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22 November 2018

Theresa May hasn’t bought off Brexiteers on the Irish border

Despite a promise to consider technological solutions, the EU political declaration changes nothing about the backstop.

By Patrick Maguire

Has the publication of the political declaration on the United Kingdom’s future relationship with the EU given some Tory Brexiteers enough cover to climb down and vote for Theresa May’s deal in the Commons next month?

On Monday, the Prime Minister promised a delegation of Leavers, including Owen Paterson and Iain Duncan Smith, that she would consider technological solutions to the Irish border as a means of avoiding the backstop – the legal mechanism, hated by Brexiteers and the DUP, by which the UK would avoid a hard border by effectively remaining in a customs union and keeping Northern Ireland aligned with the Republic on regulations.

This commitment has, conveniently, found its way into the text of the political declaration.

“The Parties will put in place ambitious customs arrangements, in pursuit of their overall objectives. In doing so, the Parties envisage making use of all available facilitative arrangements and technologies, in full respect of their legal orders and ensuring that customs authorities are able to protect the Parties’ respective financial interests and enforce public policies.

“To this end, they intend to consider mutual recognition of trusted traders’ programmes, administrative cooperation in customs matters and mutual assistance, including for the recovery of claims related to taxes and duties, and through the exchange of information to combat customs fraud and other illegal activity.

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“Such facilitative arrangements and technologies will be considered in developing any alternative arrangements for ensuring the absence of a hard border on the island of Ireland on a permanent footing.”

May will wave this protocol at Brexiteers in an attempt to sell the deal, but few are likely to buy it. The fundamental ask in front of them is still big and politically unpalatable: sign up to a binding international treaty on the backstop from which you have no unilateral escape route in exchange for some aspirational flannel on trying to use technology instead.

Not only does the backstop remain as the only binding commitment, but Brexiteers would be right to suspect that the EU is unlikely to want to try very hard to come up with a technological solution inside a tight two-year timeframe (if they haven’t already reached the conclusion that it doesn’t exist, which it doesn’t).

The Irish government has been clear throughout the past two years that the border problem is as much political as it is economic, if not more. Its position is that technology alone cannot solve a political question, so even if the EU makes good on its non-binding commitment to “consider” max fac, drones, blockchain or whatever else Iain Duncan Smith thinks could keep the border open, the answer is overwhelmingly likely to be a no.

While its inclusion might be a small victory for the deputation of Tories who demanded May consider it, most Conservative Brexiteers are unlikely to see it as anything other than how an ally of David Davis describes it: “A figleaf.”