John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas

Category: BREXIT (Page 1 of 6)

IF THE BRITISH ALTERNATIVES TO BACKSTOP ARE ALL THAT GOOD, WHY CAN THEY NOT LIVE WITH THE BACKSTOP, UNTIL THE ALTERNATIVES ARE AGREED?

Boris Johnson said yesterday that there is an “abundance” of technical alternatives to the Irish Backstop. He added that “do or die” he would take the UK out of the EU by 31 October.

 He seems to believe that, between now and the end of October, he can persuade the EU to have such confidence in these unspecified alternatives that they will not insist on keeping the backstop. This is unrealistic, to put it mildly.

First, he has not put forward any detailed alternative to the backstop.

Secondly, there is no way anything meaningful can be negotiated between the time Mr Johncon would become Prime Minister and the end of October. After its experience with the failure of the UK side to ratify proposals it had previously agreed, there is no disposition on the EU side to take things  “on trust” from the UK. There is nothing necessarily personal about this. It is just common prudence.

All sides are agreed that the backstop is only a fall back provision to be used only if an alternative agreed solution cannot be found. 

If Boris Johnson was as confident, as appears to be that abundant alternatives exist, he would accept the backstop as an interim step, until his replacement alternatives have been worked upon and agreed. 

The fact that he is not prepared to do that makes one suspect that there are no ready or acceptable alternatives that would maintain open borders, and close North/ South cooperation based on compatible regulations. The European Commission recently published a document outlining all the areas of life, from health care to transport, where acceptance of common EU standards enables the private and public sectors to cooperate on a cross border basis. Brexit, without a backstop, would tear all this up.

Yesterday a 216 page document was published by Prosperity UK setting out a possible alternative structure that might replace the backstop. They envisage that their proposal would be added as a protocol to the Withdrawal Agreement. This would require  EU consent.

Its authors  also admitted that more work was needed on their proposal.  It is hardly likely to be ready, and agreed by the EU 27, before 31 October. So it does not solve the immediate problem and, in a sense, Boris Johnson’s recent commitment to leave, come what may, on 31 October means that Prosperity UK’s proposal could only be pursued if Jeremy Hunt becomes Prime Minister.

 Prosperity UK proposes to have border related controls, but not to have them at the border itself…. but to have them on farms and in factories and warehouses instead. 

But avoiding physical infrastructure on the border is only part of the Brexit problem.

 The other problem is the extra costs, delays, bureaucracy that will be imposed by Brexit on all exchanges across the border within Ireland. These would actually be worse under Prosperity UK proposals, and smuggling will be even more likely than if the controls were on the border itself. And smuggling can be used to finance subversive activities, as we know.

 To avoid checks on the border of the compliance with EU standards of food crossing from NI, Prosperity UK proposes that that, for food standards purposes, Ireland would leave the EU and join a Britain and Northern Ireland food standards union instead! 

 This idea has zero possibility of being accepted. It is naive. Irish agricultural policy would then be dictated by British interests, something we escaped from when we joined the EU in 1973.

That said, the Prosperity UK report does acknowledge the “supremacy” of the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process. This is a good rhetorical starting point.

  But no new thinking is offered as to how this supremacy would be reflected in future British policy in a post Brexit world.

 One would have thought that those who do not like the backstop would come forward with new and interesting proposals to deepen North/ South cooperation, and East / West cooperation, to compensate for the disruption that will inevitably flow from Brexit. That is where British negotiators should be putting the emphasis now. The idea that the Belfast Agreement structures can be frozen, by a refusal by the DUP and/or Sinn Fein to work together, is not acceptable.

 But at a deeper level, it seems that there is still no consensus in Britain as to the sort of relationship it wants with the EU, and what trade offs it is prepared to make to negotiate such a relationship. It seems that public opinion in the UK has not yet absorbed what leaving the European Union means. 

It wants the freedom but not to accept the costs.

He seems to believe that, between now and the end of October, he can persuade the EU to have such confidence in these unspecified alternatives that they will not insist on keeping the backstop. This is unrealistic, to put it mildly.

All sides are agreed that the backstop is only a fall back provision to be used only if an alternative agreed solution cannot be found.

If Boris Johnson was as confident as appears to be that alternatives exist, he would accept the backstop as an interim step, until his replacement alternatives have been worked upon and agreed.

