The EU wants to annex Northern Ireland. Such was the predictable hysterical reaction by pro-Brexit MPs and commentators to the European Commission’s attempt to turn December’s Phase 1 agreement into a detailed withdrawal agreement.

What has really upset people is the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, which starts on Page 98. It contains the suggestion that, in the absence of any other way of avoiding a hard border in Ireland, it would be necessary for Northern Ireland to remain in a customs union with the EU. The corollary of this would be a customs border on the Irish Sea, effectively dividing the UK into two customs zones.

Of course, Theresa May is right when she says that “no United Kingdom prime minister could ever agree to it”. Chuka Umunna is also right when he says that parliament would never vote for it. A customs border on the Irish Sea is a silly idea which would create more problems than it solved. Leaving aside the possibility of Loyalist violence, the flip-side of the Republicans potentially attacking the border posts, there is the simple economic impact. While Northern Ireland’s principal foreign trading partner is the Republic of Ireland, the majority of its external trade goes to the rest of the UK. A customs border with Great Britain is therefore likely to be more damaging than one with the Republic. It also wouldn’t remove the Republic’s other Brexit headache, the loss of its export bridge to the rest of the EU.

The European Commission knows all this and knows that such a thing would never come to pass. It also must have known that its suggestion would provoke outrage. So why do it? Was it an insensitive provocation or was it, as the FT’s man in Brussels Alex Barker reports, because the EU wants to force a reckoning? One EU diplomat even used the term ‘shock therapy‘.

Paragraph 49 of the December agreement read:

The United Kingdom remains committed to protecting North-South cooperation and to its guarantee of avoiding a hard border. Any future arrangements must be compatible with these overarching requirements. The United Kingdom’s intention is to achieve these objectives through the overall EU-UK relationship. Should this not be possible, the United Kingdom will propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland. In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all- island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.

That effectively means that unless the UK can suggest either a form of trade deal or a technological solution that removes the need for border checks, the UK must retain full alignment with the single market and customs union at least for Northern Ireland.

Within days of the report being published, David Davis told Andrew Marr that it wasn’t really an agreement, just a statement of intent. This annoyed the other major players in the EU who thought they’d secured an agreement which would allow them to move on to the next phase of the negotiations. The UK also failed to come up with any detailed solutions, despite insisting that it could all be sorted out somehow. In the absence of anything more concrete, the EU came up with what it described as its fallback plan; an EU and Northern Ireland customs union.

Government ministers have probably known for some time that there isn’t an easy solution to the Northern Ireland border question. If Boris Johnson really believed that it was no more complicated than administering the congestion charge between the London Boroughs of Camden and Westminster, he wouldn’t have been the slightest bit worried by the European Commission’s fallback protocol. His response would have been, “What a silly suggestion. Everybody knows it won’t come to that because we have the technology to avoid customs checks at the Irish border.” Instead, he got angry and blustered. Indeed, it is the same people who have been assuring us all along that technology would solve the border question (many of them quoting an EU report that said nothing of the sort) who have gone apoplectic at the EU’s protocol. Which was, I suspect, the whole point of it.

So far, the government has avoided coming clean about the trade-offs that Brexit makes inevitable. It has stuck to the cake-and-eat-it line whereby the UK can end free movement and negotiate its own trade deals while avoiding a hard border in Ireland and any economic damage from trade friction.

But there is no magic solution to the Northern Ireland border. As soon as the UK starts importing goods from outside the EU under its own trade agreements, there has to be a customs border with the Republic of Ireland. There is a straightforward decision to be made. Do we want the UK to have its own trade deals with other countries or do we want to maintain the current border arrangements in Ireland? We can’t have both. If we choose the hard border option, the EU’s current line is that it will refuse to discuss trade deals. How firmly it will stick to this is anybody’s guess but it certainly increases the risk of the UK leaving the EU without any sort of trade deal.

So it’s not difficult this. It’s a straightforward trade-off. We can have some of what the Brexiters promised but not all of it.

The Brexit Dilemma

As a country, we need to decide what is important to us and what we are prepared to give up to secure it. But so far we haven’t had any proper political debate about any of this. The government has maintained that we can have it all and the Labour Party has, until recently, kept quiet. Now, the EU’s protocol on the future status of Northern Ireland, whether by cold hard calculation or ham-fisted provocation, is likely to force the issue.

As a former colleague of mine used to say, “Sometimes, the only way to get people to understand the shit they are in is to rub their noses in it.”