Irish border question dominates Brexit debate
FT editor Lionel Barber and chief political commentator Janan Ganesh discuss the Irish border question in light of the draft Brexit treaty proposed by the European Commission
Produced by Joe Sinclair, filmed by Rod Fitzgerald
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This has been a big week for Brexit. Janan Ganesh, can you throw some light on where we are now?
Well, I think the biggest surprise of the entire negotiation process so far has been the salience of the Irish border question. During the referendum it hardly got a mention, which in retrospect was scandalous. But now it is the closest thing to an insoluble problem in the talks.
And you've had a situation where Michel Barnier, the EU negotiator, has published a legal text which suggests that in the absence of any better solution, Northern Ireland might even be able to remain effectively inside the customs union, even if the rest of the UK does not. And that mainly solves the border question.
And that means talking about checks on the border.
Yeah, and any checks on the border would be a very sensitive proposition, given the historic troubles in that region. But it's a provocative suggestion to make, given that conservative MPs think that it would amount to a part of the UK not leaving the EU. And it's doubly provocative because the Democratic Unionist party, which props up the conservatives in government, believe it would amount to the island of Ireland being treated as one place in regulatory terms.
So it's a very sensitive subject. A lot of hostility in London, also a bit in Belfast to the suggestion from Michel Barnier. But he can say that the burden is on London to come up with a better solution. We chose to leave and, therefore, have to construct a solution to the border question.
And Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, has suggested that the problem is no more serious than as if there was a border between the Borough of Camden and Islington in north London.
Yeah, that can be a hairy border but I think, in historic terms, a bit safer than that between the Republic and Northern Ireland. He's also got into trouble because of a leaked letter to the prime minister, which suggested that actually - and this contradicts the public position of the government - some kind of harder border, if not a much harder border, might have to be worn as the cost of Brexit. And he doesn't think the government should absolutely chase the idea of no change at all.
The government has rowed back from that line. It's not government policy. But it does expose how difficult this question is. And I stress even this time last year - never mind during the referendum - I did not foresee, and many people did not foresee this question being the dominant problem in the talks.
And Mrs May - is she going to be able to crack this nut?
She's been able to agree within the government a position. You have to remember, there are two negotiations. The government negotiates with itself, because it's very divided, to come up with a line. And then it negotiates with Europe to achieve that line.
She seems to have agreed within the government some kind of vision of how Britain operates vis-a-vis the EU in future. It's very complicated. It involves three baskets or three different regulatory regimes for the British economy.
She's in a very tricky position of having that proposal almost pre-refused by the Europeans. I think Donald Tusk said that it was based on illusion. There can be no pick-and-choose approach to the single market.
So the speech she is about to give, while interesting, seems to have been rejected out of hand in principle up front by the Europeans. And that puts her in a tricky position.
Well, we'll see what happens at the European summit shortly. I mean, is there any comparison between Theresa May and Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, just hoping you can buy time?
Well, I was going to say, if she wants any consolation, I can tell her, as an Arsenal fan, Michel Barnier is not the only Frenchman in his 60s causing great distress in London. Janan Ganesh, thank you so much.