The fact that he is not prepared to do that makes one suspect that there are no ready or acceptable alternatives that would maintain open borders, and close North/ South cooperation based on compatible regulations.

Yesterday a 216 page document was published by Prosperity UK setting out a possible alternative structure.

Its authors admitted that more work was needed.  It is hardly likely to be ready, and agreed by the EU 27, before 31 October. So it does not solve the immediate problem.

 It proposes to have border related controls, but not to have them at the border itself…. but to have them on farms and in factories and warehouses instead.

But avoiding physical infrastructure on the border is only part of the Brexit problem.

The other problem is the extra costs, delays, bureaucracy that will be imposed by Brexit on all exchanges across the border within Ireland. These will actually be worse under Prosperity UK proposals, and smuggling will be much greater.

To avoid checks on the border of the compliance with EU standards of food crossing from NI,  that I for food standards purposes, Ireland would leave the EU and join a Britain and Northern Ireland food standards union instead!  This idea has zero possibility of being accepted. It is naive. Irish agricultural policy would then be dictated by British interests, something we escaped from when we joined the EU in 1973.

That said, the Prosperity UK report does acknowledge the “supremacy” of the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process. This is a good rhetorical starting point.

But no new thinking is offered as to how this supremacy would be reflected in future British policy in a post Brexit world. One would have thought that those who do not like the backstop would come forward with new and interesting proposals to deepen North/ South cooperation, and East / West cooperation, to compensate for the disruption that will inevitably flow from Brexit. That is where British negotiators should be putting the emphasis now. The idea that the whole Belfast Agreement structures can be frozen by the refusal of the DUP and Sinn Fein to work together is not acceptable.

But at a deeper level, it seems that there is still no consensus in Britain as to the sort of relationship it wants with the EU, and what trade offs it is prepared to make to get it. It seems that public opinion in the UK has not yet absorbed what leaving the European Union means.

It wants the freedom but not to accept the costs.

DO TORY LEADERSHIP CONTENDERS UNDERSTAND WHY THERE IS AN IRISH BACKSTOP?

The Backstop is not just about the border. It is not a technical matter. It is not just about what happens at 200 crossing points.

It is about the people of Northern Ireland, and giving all of them (not just a majority) the freedom to be who they are, and a sense of belonging.

But the present debate in the UK Conservative Party about replacing the backstop, seems to assume that it is all about technical fixes and invisible border posts , and that some yet to be discovered combination of IT and lasers would remove the need for physical customs posts, and that would then solve the entire problem. That is a mistake.

The backstop is about far more than this.  It is a recognition of the fact that, in Northern Ireland there is a population some of whom feet they have exclusively British identity and allegiance, some of whom feel they have an exclusively Irish identity and allegiance, and some of whom combine these allegiances comfortably enough.

The backstop is a recognition of this fundamental divide, which has led to so much suffering in the past, and an attempt to sustain the arrangements that ended that suffering.

The Belfast Agreement of 1998 transcended these divisions through provisions for intense North/ South and East/West cooperation, that would allow all three groups, described above, to feel fully at home in Northern Ireland under any present, or future , constitutional arrangements.

This was easy to envisage as long as both parts of Ireland remained in the EU, because EU rules facilitated and underpinned free and easy cooperation both North/South and East/West.

In such a context, territorial “sovereignty” became less of an issue, because it was overlaid by structures of free cooperation enshrined in EU law.

Brexit changes all that in a radical way. It brings territorial sovereignty back into the centre of stage in a way that threatens the Belfast Agreement settlement in a deeply fundamental way. I believe that Theresa May came to understand this, and that that explains her acceptance of the backstop.

Most of those contending to take her place in the Conservative Party leadership do not seem to do so.

In the agreement of March 2019, the EU side has given the UK very strong assurance of its good faith in seeking to find an alternative to the backstop.

But that will only work if the UK side really understand why the backstop was put there in the first place.

I do not believe that the contenders for Conservative Party leadership have taken this on board.

HOW MIGHT A NEW WAY FORWARD ON BREXIT BE UNCOVERED, IF THE EXISTING DEAL IS NOT ACCEPTED?

Avoiding a No Deal Brexit is going to require a radical change in the way the House of Commons makes decisions.

