The next ten days are key for the prospects of a Brexit deal. By the end of dinner next Wednesday night, we’ll know whether the EU and Britain are getting close enough to strike a withdrawal agreement in November, or if they are heading for no-deal. In the run-up to this, things are going to be particularly febrile. In this climate, it would be all too easy to over-interpret Jean-Claude Juncker’s May-esque dancing or (as spotted by an eagle-eyed FT journalist) Olly Robbins’s early evening glass of red wine.
The Irish border still remains the biggest obstacle to a withdrawal agreement. I understand that one source of tension between Number 10 and the DUP is the following section of the 2017 joint report, which was added in after the DUP objected to the original text:
The United Kingdom will ensure that no new regulatory barriers develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, unless, consistent with the 1998 Agreement, the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly agree that distinct arrangements are appropriate for Northern Ireland. In all circumstances, the United Kingdom will continue to ensure the same unfettered access for Northern Ireland's businesses to the whole of the United Kingdom internal market.
I understand that some in government are arguing that this means there can be checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, as long as there are no checks on goods travelling from Northern Ireland into Great Britain. The DUP, needless to say, don’t take this view and object to the idea that goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland should be checked.
Interestingly, though, Arlene Foster’s statement tonight suggests a slight shift in emphasis from the DUP. Ahead of meeting Michel Barnier, she has said that the DUP’s only red line is ‘recognising that Great Britain is Northern Ireland’s biggest market. Over 70 per cent of all goods leaving Belfast port are destined for Great Britain. To create a barrier to that trade would be catastrophic. We want to see an exit deal which means Northern Ireland has unfettered access to and from the GB market but also fully beneficiaries of any new trade deals with the United Kingdom after Brexit.’
This suggests that while the DUP doesn’t want any regulatory checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, it regards this as a lesser issue than the ‘red line’ of checks on goods going from Northern Ireland to Great Britain. This does give Theresa May a little more wriggle room.