The EU’s antagonism proves the backstop was a trap all along

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson meets Ireland's Prime Minister (Taoiseach) Leo Varadkar in Dublin 
Boris Johnson meets Ireland's Prime Minister Leo Varadkar in Dublin 

Recent behaviour proves they were never going to negotiate in good faith 

It was all about the peace process, apparently. When Dublin and the European Union Brexit negotiators insisted on there being a separate Northern Ireland protocol in the Withdrawal Agreement, it was to serve as an insurance policy, they said.

This "‘backstop", they proposed, would ensure there was no return of a physical border between north and south – and thereby, they hinted darkly, no risk that we might see a return of the "men of violence", who’d surely kick off without such guarantees.

When you put it like that, who could disagree? 

Certainly not Theresa May. Despite the fact that it has never been UK government policy to impose any kind of physical border, she signed up to the idea that there needed to be this backstop. 

What was clear at the time to Dominic Cummings and others – and is now evident to almost everyone – is that in doing so Mrs May made an epic blunder. She and her officials showed a Suez-level of stupidity, agreeing like Anthony Eden to embark on a course of action that suited the national interest of others, but not ourselves.

The backstop, you see, was never about the peace process. Its purpose is to trap us in a permanent Customs Union with the EU. It was not intended by the other side to be an insurance policy, but an end state.

Yesterday’s phone call between Boris Johnson and Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, made this crystal clear. Never, Mrs Merkel said, would Northern Ireland be allowed to leave the Customs Union, unless Dublin allowed it to. Which, of course, is not something that would ever happen.

It is precisely because the EU never intended to allow Northern Ireland to leave the Customs Union that they have just rejected Boris's latest practical proposals on how to manage the smooth flow of trade between north and south. 

It also explains why they have remained adamant that there can never be any kind of time limit on the backstop. It’d be an odd kind of insurance policy that was as open-ended as the protocol Theresa May almost signed us up to.

But it also means bad faith. When all those UK officials and earnest MPs, like Greg Hands, worked away to devise so-called "alternative arrangements" that might ensure the backstop was only transitory, they were pitching to people that never had any intention of making such arrangements work.

Dublin has never had any intention of securing new arrangements to enable the smooth flow of trade between two jurisdictions since their goal all along has been to secure a single jurisdiction across the whole island of Ireland.

Berlin, now the real centre of power in the EU, had no intention of seeing Northern Ireland escape the backstop because from its perspective the backstop was about keeping the UK closely aligned to the EU. Since, they calculated, no UK government would want to separate itself from Northern Ireland, keeping Northern Ireland to all intents and purposes inside the EU would keep the rest of the country tethered.

But why, you might wonder, shouldn’t Dublin and Berlin pursue what they believe is in their interest? If EU leaders can find a British Prime Minister as witless and foolish as Theresa May, why not get London to sign itself into submission?

But of course, Theresa May – mercifully – is not in charge anymore.

For too long the other side – Berlin, Brussels, Dublin – have been listening to the people who lost the referendum. They might not have yet noticed that Vote Leave now runs the show. They are dealing with people as prepared to pursue the British national interest as they are to further their national interests.

EU strategy has been to seek the de facto annexation of UK territory. They have done so in order to bind us into a Customs Union. Even more provocatively, EU officials have colluded with Remain campaigners to try to overturn a democratic decision made by the British people. These are the actions you might expect from hostile states, not allies.

Perhaps Merkel, Varadkar and co know all this, but believe that its still worth antagonising Boris. There is, they assume, a reasonable chance that the government might fall, and be replaced by one a little more accommodating.

Even if Boris were to win an election, they have calculated, they can always come back and accept what is currently on offer.

I’m not so sure. You see this is no longer just about what various factions in Westminster think. Like so many Remainers, the EU side is overlooking the views of the voters in all this. Even if things might in time be patched up with Team Boris, I’m not so sure that the long term effects of these antics will be overlooked by the electorate.  Folk memory is being formed, and it does not change with the twists and turns of ever EU negotiation.

It’s not only 17.4 million Leave voters that have now noticed the hostile actions from supposed allies. The antagonistic behaviour of Brussels, Berlin and Dublin make it far harder for any UK politician to argue that the EU is a club we should be part of.  More than that, it makes it less likely that having left, there will be popular support for continued close ties.