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MICHAEL WHITE: If hard-hearted Michel Barnier can compromise, why not Jacob Rees-Mogg?

Traffic crossing the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland in the village of Bridgend, Co Donegal. Picture: BRIAN LAWLESS/PA - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

MICHAEL WHITE on the transitional deal and the problems that still remain over the Irish border

Home late from the theatre, I broke half a lifetime’s habit and switched on BBC Newsnight to see how David Davis’s latest ‘decisive’ breakthrough in Brussels was being received at home.

To judge by the pained expression on the face of Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, willowy Agatha Trunchbull of Brexit Academy, the finalised legal text of the Withdrawal Agreement was not going down a treat.

It would be easier to ask Scottish fishermen to swallow ‘a pint of sick’, a less elegant fellow-Tory protested on the same programme. After the City watched the Brexit Bulldog and Michel Barnier purring like pussycats on television the pound may have risen against the faltering dollar (but not the euro). Business has won its breathing space, hurdles overcome or parked, more certainty for planning. And the EU27.5’s weekend summit in Brussels can now safely concentrate on other important issues.

But the staff room at Brexit Academy seemed to be deciding whether or not to have another ‘betrayal’ sulk. It is tempting to say ‘good’. Indignant reaction from the right people, IDS spluttering and Nigel (remember him?) Farage popping a pre-cooked soundbite into the microwave (‘Theresa the Appeaser’), must be encouraging for those who want Britain to negotiate its way to pragmatic Brexit compromises with as little damage as possible to either side.

But potential damage is not all economic, any more than the Brexit 52% (37% if we include contented non-voters) were voting on purely economic lines. Social exclusion, cultural grievance and other resentments – some of them legitimate – were part of the mix.

So a successful outcome is one which seeks to keep as many of them as possible reasonably content too if we are to knit a divided country back together again in the tough decade ahead. That must be what the cautiously consensual Mrs May’s two steps forward, one step backwards approach intends. Slowly does it, this was always going to be a miserable process.

In getting upset about the text’s delayed repatriation of those Scottish fishing rights, the ones that Aberdeen’s Michael Gove promised to repatriate by 2019, or cross about the fudged status of the Irish land border, of which May herself spoke strongly only weeks ago, Fisherman Rees-Mogg again emphasised the negative: ‘The government has rolled over without even having its tummy tickled.’

The joke lacks Farage-iste bitterness or that jovial Kipper hint of barely-suppressed rage. Mild jokes represent progress of the kind necessary towards what may yet be May’s settlement within the Tory party as well as with the wider world.

You might have expected The Mogg to be more upbeat about Barnier’s confirmation – the paragraph coloured with green marker pen to signal agreement – that Brexit Britain will be free from March 29, 2019 (‘Freedom Day’) to sign those compensatory free trade agreements (FTAs), as Liam Fox has been gagging to do with eager customers around the non-EU world.

However sceptical you may feel about such starry-eyed FTA talk, Rees-Mogg is supposed to be excited. As chairman of the hard-line European Research Group (ERG) he’d happily cut UK import tariffs to zero in a WTO Brexit. Ah, no. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) said mid-week the promise of ‘cheaper world imports’ by Rees-Mogg among others has been grossly oversold. It’s worth a 1.2% price cut to consumers. Rees-Mogg quibbled with IFS data, but the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply (CIPS) also stresses the risks of higher Brexit costs and prices.

So what about the positives? About Gibraltar which the Davis-Barnier deal will see leaving the EU with the UK (touch wood), unencumbered by Spanish ambitions? Or the transition agreement’s paragraph which liberates British foreign and defence policy from future EU decisions? It does not leave us entirely out in the cold at a time when we need allies to stand up to Russian assassins (and are currently getting more solidarity than I feared here last week).

Above all, what about that time-limited transition phase of just 20 months – another ‘Freedom Day’ on January 1 2021? Isn’t that what suspicious Brexiteers wanted and Hilary Benn, chair of the Brexit select committee (pause for hisses), just the opposite? It is. With one stroke Project Betrayal’s ‘permanent transition’ scare melts away like March snow, though at least nine EU member states are said to share May’s concern that 21 months will not be enough to prepare lorry parks and IT systems, let alone to clinch an end-state UK/EU treaty. Events may force an extension.