Now that the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated with the EU has been rejected twice by the House of Commons, MPs must now turn to discovering what alternative approach might find find actually support. Only then can to UK engage meaningfully with the EU.

This process must be completed by 10 April, the date of  a possible special meeting of the European Council on Brexit.

Otherwise the UK will simply crash out of the EU with no deal on 12 April., with dire consequences for us all.

So how might the House of Commons organise itself to make the key decisions?

And will the May government facilitate, or deliberately hinder, the process?

There have been suggestions that the Prime Minister might call a General Election, if support is gathering for a solution that she does not like, or which might split the Conservative Party irrevocably.

The options for decision making in the House of Commons have been analysed in an excellent paper published last week by the  Constitution Unit of University College London.

One proposed way (e.g. by Kenneth Clarke and others) of organising the question is to offer preferential voting, a Proportional Representation system of choosing between options.

This method is already used for choosing the chairs of committees in the House . It would avoid the problems of the yes/no voting system, and encourage  more sincere voting.

But the choices to be made are complex, and contingent on other choices by other people. MPs may find themselves needing to know how other MPs will vote on other questions, before they feel they can decide how to vote on the question that is actually in front of them.

To address this problem, the Constitution Unit suggests that two separate ballots might be held.

The first ballot would ask MPs to rank preferences,(1,2,3) as between:

  • Moving straight to Brexit on the existing deal without a referendum
  • Accepting a Brexit deal, but on condition that it is put to the people for approval in a referendum
  • Ending the Brexit process and revoking Article 50 and stay in the EU on existing terms as a  full voting member( an option that still exists up to 12 April).

These options are incompatible with one another, so the result of the ballot would clarify matters. The option that got  the most support would then be the basis for a second ballot.

If MPs do not vote in the first ballot to revoke Article 50 and stay in the EU, a second ballot might then ask them to rank different options for a Brexit deal on a 1, 2, 3,4th preference basis.

They would have to say their order of preference between four options:

+The Prime Minister’s current deal, including the backstop and proposed ‘customs arrangements’

+The current Withdrawal Agreement, including the backstop, with significantly looser customs arrangements (the ‘Canada’ model) which in practice would make the backstop more likely to be brought into effect

     + The current Withdrawal Agreement alongside significantly closer arrangements (the ‘Norway’ model or ‘Common Market 2.0’) which would in practice make use of the backstop unnecessary

+ A ‘no deal’ Brexit.

The result of this ballot would establish the wishes of the House.

Obviously the process would have to be public so each MP’s ballot paper would have to be published. But the whole process could be completed in a day.

But it would be necessary to have a government in place that would intend to fulfil the preferences of the House in a sincere and constructive way. 650 MPs cannot negotiate with Michel Barnier. Only a government can do that.

Paving the way for a PR type ballot will be very difficult.

The UK Conservative Party  has a deep dislike of the whole idea of PR. But PR may be the only way out of  its present dilemma.

It is also important that the issue be decided on the basis of free votes, although it has to be recognised that an MP ,who is threatened with possible de selection by his/her constituency association, is not entirely free.

If the present Prime Minister refuses to allow some such system of discerning the will of Parliament, or if she declines to accept the result in a sincere spirit, the question would arise as to whether she should continue in office.

Ultimately, the House of Commons holds the power – and hence the threat – of removing the government from office.

Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, a vote of no-confidence does not immediately result in a general election, but triggers a 14-day period during which a new government can be formed.

There is no necessity that any new Prime Minister be one of the party leaders. Any MP could become Prime Minister.

Instead it would be crucial for any new Prime Minister to command the confidence of the House of Commons – beyond the confines of the Conservative Party – to deliver the next stage of the Brexit process.

KEVIN O ROURKE ON BREXIT

I have really enjoyed reading “A Short History of Brexit, from Brentry to Brexit” by Kevin O Rourke.

O Rourke is a UK based, but Irish born and resident, academic, who also has a house in France.

His father, Andy, is a distinguished former Irish diplomat, and his mother is Danish.

He brings this varied hinterland to his aid, in probing the forces that shaped the British decisions

 first to join, and then to leave, the European Union.

Behind this inconsistency he identifies the existence of two  conflicting strands of thought, in the UK Conservative Party, and more widely.

The first is idea of “Imperial Preference”, that of giving better trade access to the UK market to the Empire than to other countries. This has deep roots in the Party.

