On Wednesday, just before Prime Minister’s Questions, the EU published its plan to effectively keep Northern Ireland in the single market and customs union after Brexit. The 120-page draft withdrawal agreement will throw the negotiations into crisis.
The detail buried in the colossal note suggests that the territory of Northern Ireland would be considered, by the EU, as part of the EU’s customs territory after Brexit, with checks required on goods coming in from the rest of the UK.
It also says that that a raft of single market legislation will also apply, to ensure the province stays in lockstep with laws of the Republic of Ireland that are relevant to the daily north-south flow of trade.
While both remain inside the EU, both Ireland and Northern Ireland are part of the single market and customs union. They share the same regulations and standards, allowing a soft or invisible border between the two. Britain’s exit from the EU – taking Northern Ireland with it – risks a return to a hard or policed border.
The draft paper leaves open the possibility that a future free-trade deal or some bespoke technological solutions could make the plan for full regulatory alignment null and void.
Best for Britain has called for the government to come clean about what kind of Brexit it wants and where the Irish border will be. The foreign secretary and Brexiteer Boris Johnson, though, accuses people like myself of exploiting Northern Ireland’s ambiguous future to “frustrate” Brexit and keep us in the EU.
The announcement today suggests that EU and UK negotiators are not going to come to an agreement and citizens, on both sides of the border, will be the biggest losers.
We are looking at either dividing the UK or a hard border in Ireland. We can avoid both by staying in the EU, which is an option for us as long as Europe keeps the door open – and the clock is ticking on that possibility.
Eloise Todd is the chief executive of Best for Britain, which campaigns for MPs to get a meaningful vote on Brexit.