Among Tuesday’s low-key Fleet Street coverage, the Daily Mail’s verdict showed itself to be more subtle than the average Etonian, as we would all expect. ‘Britain Plots ‘Biggest Trade Deal Ever’ After Brexit Breakthrough,’ its bouncy headline proclaimed – but only on page 12. Page one was given over to a potentially more useful breakthrough in the fight against blindness arising from age-related macular degeneration, itself a possible cause of that Brexit majority.

Not for the first time since May’s self-harming election the protective tone of the Mail’s coverage was significant. Its editorial spoke of a ‘huge step’ despite ‘the scaremongering and cynicism of Remainers’ and even detected a retreat from ‘negativity and threats’ by a Brussels finally admitting a common interest in a deal. Its summary of six key points craftily identified two wins, two defeats and two draws – in contrast to the Guardian’s five to one win for the 

Let’s resist chortling at such brazen cheek from the ‘Crush the Saboteurs’ lobby. If the likes of the Mail, the Spectator and the muscular crowd at the Brexit Central website can be persuaded to declare victory when a deal – complete with messy compromises – is finally struck, then May is home and dry. Jake Rees-Mogg is no match for Paul Dacre on campaign: if this continues we must start praying for his continued good health and that longed-for knighthood. Arise Sir Paul! Barnier could surely rustle up a Legion d’Honneur.

All that is a long way ahead. The Guardian and other papers were surely right to conclude that Downing Street – more Olly Robbins than Brexit Bulldog – gave ground on the rights of EU citizens (a million of them, says MigrationWatch) to settle in Britain during the transition with full rights. I do not share alarms (‘fewer travel rights than cheddar cheese’?) that Brits living in the EU27 – and moving within it – will be short-changed on healthcare (etc) much more than they are already by many bureaucratic hurdles which don’t exist here – but may soon have to.

Criminal and security checks are a nightmare.

But the ‘take back control’ test critics are also right to point out that on immigration, law-making and the budget, the sovereignty crowd will have to endure what Rees-Mogg calls ‘vassal status’ until 2021 without any say in what happens. On the Irish border, on unchanged fishing quotas – which forced Scottish Tories to compete in outrage with the SNP – and on the sensitive mechanisms by which UK courts will voluntarily give ‘due regard’ to European court (ECJ) rulings, there remains much to be done. It can’t all be fudged.

On Newsnight and elsewhere, Rees-Mogg was surely right to remind sleepy viewers that it is a core principle of EU negotiations – set out again in the withdrawal text – that ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’ and that this means that unsatisfactory aspects can be unpicked if there is no deal on, for instance, the Irish border ‘back stop’ problem. When Remain talks this way it is called bullying.

Never mind. Remember too, that Brussels and Berlin will be left with a very big hole in the EU budget if Britain crashes out with no deal, Rees-Mogg also pointed out. That’s true. When he says compromises over the transition (‘implementation’ in May-speak) will be ‘tolerable if the end-state is a clean Brexit’ that sounds as if the ERG’s hard Brexiteers are preparing to fight in the last ditch when stage three of the negotiations (divorce terms; transition terms; and end-state terms) are completed.

In that scenario they would seek to galvanise public opinion against wobbly colleagues in the Commons – not Ken Clarke or Anna Soubry, of course – who want to vote with the overwhelming majority of peers and MPs for a soft Brexit when their promised ‘meaningful vote’ materialises.

As The New European reported last week, Lord Andrew Adonis thinks the Brexiteers’ own referendums legislation of 2011, designed to prevent another Maastricht-style loss of powers to Brussels, can be deployed to force a second referendum, via the courts if necessary. It’s all pressure, legitimate pressure too, but I wouldn’t bet the pension on it happening.

But are the Rees-Moggsters actually shifting the goalposts during the night? Might they be quietly admitting to themselves that evidence trickling in from all directions, not to mention the scary direction in which the authoritarian nationalism of Putin, Xi and Trump is taking us – trade wars and all – makes their more Tiggerish predictions about Global Britain’s global future look a bit innocent?

