The 2-year hunt for the Brexit ‘unicorn’ | Politics


On Monday night, Michel Barnier will sit right down to dinner in Brussels along with his third Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay.

The British cupboard minister will come contemporary from conferences with the choice preparations working group, a gaggle of Tory MPs from throughout the celebration who consider there’s something to the thought of the Malthouse compromise, a resurrection of the concept know-how might clear up the Irish border concern. UK officers are enjoying down expectations. The considered it has EU officers tearing their hair out.

“After two years, we’ve got come full circle,” mentioned one EU diplomat. It had been a two-year hunt for this “unicorn”, mentioned a second.

Within the rapid post-referendum confusion in the summertime of 2016, Eire’s then prime minister, Enda Kenny, spoke of a “digital border” and “methods of coping with trendy know-how by way of checking commerce”.

Technical work started in Dublin on automated licence plate recognition methods and trusted dealer schemes. London was on the identical wavelength.

“It’s going to value us loads of work on know-how to take care of border management on items however with out having border posts, however that’s what we intend to do,” the then Brexit secretary, David Davis, informed MPs.

However by February 2017, Kenny was exasperated by the shortage of concepts from Downing Avenue, and alarmed by his first sighting of Irish research on the feasibility of such a repair.

Cameras for licence plate recognition could be a goal for dissident teams, resulting in the necessity for policing, and thus additional targets. To battle smuggling, which might be inspired by the waiving of checks for small merchants, customs officers would have to be current. “The executive and financial burden on the merchants concerned can’t be underestimated,” Eire’s Workplace of the Income Commissioners mentioned.

“Let me be completely clear on one level,” Kenny informed a thinktank in Dublin. It was a “important nationwide curiosity” to keep away from not solely the border of the previous but additionally a “new one sooner or later”. “This can be a political matter, not a authorized or technical matter,” he mentioned. Irish officers had been informed to droop their work.

When the Brexit negotiations lastly began in earnest in June 2017, after Theresa Could’s disastrous common election outcome, the EU’s deputy chief negotiator, Sabine Weyand, and the prime minister’s chief Brexit adviser, Olly Robbins, danced across the concern, mapping out the place joint membership of the one market was important to north-south cooperation.

It was a steep studying curve. When Could subsequently confirmed that Northern Eire would require particular options for its distinctive circumstances, Brussels was inspired {that a} reasonable method was rising.

An August 2017 paper from the UK pushed the case for maintaining Northern Eire within the single electrical energy marketplace for starters – “to maintain the lights on” – and nodded on the want for regulatory equivalence for agri-food measures to keep away from checks on animals and vegetation. The premise of the one market facet of the Irish backstop was already there. A political repair, not a technical one.

There was additionally the primary concerted stab in a second paper at proposing a technological association for customs. One choice was a “extremely streamlined customs association” comprising trusted dealer schemes with licence plate know-how and exemptions for small companies conducting 80% of cross-border commerce in Northern Eire. A second was a “customs partnership” during which the UK would accumulate duties on the EU’s behalf for items destined for the bloc.

Alarms bells rang in Dublin. Earlier than they had been even offered within the negotiations after the summer time break, the concepts had been trashed to reporters by EU officers as “magical considering”. “We hadn’t even had a gathering by then,” a supply admitted.

The next formal shows on the finish of August and in September became a massacre. The infrastructure required was mentioned to pose a menace to peace, the “blind eye” to some merchants supplied an incentive to smugglers, and the twin tariff system heaped prices on the EU and European companies.

Searching for a artistic answer wouldn’t imply suspending the EU’s authorized order, Weyand warned. Barnier would inform Davis to return to the drafting board. Most importantly, there was little pushback from the British, sources on each side have confirmed.

At this time neither EU nor UK officers rule out a technological answer for the border sooner or later. As a way to entice MPs to vote for the withdrawal settlement, it’s understood the EU is taking a look at spelling out how simply such an answer would possibly work sooner or later, and its willpower to work on the present issues. However that isn’t one thing that anybody can depend on as a definitive answer on the finish of the transition interval. It’s for the long run, and the customs union within the backstop stays.

Requested how the UK’s contemporary groping for technological fixes is being seen in Brussels, sources level to Weyand’s current feedback. “The [British] negotiators haven’t been in a position to clarify them to us and that’s not their fault,” she mentioned. “It’s as a result of they don’t exist.”

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