This blogpost was written on Sunday June 2nd 2019
For Ireland, the only good Brexit is no Brexit. That goes for Ireland and for Northern Ireland (NI). Little noticed during the past week in the UK press, much less commented on, was the fact that in the European Parliament (EP) elections a majority of people in Northern Ireland voted for Remain candidates.
Of the three NI MEPs, two are now Remainers. Meanwhile in the rest of Ireland you would need a microscope to see the votes the Irexit candidates got. Calls for Ireland to follow the UK out of the EU simply have no traction.
But then, when it comes to NI, the UK behaves a bit like Boris Johnson when he was foreign secretary. Whenever his officials brought him Brexit news he didn’t want to hear he would stick his fingers in his ears and sing God Save the Queen. Or it could have been Rule Brexannia.
Leaving the European Union means that barriers will come into being between Ireland and the UK where none now exist. No one wants this outcome. It is axiomatic as Duth Prime Minister Mark Rutte made clear in January.
Today, both countries are part of a common customs union, a single market and much else besides. Inside the EU, people, goods and services flow freely. Politicians and officials interact daily through meetings in Brussels, whether of the Council, Commission or Parliament. Such interactions allow relationships to be built, creating a store of mutual understanding and goodwill that can be called on in times of difficulty.
Of even greater importance, the common membership of both Ireland and the UK of the European Union provided the context in which the Good Friday Agreement, which began the process of ending Northern Ireland’s violent and bloody conflict, could be negotiated. A point repeatedly made by the US chairman of the Northern Irish peace talks process, Senator George Mitchell.
The absence of economic borders – brought about by creation of the EU’s internal market – along with the decades-old common travel area between Ireland, Northern Ireland and the UK, meant that with the ending of violence it became possible to dismantle the security borders as well.
For the first time since 1922, when Ireland won independence from the UK, people on the island of Ireland, especially those living in border communities, could come and go freely between the two parts of the island on main roads, sideroads, backroads and across fields, free of the fear of being stopped by police, customs or armies.
Brexit has the potential to bring all this to an end. For the logic of Brexit, the only justification for Brexit, is that it would be better for the UK, politically and economically, to go its own way, to diverge from the European Union. Divergences creates differences and differences create borders.
Those who have read these Briefings over the past two years will know that I have never though Brexit a good idea. Economically, I could never see the upside. For the simple truth is that there is none, unless you believe that the UK can leave the EU and still retain all the economic benefits of EU membership. You also have to believe that there is significant value added to be had from the UK being free to negotiate its own trade deals across the world. Most trade experts are doubtful.
Brexiteers claim that leaving the EU will allow the UK to reclaim its lost sovereignty, even if the UK government admitted early in the process that the country had never really lost its sovereignty, people only “thought” it had. Brexit as therapy.
For the most part, as far as the daily lives of people are concerned, EU laws touched on business, economic and employment matters. UK laws on taxes, schools, social care, the health services, and the safety of citizens, were all made in the UK, by the UK.
All that as it may be, the policy of the UK government is still to leave the EU and the EU can only deal with the government of the day. It cannot negotiate with the opposition, still less with a bunch of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), as Nigel Farage and his Brexit Party (BP) are now demanding.
Farage apparently wants a seat at the negotiating table just to be able say “we are here not to negotiate.” A no-negotiation negotiation. Or perhaps it is their plan to tell the EU that they intend to sue it, as advised by President Trump, in an interview in the Sunday Times:
“What I would do is, for those mistakes made by the EU that cost the UK a lot of money and a lot of harm, I would have put that on the table, whether it is in the form of litigation or in the form of a request. But they chose not to do that. It’s very hard for the UK to get a good deal when they go into the negotiation that way.”
[Note: How does the UK sue the EU over decisions it was involved in making? It’s a bit like saying you are going to sue yourself. The UK has been part of the EU since 1973. It did not stand outside the room when decisions were being made.]
Currently, the campaign to succeed Theresa May as Tory leader and prime minister is under way. The ultimate electorate in this contest is the Tory Party membership, which runs somewhere between 100,000 and 160,000, depending on whom you listen to. It seems that 59% of all Conservative Party members voted for the Brexit Party at the recent European elections, and just 19% for the Conservatives. In other words, the next prime minister of the UK could be chosen by members of a party who didn’t even vote for their own party in the most recent election. The words “democratic deficit” come to mind.
As the stated policy of the BP, indeed the only policy of the BP, is to leave the EU on October 31st next without an agreement, on WTO terms, (see last week’s Brexit Briefing) it has to be assumed that those Conservative members who voted for the BP agree with this policy.
