tuesday. The paper that was promised to be on the desk of Sabine Weyand, lead EU negotiator, by Wednesday lunchtime, had still not arrived by six o’clock that evening; and then news broke in London of fresh machinations and David Davis’s resignation threats. Michel Barnier’s team prepared to welcome the paper despite the fact that it had already been dismissed as a woefully incomplete response to avoiding a hard border by both Brussels and Ireland.

Brexit | Key dates

At a bad-tempered meeting ahead of the EU summit in Sofia on May 17, Theresa May tried to present to Leo Varadkar, the Irish Taoiseach, the idea of the whole of the UK staying in a customs union with the EU as a “deal”. He rejected the idea as inadequate. Avoiding a hard border required not just a customs union, but full alignment with the rules of the single market, he said later, in public.

To clarify the point, Mr Barnier listed all the reasons why the EU carries out checks on its border. It contained 26 separate line items, only two of which were obviated by membership of a customs union.

EU officials ask that if the UK cabinet cannot agree on the customs union portion of the backstop – which accounts for just 30 per cent of the checks at the border – then what chance of agreeing the necessary level of regulatory alignment? And then the concomitant oversight by the European Court of Justice (not to mention the financial contributions)?

Privately British officials ask themselves the same thing, devoid as they are of any political mandate. EU diplomats describe Olly Robbins, Britain’s top Brexit official, as an increasingly lost soul who comes to Europe only to float ideas that will not fly. Mrs May herself is an object of continued frustration, as unable to communicate with fellow European leaders as with her own party and the British electorate. Officials from three countries separately described her private one-to-one conversations with other EU leaders as disastrous. “They are empty to the point of being insulting,” said one.

Why the Irish border is a Brexit constitutional conundrum

And so, as the June 28-29 European Council summit approaches, all sense of direction seems to have evaporated. Ask what will happen now, in June, and you will receive the diplomatic equivalent of a shrug of the shoulders.

“How can you stop something that is not moving?” asks one top EU diplomat. “What can we do? The British backstop paper, when it gets delivered, will be read, but it will not say enough to make the EU reappraise our position. Perhaps there will not even be enough for a Brexit discussion at the summit. Who knows?”

So the June deadline is set to come and go. The summer holidays will be upon us – and the clock still ticks. “We can only assume that something this stupid and self-inflicted cannot really happen,” concludes one senior EU negotiator.

“The iceberg is ahead and the band is still playing, but for now there is no plan to avoid what we can see.”

Worryingly, many officials in Whitehall are saying precisely the same thing.

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