Peter Foster+ Your Authors @pmdfoster Public Policy Editor at the Financial Times. Formerly Washington DC, Beijing and New Delhi for the Telegraph. Opinions my own. Nov. 20, 2018 5 min read + Your Authors

Is the big #brexit climbdown beginning?

Are the Brexiteers about to decide to 'buy into' the idea that Mrs May can fix the Irish border with technology? That unicorns *do* exist?

Mad? Let me explain... 1/Thread

First @tnewtondunn reports Brexiteers like Iain Duncan Smith and co are 'biting' on a No 10 briefing that "special arrangements" could fix the Irish border - ie 'technology'

Then FT's Laura Hughes says 'Gang of Five' are too /2

Wow. Amazing....suddenly, after all these months of negotiating it seems like Number 10 has put it's hand down the back of the sofa and found a 'fix' for the border issue that has bedevilled these talks for all this time.

I love this quote particularly... /3

Someone actually said that with a straight face. Credit it where it is due.

So what is going? Is it

a) the 'unicorns' are back, as one EU source nervously texts

b) that the Brexiteers are finally looking for a way out. They want to believe in fairies after all. /4

Let's take a step backwards, since we have been here before.

Theresa May proposed two solutions to the Irish border issue that would deliver BOTH an independent trade policy (ie no need to be in a customs union) AND a soft border in Ireland. /5

There was the 'Future Customs Partnership' (I'll spare you the details, it was a dual-tariff plan that no-one though was practical, literally or politically). It was killed.

Or the "maxfac" - short for 'maximum facilitation', which would use technology. /6

MaxFac was also killed - since it required exemptions for 80 % of cross border trade, infrastructure at the border (which the UK ruled out in December) and a 'trusted trader' scheme for the remainder.

Two dead unicorns, lying in a ditch.

And yet..../7

As currently drafted, the 'backstop solution' for Ireland (a split but UK-wide customs union + regulatory alignment for NI) remains in place "unless and until" one of those two unicorns can be resuscitated, or alternative arrangements are in place. /8

Which lest we forget is why Brexiteers were so opposed to the Withdrawal Agreement. Because in the absence of unicorns, we're staying in a 'single customs territory' with the EU, and this will be the basis of the future relationship.

It's they wont' for it...or so we thought./9

But now Number 10 seems to be saying (see quote above) "no, seriously, we've looked at the technology thing, and we really think it could work".

Put aside the conditional clauses "could be" the magic bullet, and the admission "it doesn't exist yet" and well, bingo! /10

Now, no sniggering at the back there please. This could actually be the way to get the deal over the line.

Everyone agrees to go on a 'unicorn hunt' to fix the border in the hope that, in the fullness of time, all sides can "make do with horse with a shell on its forehead" /11

This is emphatically not the moment to peer too closely.

To remind ourselves that the last time I drove into Newry a few weeks back, I saw a huge billboard saying we "salute the men of violence of 1916" and an exhortation to join a Republican group and "smash Stormont" /12

Or that the Police Service of Northern Ireland have warned that things like 'numberplate recognition cameras' would be ripped down in a minutes.

Or that, as the cross-party UK Parliamentary Cmme discovered, there is no border in the world that is technology-free /13

Or that Sinn Fein control all the border constituencies in Ireland.

Or that unemployment in Newry was 20+% at the time of the Good Friday it's less than 2%. No-one there wants the border back.

Or most of the traffic is 'white van' stuff, and.... /14

As one official put it. "You've never met an Irishman if you think they're all going to put UK customs and excise trackers in their vans".

In short, no-one acquainted with the facts thinks technology can deliver an invisible border.


But of course, Brexiteers have always said it can.

We could use drones and blockchain ...and Harry Potter's Cloak of Invisibility (OK, I made that last one up) and the border could be invisible. And then we wouldn't need a customs union, and we cd go a buccaneering. /16

Those ideas were scorned by those who wondered whether it wasn't the fact that the UK shared a customs union and EU single market with Ireland that made it possible to create the 'invisible' border at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement /17

But touchingly (as it dawns that they don't have a better plan, and that they are in danger of losing Brexit altogether) they seem to have rediscovered their faith in these solutions.

Alleluia. Praise Be! May the Lord have Mercy! /18

This points to a few eternal Brexit truths.

- The Brexiteers don't have a better plan

- All these fudges and fixes only work if all sides are prepared to suspend their disbelief. Like watching the sprites and fairies at the theatre floating on wires.

But more profoundly /19

The choices present by Brexit are immutable. Something is true not simply because you want it to be.

The trade-offs market access and sovereignty are real; and if we want to fix the Irish border problem, we'll be in a customs union with the EU for the foreseeable future. /20

And this applies in a 'no deal' or a 'SuperCanada situation too.

You still need to say, if you're not in a customs union, how you deal with the Irish border.

And if you want trade to keep moving, and minimal border checks, what strings you will accept the EU attaching /21

Because here's the thing.

Even if Rees-Mogg and co get their "SuperCanada" it will a) NOT fix the Irish border and b) come with the SAME level playing field strings that May has agreed to in the Withdrawal Agreement FTA, maybe more.

If such a deal were negotiated... /22

How long before Rees-Mogg was on the pavement outside Parliament crying 'betrayal' about the long reach of the European Court of Justice and the 'vassalage' of EU trade policy (otherwise known as doing business with someone 7x your size). /23

Sorry for the long thread. And for the snark.

But the entire discussion is so risible, it's not worthy of a 6th form debating club, let alone a great nation.

As Sabine Weyand KEEPS saying to the UK. You need to make choices. We should do so honestly, with eyes open.


You can follow @pmdfoster.


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