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Junker and May: both right but both wrong.

Bryan Edwards

The EC has released a note on a meeting held last week between the EU's President Juncker and the UK's Prime Minister May. It's pathetic. Read it below. Then read on to find out why we say they are both right but they are both wrong.

European Commission - Statement
Joint statement on behalf of President Juncker and Prime Minister May

Brussels, 7 February 2019

President Juncker and Prime Minister May have met today to review the next steps in the UK's withdrawal from the EU.

The talks were held in a spirit of working together to achieve the UK's orderly withdrawal from the EU, especially in the context of a shared determination to achieve a strong partnership for the future given the global challenges the EU and the UK face together in upholding open and fair trade, cooperation in the fight against climate change and terrorism and defending the rules-based international system.

The Prime Minister described the context in the UK Parliament, and the motivation behind last week's vote in the House of Commons seeking a legally binding change to the terms of the backstop. She raised various options for dealing with these concerns in the context of the Withdrawal Agreement in line with her commitments to the Parliament.

President Juncker underlined that the EU27 will not reopen the Withdrawal Agreement, which represents a carefully balanced compromise between the European Union and the UK, in which both sides have made significant concessions to arrive at a deal. President Juncker however expressed his openness to add wording to the Political Declaration agreed by the EU27 and the UK in order to be more ambitious in terms of content and speed when it comes to the future relationship between the European Union and the UK. President Juncker drew attention to the fact that any solution would have to be agreed by the European Parliament and the EU27.

The discussion was robust but constructive. Despite the challenges, the two leaders agreed that their teams should hold talks as to whether a way through can be found that would gain the broadest possible support in the UK Parliament and respect the guidelines agreed by the European Council. The Prime Minister and the President will meet again before the end of February to take stock of these discussions.


Cutting through all the waffle, this is what the statement is really about. The EU has agreed to a so-called "backstop" (explained elsewhere) in relation to the difficult question of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The North is part of the United Kingdom. The South (actually most) Ireland broke away in the early 20th Century and formed the Republic. There followed years of civil war in the North as those who wanted to be part of the Catholic Republic battled with those who wanted to be part of Protestant Britain. Eventually, both sides got tired and in what was his one big international coup, the then US President Bill Clinton took action to prevent the flow of money and weapons to the Irish Republican Army from supporters in the USA. Within weeks, a deal was done to cease hostilities, to release prisoners, "decommission" weapons and, basically, shake hands and make up. As part of the deal, Britain agreed to a degree of autonomy for the North under which it would have its own parliament, Stormont. Aside from some raving lunatics intent of causing trouble, and some former terrorists who decided to continue with some of their old ways as plain old organised crime, it has worked pretty well.

As relations thawed, the border between north and south became, to all intents and purposes, absent. The end result was that while much of Europe created the Schengen area, Britain and Ireland (both parts) created their own version. For citizens of either country, there is not only visa free travel but passport-free travel. Ironically, the two former foes have actually managed to give effect to what the EU continues to struggle with.

But, as the UK leaves the EU, all manner of problems relating to trade and immigration arise. No one wants the imposition of a hard border but everyone recognises that the current lack of formalities (except for spot-checks which seem to catch primarily diesel or cigarette smugglers) cannot continue without some form of recognition that there is a border of sorts. The EU is especially unhappy because it sees the UK's goods being in a similar position to the migrants who, several years ago, landed in Italy where they didn't want to be so Italy gave them all papers to legitimise their presence and they all happily spread across the Schengen area. The EU says that it, not the Republic of Ireland, needs to see a border so that goods originating in or passing through the UK don't gain all the benefits of EU membership by reason of being in Ireland.

So the idea of a transitional period was created and an agreement entered into that during that period the UK and the EU would negotiate in good faith (fat chance if the past two years is anything to go by) and if a mutually satisfactory arrangement could not be reached, in default a "backstop" would come into place. No one wants the backstop, either and the fact that it is there at all has caused some UK MPs to vote against the whole deal. But there is one complication: many voted against the deal because the backstop as it is currently envisaged isn't in it. There have been negotiations outside the strict confines of the Withdrawal Agreement and variations have been given some kind of nod.

In the three weeks before Christmas, there was a flurry of correspondence. The UK's Attorney General, according to a statement read out in Parliament, considers that the revised backstop is enforceable. But his reasoning for saying so is dubious at best: he said it was not in the "political" interests of the EU not to act in good faith and come to an acceptable agreement. That, with all due respect, is utterly naive.

Then there was a letter from Junker saying, in terms, that he considered the revised backstop enforceable. MPs rightly said that this took matters no further forward than they had been at least two weeks earlier. They said, quite reasonably, that if it's enforceable, it should be in the Withdrawal Agreement.

And so, that's the stupid part of the statement issued last week. Junkers says it's enforceable but refuses to write it into the Withdrawal Agreement. He has a point: there are some, mostly relative-newcomers to the EU club, that think Britain should be forced to stay or made to pay a hefty price for leaving. To get a variation of the deal past what must, under the terms of the Treaty of Lisbon be unanimous, is improbable. May says that her MPs will continue to vote it down until the legal position is unequivocal.

A "robust and constructive" meeting ended, then, with Junker promising to be less obstructive but otherwise, please, Mrs May, stop wasting my time.

And that's exactly why the UK's MPs are right to stand up and say "we don't trust you." If he won't agree to formally document what he says in correspondence is binding, then there is a fundamental problem with the EU's attitude and annoying as Junker is, he's got what is called the EU27 raising disparate arguments behind him. To a degree it's not Junker that's the problem, it's the Treaty of Lisbon.

There is just one wrinkle: May did seek changes to the backstop. It has been reported that Junker has said that he is open to considering changes to the non-binding "future relationship document" relating to the backstop. So the situation remains fluid but not free-flowing. Think treacle not cognac.

But there is one other important point: read in isolation, as explained in official EU documents, the pre-backstop position doesn't seem to have much wrong with it (except that it demands trust)

The Withdrawal Agreement includes the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, also known as the ‘backstop’ solution for avoiding a hard border on the island.

There’s no need for a backstop during the transition period negotiated in the Withdrawal Agreement as the UK will continue to participate in the EU Customs Union and the Single Market.

The Protocol is effectively an insurance policy that guarantees that, whatever the circumstances, there will be no hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Both sides agree that the future EU-UK agreement must include provisions that avoid a hard border. However, if there’s no agreement on how that happens by 31 December 2020 the backstop solution will apply.

That means both Ireland and Northern Ireland would remain part of the same EU-UK customs territory with no tariffs, quotas, or checks on rules of origin.

Northern Ireland would also remain aligned to a limited set of rules related to the EU's Single Market that are indispensable for avoiding a hard border.

The rules would include legislation on goods, sanitary rules for veterinary controls and VAT and excise in respect of goods.

If the backstop was in place, there would therefore be a need for checks on goods travelling from the rest of the UK to Northern Ireland, to ensure they comply with EU standards.

The EU and the UK have agreed to carry out these checks in the least intrusive way possible.

If either the EU or the UK considers the Protocol isn’t needed after the transition period, the other party has to be notified.

A new joint committee of EU and UK representatives established under the Withdrawal Agreement will consider the notification and may seek an opinion from institutions created by the Good Friday Agreement.

After that, both sides need to agree the Protocol is no longer needed as new measures in the future EU-UK agreement would avoid a hard border.

Additional reading: https://ec.europa.eu/ireland/n...

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