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Thursday 3 October 2019

It’s been a strange twenty-four hour news-cycle, with EU leaders and Westminster stilling mulling over Boris’s proposal for a deal and nothing new coming out of an otherwise entertaining leader’s speech at the Conservative Party conference, we find ourselves in somewhat of a vacuum.

Yesterday’s Brexit Brunch covered the content of the proposal whereby Northern Ireland would be find itself wedged between a UK regulatory zone and the EU’s Customs Union. Notably, the European Commission has made no formal response, the Guardian reports Michel Barnier warned colleagues yesterday “the EU would then be trapped with no backstop to preserve the single market after Brexit” in the event Stormont votes to leave the Customs Union, another of Boris’s provisions. Yes, Michel, that’s the whole point, the backstop is dead.

Normally Dublin and Brussels are straight out of the blocks to rubbish British ideas, and on the record. A repeat offender is Ireland’s deputy prime minister, but so far Simon Coveney has only said he finds the proposals “concerning”. The European Parliament’s Guy Verhostadt said the outcome of his committee’s discussion was “not positive”, but what do you expect, the man’s a fanatic.

All pretty remarkable when you think that the new option on the table completely contradicts Theresa May’s original commitment to avoiding border infrastructure – admittedly Boris is placing his checkpoints well behind the border. May was also all too willing to cleave to Brussels’ protective obsession over its the single market and ensuring there aren’t any holes through which unregulated goods can enter and reach all four corners of the EU. Boris has rightly ignored those concerns. Unsurprisingly, this was the main line of questioning on the Today programme and BBC Breakfast this morning. The BBC really is batting for the EU.

Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay and Nigel Dodds of the DUP pointed out that systems are available for the big importers and exporters to have their consignments checked at their place of origin/destination, while the smaller transporters who might seek to exploit the opportunity of a loose border to smuggle goods can be held to account by this thing call the law. The proper use of intelligence can also be extremely effective. Seems sound to us and a far cry from Theresa May’s disgraceful contribution to project fear in March when she portrayed a border free Ireland as a smuggler’s paradise, but those circumstances were different. Mrs May would not countenance physical checks as she sought to ramp up the risks of No Deal Brexit to give her dreadful deal a sporting chance.

Nevertheless, Verhofstadt’s Brexit committee in the European Parliament – the EU’s outrider designed to test the British government’s resolve we presume – publishes its conclusions today, they’re unlikely to be forgiving.

Nice try! Brussels does have some cards up its sleeves, Eurocrats smugly believe Boris is bluffing about leaving at the end of this month “do or do” thanks to the Surrender Act, however the PM appears to have  assembled a majority behind his deal, something May never did. Therefore, the EU, and the all-important Member States are faced with the temptation of playing ball with the Boris to get a deal through the Commons in no time at all. The beginning of the end is nigh.  

The talks are to be structured as follows: Downing Street want Barnier’s team and those persistent leakers in Dublin to “enter the tunnel” with them, meaning strict confidence. Boris looks poised to make concessions over VAT in Northern Ireland as well as the timing of the deal and perhaps whether Britain begins to deviate from EU rules in 2021 or 2025. The British government has let it be known that what has been put on the table equates to a “broad landing zone”, plenty of room for manoeuvre, an inducement to the EU to show some interest, join the Brits in the tunnel and see hat happens.  

Ultimately, it comes down to the Irish, they will be aware as anyone that even if Brexit is delayed again by the Surrender Act , the overall possibility of No Deal, their worst nightmare, will not have been reduced. They will also know that if they are happy with whatever comes out of the other end of the tunnel, the rest of the EU will probably be too. While it is true the French are likely to kick up a fuss over that hole in the precious single market, the Irish themselves are more likely to pay the price for that compromise than the Britons next door.

Only 28 days remain before Brexit, it couldn’t look further away.