Which is why, one after another, the candidates for leadership are lining up to say that the UK will be leaving the EU on October 31st next, with or without a deal. We are almost at the point where they are saying my no-deal will be tougher than your no-deal. In fact, my no-deal will be so tough we won’t even tell the EU we have left. We’ll just be, like, gone. Without paying them a penny.
But then they all immediately add: We will open negotiations with the EU for a free trade agreement as soon as we have left. But what will be the first demand from the EU? That’s right: Pay your bills, then we talk.
Now, as of today, there are as many candidates for the Tory leadership as there are horses in the Grand National. Just as in the Grand National, a fair few of these candidates will fail at the first jump. Some might not even make it out of the stalls.
Front runners, such as Boris Johnson, now “endorsed” as the next prime minister by President Trump, say that, if elected, they will go back to Brussels and demand that the backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement be dropped. Brexiteers believe that the backstop, designed to prevent the re-emergence of borders in Ireland, is a cunning plan to keep the UK locked in a customs union with the EU forever. They are convinced that there are “alternative arrangements”, technological solutions, that could come into play, that would allow for customs and regulatory divergence between the UK and the EU but which would obviate the need for border infrastructure in Ireland.
The fact that such “alternative arrangements” currently do not exist, and that there is little prospect of them existing anytime soon, is of little importance. Like all things Brexit, if you believe hard enough they will magically appear.
Further, as Sam Lowe of the Centre for European Reform (CER) points out here “alternative arrangements” aren’t an alternative to the backstop. As he comments:
Any solution that assumes that a border community that is predominantly Irish nationalist, and against leaving the EU, will readily accept the existence of a new customs and regulatory divide faces an uphill struggle.
It would appear that what Brexiteers want is a time-limit on the backstop, that it will automatically drop away after an agreed number of years. Dominic Raab, one of the leadership candidates and the hardliners’ hardliner, when he was having his go as Brexit Secretary suggested that it end after just three months. But then, according to Peter Foster of the Daily Telegraph, Raab is a bit of a fantasist with a somewhat loose relationship with the actualités.
Throughout the past week, EU leader after EU leader has lined up to say that the Withdrawal Agreement will not be reopened and there can be no time limit on the backstop.
When the EU and the UK signed off of the “sufficient progress” report back in December 2017 the backstop language in that report applied only to Northern Ireland. It read:
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 allisland economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.
Following pushback from the Democratic Unionist Party, on whose ten votes the May government depended, Article 50 was added to the report.
In the absence of agreed solutions, as set out in the previous paragraph, 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.
That there was a tension between Article 49 and Article 50 was obvious from the get-go. But whereas Article 49 was agreed between the EU and the UK, Article 50 was merely a unilateral undertaking by the UK.
To square the circle, in 2018 the UK persuaded the EU, against the EU’s better judgement it seems, to partially extend the “backstop” to the whole of the UK. If, at the end of the transition period provided for in the Withdrawal Agreement, no agreement has been reached between the EU and the UK on their future relationship then UK would remain in a customs union with the EU, while NI would also align with relevant single market regulations. This would stay in place until suitable “alternative arrangements” could be found.
This is the “cunning EU trap” that the Brexiteers want scrapped, even though it was the UK that asked for it in the first place.
As stated at the top of this article, for the island of Ireland the best Brexit is no Brexit. But if Brexit does have to go ahead might not part of the answer be to revert to the NI only backstop after an agreed period of time, leaving the rest of the UK free to chart its own course? This would accord with the wishes of a majority of the people in NI, as most recently expressed in the EP elections.
Would such a “Hong Kong style one country two systems model” as proposed by the former Conservative MEP, Charles Tannock, or Northern Ireland as a “special economic zone” as suggested by Derek Mooney and myself, be a “constitution outrage” as suggested by the DUP?
Only if you consider that scanning a few barcodes on trucks heading to NI from GB undermines the Union more than separate laws on equal marriage or abortion do, or a different system for EP elections in NI as opposed to GB. Outrage is in the eye of the beholder.
But, argue those opposed to a NI-only backstop, rules would be imposed on NI from Brussels over which NI would have no say. Yet, if the Northern Ireland Assembly was back working, a method of consulting it on relevant EU rules could easily be found.
Ironically, a NI-only backstop would give NI the best of both worlds, a special economic zone in both a post-Brexit UK and in the EU at the same time. What’s not to like?
On the other hand, dragging NI out of the EU through a no-deal Brexit against the wishes of a majority in NI will have profound political consequences.
Brexit requires tough choices.