The amazing time-shifting backstop

How did we get here? I’m not talking about the UK decision to leave the EU: that came about because a very great number of people who thought immigrants were coming to take their jobs and who lived in a dream of making Britain Great Again voted to leave the EU. I’m talking about how it can be that 95% of the withdrawal agreement has been agreed between the UK and the EU (at least according to the UK) with essentially only this pesky Irish border backstop blocking the way.

That should not have happened and it’s a mystery how it did. When the backstop emerged as a feature at the beginning of this year, we kept getting assurances that there’d be no progress made until Britain accepted this backstop. Which they did, sort of. May signed up to it in December 2017 and reiterated her commitment in March 2018. Yet somehow or other, with customary slipperiness, the UK is now in the position where it has done and dusted (it says) everything else, and the backstop is the only block to signing off.

Back months ago (no, Virginia, I most certainly am not going to go digging into my blog archive to find out when – but it’s there, I promise you) – back months ago I said the one thing we must avoid is to have everything else sorted and only the border being the blockage between UK and EU agreement. If that happened, I figured, Ireland would be put under enormous pressure, by the EU as well as the UK, to soften up and either forget about the backstop or accept a version of it so watered down it’d be indistinguishable from a glass of Ballygowan.

That is where we are now. In today’s Irish Times, Simon Coveney is at his most bullish (yes, V, I know he doesn’t look like a bull – more like a gazelle, actually – but I’m talking about his words and tone) – Coveney is being very bullish:

““To suggest moving away from that [the backstop] now is not going to fly with Ireland or the EU as a whole.,, There will be no withdrawal agreement without the backstop, end of story.”

Nice one, Simon. Although I’d rather have heard it (again) from the lips of Michel Barnier. Because the UK’s Dominic Raab is reported this morning as saying that the EU’s backstop proposals are “unacceptable” (this despite the UK agreeing to them in December last). “We won’t sacrifice Northern Ireland, and we must have finality to any backstop – whether through a time-limit or a mechanism that enables the UK to leave in case the EU doesn’t live up to its promise to get the future relationship in place swiftly.”

Can you believe this guy? He’s getting hoity-toity with the EU for not setting up a future relationship swiftly enough. The UK was the one who called for divorce, and now she’s blaming her partner for not coming to a swift agreement.

Two things: Ireland (north and south) would do well not to believe a word that drips from the lips of any Tory minister or MP. And two, Varadkar and Coveney couldn’t say often enough that pissing about with the backstop is a non-starter, and they should find ways to have Michel Barnier and the EU join them in saying so. Only when the Brits realize that they’re up against 27 countries, not just one little neighbouring state, will they be pressured into doing the right thing. Because you may rest assured, doing the right thing is totally contrary to their nature.

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