 It was championed by leaders like the Chamberlains and Baldwin. This policy was implemented, in 1931 by Neville Chamberlain, when he became Chancellor of the Exchequer.

In contrast, Churchill, although a strong Imperialist, opposed protectionism all through his career. He advocated a “United States of Europe” in a speech in July 1945.

 Macmillan, who shed the Empire and had been wounded seven times in the First World War,, understood the need for the UK to build its future, and a structure of peace, in Europe.

 In contrast, a later Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron is quoted as saying it was “a myth” that European integration was the result of the lessons learned from two world wars.

There is much that can be divined from this well written book.

The 2016 Referendum can be traced back to a decision, in 2010, by 81 Tory MPs to defy their Whip and vote for a Referendum on leaving the EU.

Then , when Cameron set out to renegotiate UK membership. he recklessly announced that he would not “take no for an answer” on restricting free movement of people within the EU Single Market. He was never going to win that concession.

The book also analyses the history of the Irish and European economies in the 20th century.

 Ireland was a late developer, mainly because it waited until the 1970’s, to open its market to foreign competition. Even Portugal and Greece moved faster.

O Rourke highlights the importance of the common EU VAT regime, and the sharing of information between EU states on VAT, as the means of avoiding hard borders within the EU.

As the author says,

time is money and border controls cost money

WHAT SHOULD THE EU DO AFTER BREXIT?

WHAT SHOULD IRELAND’S POLICY BE?

 The terms of Brexit are vital for Ireland.  But so also is how Ireland locates itself in the EU AFTER Brexit. President Macron has written to the Taoiseach setting out his post Brexit agenda. The Finnish government has just published an 125 page report on the implications for Finland and the EU of the changing global order. Ireland should do the same.

 Brexit could change Ireland’s geostrategic position.

SECURITY

If the US guarantee of Europe’s security through NATO were to be diminished, and/or if the UK were to become estranged from its continental European allies, Ireland would be in the geostrategic frontline.

 The UK/European/US security alliance has provided security for Ireland since 1945, at modest cost.

It will be in Ireland’s interests that this security alliance survive Brexit. A clash on security policy between the UK, and the continental members of the EU, would hit Ireland, particularly its communications, energy and cyber security.

FIVE THREATS

Stresses in European security will be caused five global forces. These are

  + A richer, but older, human race, reluctant to change, and nostalgic for a past that never really existed. The EU and the UK are part of an ageing continent, with declining population, but close to Africa which is a young and potentially dynamic.

  + The increasing vulnerability of globalization and the of norms that underpin it. The WTO is at risk.

  + Climate change and intensifying competition for scarce material resources, not just energy but water, phosphates and rare earths.

  + Distrust of political leadership, and of experts could lead to a paralysis in necessary decision making in the EU and other multinational institutions.

  + The economic rise of China and India and their associated political ambitions, and declining interest of the US in guaranteeing Europe’s defence.

 All these forces will leave Europe, and Ireland, increasingly vulnerable to outside pressures.

EASIER TO MEET THEM TOGETHER THAN SEPARATELY

Meeting them will not be the responsibility of the EU alone. Member states themselves have far more spending power than the EU has. They spend 40% of GDP whereas the EU only spends 1%. Cooperation with the UK, especially after Brexit, will help.

 If European countries want to have maximum impact on most of these huge challenges , they will need to act together, and in good time .While the absence of the UK from the EU will be a handicap,  fractious and prolonged arguments among EU states themselves could be an even greater one.

 Irish policy should be that, by acting within or through the EU, rather than on their own, EU states can do more, at less cost.

 But will that approach get the unanimous agreement among all 27 EU members? If not, smaller groups of EU states may decide to go ahead on their own, using Title IV of the Treaty, which allows for this. To the extent that a member state then declines to take part in a Title IV activity, it may find itself in an EU “slow lane”. Ireland should avoid being in any EU slow lane. Brexit has made us geographically peripheral, so we should avoid being politically so too.

TREATY CHANGE SHOULD NOT BE RULED OUT

 That said, the EU may only act within the limits of the powers given to it in the Treaties.  If necessary, pragmatic, case by case, amendments to the EU Treaty, to enhance EU competences, should be made. That would, on balance, be better than an EU of first and second class members.

