On Theresa May’s Northern Ireland border proposals, the EU remains unconvinced

The Commission feels the backstop plan would offer the UK the benefits of three of the four freedoms of the single market.

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Silence is golden? Theresa May will certainly think so: there’s barely a murmur of protest from the Conservative Party about her plan to extend the backstop plan – whereby Northern Ireland will remain in regulatory alignment with the European Union in order to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland – to the whole of the United Kingdom.

But while there is silence in the United Kingdom, there are distinct grumblings from the Commission and some member states in the EU27. They feel that arrangement would allow the United Kingdom to have the benefits of three of the four freedoms of the single market while escaping the politically fraught – in the United Kingdom at least – repercussions of the free movement of people.

The view from Downing Street is that the agreement reached in December over the Irish border means the EU27 have already agreed to that, like it or not. And you genuinely can interpret the relevant clauses either as relating to the whole of the UK or narrowly to Northern Ireland.

But the UK's difficulty as far as matters of interpretation goes is that the EU is of course the significantly larger partner, which means that its downside risk is smaller and its hopes of getting its way are significantly larger than the UK’s.

The reality is that what's likely is yet another forward march in Theresa May’s “Thesaurus Brexit”, in which what Brexiteers tell themselves is an extension of arrangements for Northern Ireland to the whole of the United Kingdom is in fact the indefinite transition that so many have set their faces against.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics. He also co-hosts the New Statesman podcast.

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