Brexit, Irish border, Michel Barnier, Northern Ireland

Is the UK’s #Brexit Cheque really in the post…?

This article was written on Nov 12th 2017.

13589652_f520It is becoming increasingly difficult to see Brexit ending well. Indeed, the process could hit the wall within weeks. Why? The complete and utter inability of the UK government to agree what it wants out of Brexit and, as a result, how to conduct the exit process. This should not be surprising given the closeness of the Brexit referendum vote: 52% to 48%, with the 52% only representing 37% of the total electorate.

It would appear that, when it comes to Brexit, the UK electorate roughly breaks down into three, though it is impossible to say exactly what weight to give to each of the three.

1. First, there are those who are totally opposed to Brexit and want to see the decision reversed.

2. At the opposite end of the spectrum are those who want, in the words of arch-Brexiteers, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, the UK to become “a fully independent self-governing country”, irrespective it would seem, of the costs involved.

3. The third bloc, probably where most pragmatic businesses people are to be found, believe that if Brexit is to go ahead, then the economic disruption should be kept to a minimum, preferable through continued membership of the EU’s single market and the customs union.

On balance, and many of the polls show this, there is probably a majority in the UK who support leaving the political dimension of the EU but remaining within its economic dimension. The problem is that, what we might call the “economic remainers”, are split between the main political parties while the “Britain First” group of Johnson and Gove effectively control the Conservative Party, and thus the government.

Their control is such that within the past few days, the prime minister, Theresa May, has announced that she will bring forward an amendment next week to the European Union Withdrawal Bill which will embed the UK’s decision to leave the European Union at 12:00 midnight, Brussels time, on March 29th, 2019 in law. Irrespective of what happens between now and then.

The fact that there is no internal agreement within the UK as to the meaning of Brexit makes, as we note above, managing the process difficult, if not impossible. How do you get to where you want to go when you can’t decide on your preferred destination?

The first phase in the exit process is the Article 50 negotiations. The essence of Article 50 is found in the following language:

A Member State which decides to withdraw shall notify the European Council of its intention. In the light of the guidelines provided by the European Council, the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union.

The EU has identified three issues that must be resolved during the A50 discussion with the UK before talks can move to the issue of the “framework for its future relationship with the Union”. They are: settlement of the UK’s outstanding financial commitments with the EU; the rights of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU; and issues relating to the island of Ireland, where the only land border between the EU and the UK will exist, post-Brexit.

When it comes to the settlements of the UK’s outstanding financial commitments to the EU the two sides are approaching it from mutually incompatible positions. The EU sees it as a simply a matter of the UK paying what it owes, a settling of accounts. Once outstanding accounts are settled then what happens in the future can be discussed. There can be no future discussion until all outstanding bills are fixed, or at least an agreement is reached on how the bills will be fixed.

The UK see it as a negotiation. We will pay what you say we owe provided we get future benefits for our money. There must be a quid-pro-quo. The UK has made an initial offer of €20 billion and now says that it will not increase that figure until the EU agrees to trade talks. Even then, it would find it politically impossible to increase the figure without an actual trade deal to show for it.

This was the week that EU patience with what it sees as UK gameplaying finally snapped. At a press conference last Friday, after what can only be described as two days on non-negotiations, the EU’s chief negotiator, Michael Barnier, said that the UK has two weeks to make a serious proposal on its outstanding financial commitments, put at roughly €60 billion by the EU, or else he would not be able to report “sufficient progress” to the heads of government of the remaining EU27 member states in December to allow talks to proceed to what the UK insists on calling “trade” but which Article 50 refers to as the “framework for its future relationship with the Union”. A big difference in understanding as to the substance of the next phase of discussions, if the process ever gets to that point.

As of today, it seems extremely unlikely that there is any sort of political consensus with the UK cabinet to do what Barnier asks. On the contrary, in a complete misreading of the EU’s position, there is a belief on the part of many of the “Britain First” grouping that the EU is so desperate for the UK’s money that it will fold and give the UK the trade terms it wants if only the UK would walk away from the negotiating table. David Davis appeared to confirm this when he said in a TV interview Sunday that the EU should not to expect a figure or a formula by which the UK’s obligations would be calculated.

Even if a solution could be found on the money, this week also saw what is probably the most intractable of the three issues, borders on the island of Ireland, take centre stage. A leaked document on Thursday last revealed that Ireland and the EU were demanding that Northern Ireland remain in the single market and the customs union to avoid a hard border between the two parts of the island, a demand immediately rejected by the UK government, which is dependent for its survival on the votes of the Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland.

The UK accepts that there should be no return to a hard border in Ireland, which would put the peace process at enormous risk. But it can offer no concrete solutions as to how this can be done outside the customs union and the single market. “We’ll find other ways around that”, was all that the UK’s Brexit negotiator, David Davis, could offer when asked in the same TV program mentioned above.

However, the reality is that there is no way around it. If Northern Ireland is outside the customs union and the single market then a hard border is inevitable if the EU is to protect the integrity of its internal market from goods being smuggled from Northern Ireland into Ireland, and onwards into the rest of the EU. Magical thinking and as yet undiscovered technological solutions are not going to solve the problem.

Conservative politicians and sympathetic commentators were quick to assert that the “newly hardened” Irish position, as they deemed it, was the result of Sin Fein/IRA pressure on the Irish government. No such thing.

This has been the Irish position all along. It is just that, as with other matters, the UK government has not been paying attention to what the Irish have being saying, just as they have not been paying attention to what the European Parliament is saying on citizens’ rights.

The Irish don’t have a veto on the final Article 50 agreement, if ever one is reached. But they do have a veto on whether or not “sufficient progress” has been made in the Article 50 discussions to allow the process to move on to the discuss the “future framework”.

They are not about to throw that leverage away.

The Irish position is simple: with its extreme definition of what Brexit means, out of the EU, the single market and the customs union, the UK created the problem. If it wants the process to move forward, it had better solve it now.

Post-dated commitments that it will be solved in future trade discussions will not be accepted. Like post-dated cheques, post-dated commitments too often bounce.

Indeed, that might be a useful metaphor for where we are. The EU (and Ireland) wants guaranteed, certified cheques now if the process is to progress. But all the UK is offering is post-dated cheques, with the figures to be filled in a later date.

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