If hard-hearted Barnier can change enough to see the need for a more cooperative outcome, might not Jake Rees-Mogg? He isn’t daft either, he doesn’t want to end up a crushed saboteur under Not Sir Paul Dacre’s tractor. So might he and IDS – who usually sounds more emollient on Radio 4’s Today than he did on the previous day’s World at One – collude with May, Davis and Dacre to kick the can down the road to the point where a weary electorate says ‘just do it and hope for the best’?

As for Gove and Johnson, they like their political comforts too much to resign, as distinct from get sacked. I don’t see Boris sawing off the branch he’s sitting on, except by accident which, in his case, is always possible whenever he opens his mouth.

At one level it depends on how we all deal with evidence, especially evidence that conflicts with our own prejudices. It’s always been an issue, as Galileo found when he tried to teach his Pope astronomy and found that faith still prevailed over reason – for the time being. Autocrats often reject the best advice.

Belief and hope are admirable. But so is evidence, never more so in an age where expertise is derided and Facebook digs its own grave by elevating profit over a publisher’s responsibility to protect the truth. Would Galileo’s heliocentric view still prevail in a Twitter poll in Alabama? Don’t ask.

Climate change? The Skripal poisonings in Salisbury? Putin’s rigged election or Trump’s ill-mannered sackings? We all have instinctive responses, but persuasive evidence is better. Never more so in the endless Brexit debate where no one side has a monopoly of wisdom or insight. So this week I took time to read up some of the studies about the topical Irish border problem.

It’s been parked again this week and it’s not hard to see why. If the end-state trade agreement between Britain and the EU ends up with the UK remaining inside the customs union (highly unlikely despite the Ken Clarke-Corbyn axis on this aim) or an all-singing-and-dancing FTA takes a maximalist form on tariffs, regulation and the rest, the problem will virtually melt away in an atmosphere of goodwill.

Whitehall’s favoured remedy – Option B in the December 8 text agreed by May – would see close cooperation buttressed by high-tech solutions on ‘smart borders’ that have numberplate recognition, trusted trader status for border regulars, radio frequency identification (RFID) and much else pioneered by Sweden and Norway, the US and Canada and – divided by 1,200 miles of sea, but friends – Australia and New Zealand.

A can-do Swede called Lars Karlsson, ex-director of the World Customs Organisation, features prominently in such analyses and is deployed to justify Brexit assertions that tech can fix the problem without recourse to the return of hated physical borders – which neither London, Belfast, Dublin or Brussels want – and that assertions to the contrary are cooked up by Remainers and assorted Irish trouble-makers.

They’re half right. There’s a lot that fast-evolving technology can achieve to speed up border crossings which could be developed for Ireland and adapted for wider use on other EU land borders to foster open trade. It’s very impressive stuff, real evidence. But to invoke the European parliament’s Smart Borders 2.0 report, the one Brexiteers claim ‘they’ don’t want you to see, as clinching the issue, just isn’t true.

Hilary Benn’s DExEU select committee reached a similar conclusion (even if the Rees-Mogg minority didn’t) for similar reasons. So did the Northern Ireland select committee, chaired by Brexit Tory, Andrew Murrison.

Some form of electronic border, complete with physical presence of customs men, special lanes etc remains unavoidable, even if concentrated at major crossing points. The Swedes and Norwegians are both inside the single market/customs union (plus Schengen) and still have a sizeable control zone on both sides of their virtual border in which both countries customs teams can stop and search.

The easiest way to protect the EU’s single market from imports of US chlorinated chicken and Britain from imports of unwanted Romanians called Paddy would be to deploy December’s back stop option C of customs at the handful of British-Irish sea ports. London and the DUP (a minority on this issue) reject what we might call Option Sea. Yet agricultural and other checks already exist there, some at Belfast’s insistence. If the Rees-Moggsters can be brought to heel, so can Arlene Foster.

Someone might usefully point some evidence to slow learners. The Irish rugby team which thrashed England 24-15 at Twickenham last week was picked from all 32 counties. No border there.

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