As we write, there are no reports of an agreement between Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker in the Brexit negotiations. Even if there were to be one, it would not be final, as Mark Wallace wrote on this site earlier today. The European Council will take any decision about its view next Friday – yes, that’s Friday December 15, not this Friday, December 8. And there would be a long road to walk after that.
However, we read from informed Irish sources that there is a draft on the Northern Ireland border, which was originally reported as containing the words “no regulatory divergence”, but which was later reported instead to refer to “continued regulatory alignment”.
Do you have your thesaurus ready? “No regulatory divergence” can only mean exactly that. “Continued regulatory alignment” could mean continued forever; continued for, say, a day; continued for some period in between – and so on.
Next: what is “alignment”, anyway? Some are claiming that it represents continued Single Market and/or Customs Union membership for Northern Ireland, with knock-on implications for the rest of the UK. But the point of the Single Market is not that one is “aligned” to it; it’s that one is a member of it. “Alignment” means, well, “a position of agreement”. It doesn’t necessarily mean absorption.
We move on. Would such an alignment be one of all regulation? Or of those matters where there is already alignment, under the framework set up by the Belfast Agreement? There is a difference between energy, for example, where there are already all-Ireland arrangements and, say, financial services (where there are not).
And finally. Who takes any decision about any change of alignment? Is it London? Dublin? The devolved administration in Belfast – assuming that we get one back? Or, assuming this briefing on the outline of an agreement is correct, has the can simply been kicked down the road until later?
Version One: May has made concessions that have set a deadly precedent for Scotland (and perhaps Wales) and prepare the way for something close to EEA minus – if they are not first rejected by the DUP and spurned by some Brexiteers in her Cabinet (who then resign), bringing about the collapse of her government.
Version Two: The Irish Government has accepted a form of words that are weaker than it wanted, that give May and the DUP the necessary wriggle-room on regulatory divergence, and that still allow for a Canada plus rather than an EEA minus deal – and which, by effectively allowing the talks to move on to trade, see off Leo Varadkar after his moment of maximum pressure and influence.
Version Three: All the briefing is cockeyed, and by this evening we’ll be reading a different account of events entirely. And remember: the UK/Ireland border isn’t the only matter at stake in these talks. There is the financial settlement. Above all, there is also, as we warned on Friday, the small matter of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, during any transition period and afterwards.