European Union diplomats say they’ve seen hopeful signs coming from Great Britain that the thorny issue of Northern Ireland’s borders can be resolved before the October 31 Brexit deadline is reached.
The movement may be more illusory than real. But it appears that Prime Minister Boris Johnson is softening his stance on the border question.
The issue involves Northern Ireland’s ability to stay in the EU customs union. The EU is insisting that any deal to allow the UK to leave must include a stipulation that Northern Ireland remain in the customs zone while London is insisting that the entire UK — including Northern Ireland — form its own customs regime.
Obviously, the issue requires a bit of finesse for the two sides to come to an agreement.
Three other diplomats said the most significant development was a U.K. agreement to go back to a draft Withdrawal Agreement from February 2018 and use that as the basis for the new round of negotiations.Under that proposal, Northern Ireland would effectively stay in the EU’s single market and customs union after Brexit as part of a “backstop” provision for the Irish border, a mechanism designed to ensure that there is never a hard border on the island of Ireland whatever happens in future trade talks.
But that plan will only be the starting point for discussions, diplomats said: “It doesn’t mean at all that we’re close to any kind of a deal,” one of the diplomats said.
It’s desperation time and both sides may be reaching for straws. Johnson claims the UK will leave come hell or high water on the 31st. But he’s also completely aware of the dire predictions being made about a “no-deal Brexit.”
The biggest, most likely problem with a no-deal Brexit would be uncertainty from the top to the bottom of the British economy.
The UK would revert to World Trade Organisation rules on trade. While Britain would no longer be bound by EU rules, it would have to face the EU’s external tariffs. The price of imported goods in shops for Britons could go up as a result.
Some British-made products may be rejected by the EU as new authorisation and certification might be required.
Manufacturers could move their operations to the EU to avoid delays in components coming across the border.
Johnson’s plan all along was to broker new trade deals with individual countries where some of those issues might be addressed. But the border will be a mess because of the probability of delays due to increased passport and customs checks.
The short answer to what will happen is that no one knows. That unsettling idea could feed the perception that the worst predictions might come true.
In the meantime, there is still a chance for a deal before the EU’s October 16 summit meeting where Brexit — deal or no deal — will be the major topic of discussion.