This comes with a familiar sinking feeling and a triumph of hope over almost seven years of very negative experience. Despite those caveats, there are many signs that the Brexit crux over Northern Ireland’s special trade status could be fixed by Monday.
ritish Conservative Party MPs have been told to be in the London parliament on Monday, UK government ministers have been put on standby for a conference call tomorrow. And there will be more talks between UK prime minister Rishi Sunak and Ursula von der Leyen, the EU Commission president, with a face-to-face meeting to seal the deal quite possible.
We know that this “Brexit fix” was flagged for last Tuesday, amid a flurry of positive negotiations late last week, and a view that economic realism had finally landed in London for the pragmatic and political-fixing, but untried, prime minister Rishi Sunak.
Through the past week Mr Sunak put things on hold as the Euro-sceptic wing of his Conservative Party, the so-called European Research Group (ERG), and their sometime on-off allies in the North, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), tried to gather their opposition strength by sowing doubt and rekindling dissent.
But all signals still are that Mr Sunak – under cover of Ukrainian war anniversaries – will drive on and face down opponents as early as this coming Monday. Since this Brexit tragic farce had more false dawns than many other recent contentious issues, we are entitled to suspend belief until we see it sealed.
There will be stiff opposition to any compromise. Former UK PM Boris Johnson – the same person who signed off on the special deal for the North – has warned Mr Sunak that he must not drop the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill.
This is making its way through the British parliament and would allow London to unilaterally set aside the Brexit deals done in October 2019 which have international law status.
The emerging Brexit compromise concerns how these checks will be majorly curbed
But in Brussels-London negotiations, which revived since Rishi Sunak became PM on October 25 last year, the EU has given considerable concessions to assuage Northern Ireland business people’s concerns about the administration of new special trade arrangements. A quick recap would help here.
There was non-existent consideration of Northern Ireland in the 2016 Brexit referendum debate. But soon after the Leave vote in June 2016 the prospect of a “hard border” in Ireland surfaced as three things could not co-exist.
These were the UK’s determined exit from the EU single market and customs union; the need for single market checks at the only EU-UK land frontier which is in Ireland; and the need to protect the integrity of product standards within the 27-nation border-free EU single market.
Two creative remedies were talked up with steadfast EU emphasis on avoiding a new visible Irish border. The second one, which still applies, was keeping the North inside the EU single market for goods – but that irked Unionists because it involved checks on products coming in from Scotland, England and Wales.
The emerging Brexit compromise concerns how these checks will be majorly curbed. Properly documented goods coming from Britain into Northern Ireland, and destined to stay there, can pass through a “green lane” with only minimal sporadic checks. Goods coming into the North, but destined for the Republic and the EU single market, will go through a “red lane” for closer checking.
The coming two days are crucial for Ireland north and south
London would be free to set the North’s VAT rates and state aid policies. The Northern Ireland parliament – in so far as it ever functions – would have the right to be consulted on relevant new EU laws.
But that one stops far short of Stormont being able to veto EU legislation. There is also the vexed question of the writ of the EU Court, the final arbiter in single market disputes, still running in the North. This is a central tenet of EU law clashing with a major Brexit motivator in Britain.
Can Rishi Sunak win through? That question turns on three issues: Will he push for a vote in parliament, which he legally can avoid, but with tough political consequences? Can the ERG-DUP be bought off or faced down? Must Mr Sunak fall back on a damaging “Faustian pact” of support on offer from the British Labour Party?
The coming two days are crucial for Ireland north and south.