  After Brexit , Ireland must concern itself with the worries of ALL its 27 EU partners, even if these are not of immediate concern to Ireland. The more Ireland does this, the more will those states be willing to support Ireland when Ireland has a problem.

 Ireland should be proactive on all the continents big problems, and should seek solutions to its own problems within the context of a wider EU interest, rather than just look for exceptions. It should avoid alignment with sub groups of states within the EU, who could be seen as divisive or negative .

COMPLETE THE UNION

 Ireland should be positive in support of Banking Union, Energy Union and the completion of the EU Single Market in services. This will sometimes involve standing up to France and Germany, but it will enlarge opportunities for all.

 We will not always get our way, and when trade offs have to be made, these should be explained fully  to the public and the Oireachtas . Ireland should learn from the UK’s mistake on Brexit, of failing  to educate its electorate on the compromises it would have to make.

MAINTAIN THE RULE OF LAW

Populism in central Europe must be confronted. Maintaining the rule of law, and an independent judiciary, are vital to the survival of the EU. EU rules are meaningless if they are not enforced by impartial courts.

The EU is the most advanced multinational, democratic, rule making body in the world. It can be made even more democratic. One way to do this would be through the direct election, by the voters of the EU, of the President of the European Commission. Another is through the Citizen’s panels advocated by President Macron.

The further enlargement of the EU should be supported on a case by case basis. It is important to the consolidation of democracy, in countries like Serbia and North Macedonia. But democratic standards must continue to be insisted upon AFTER a country has joined the EU, as well as when it is applying.

AVOID PROTECTIONISM

Ireland is the EU country with proportionately the greatest amount of US investment. If stresses arise between the US and the EU, these will be felt disproportionately in Ireland. Some of President Macron’s ideas could cause difficulty here. Skillful Irish diplomacy and foresight will be required.

As well as the terms of Brexit, these are the issues that must be discussed during the forthcoming European Elections.  The EU has strong institutions which have proven their worth. But it is the people who operate the institutions that will make the difference. That is why the choices voters will  make in choosing MEPs are so important.

CAN THE BREXIT IMPASSE BE RESOLVED?


This week I am speaking in the Sciences Po University in Paris at the invitation of the Dean, Enrico Letta, a former Italian Prime Minister .

A member of the Scottish Government, Fiona Hyslop will also speak and we will be discussing the dilemmas posed by Brexit with a number of academics and their students.

Later this week, I will attend the Ideas Lab, organized by the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS),  in Brussels. I am a member of the board of CEPS.

This meeting will consider the possibility of the trade war between China and the US going global, integrating climate and trade policies, and the vision for the EU for the next 5 years. Brexit, as such, is not on the agenda.

Interesting ideas on resolving the Brexit impasse have been put forward by Andrew Duff, a former MEP, and by Professor Kenneth Armstrong of Cambridge University.

Andrew Duff suggests a series of detailed amendments to the Political Declaration that would bring the UK closer to the EU in some respects.

Professor Armstrong suggests a new protocol that would give greater legal force to the Political Declaration.

His core idea is that there would be that a set of criteria be negotiated, as to how and when the backstop might  be implemented, or be modified or replaced.

Procedurally, his proposal would de dramatize and postpone the issue. But it would not solve it.

It remains to be seen how it could avoid a hard border,  either in Ireland or on the Irish Sea, if, at the end of the day, the UK insists on pursuing an independent trade policy.

It is also unclear whether a majority could be obtained in the House of Commons for any of this.

Until that is clearer, it is hard to say whether the EU has a credible interlocutor in London with whom it can negotiate. The UK Parliament has yet to reconcile its desires, with the essential needs of the European Union. It has to accept the tradeoffs involved.

Professor Armstrong’s approach would avoid a No Deal crash out on 29 March.

I have no doubt that customs controls will have to be introduced by Ireland, as a continuing EU member, in the event of a No Deal crash out.

I feel that public opinion has not been prepared for that legal reality.

Being in the EU has been very advantageous for Ireland in every way, especially in attracting investment and jobs.

So Ireland must implement EU law. The EU is a system of rules, and if its rules are not respected, it ceases to exist.

“NO DEAL”, AND FARMING…WHERE ARE THE CREATIVE SOLUTIONS?

The shocking consequences for Irish farming of a No Deal Brexit have been spelled out in graphic detail by Phelim O Neill in successive editions of the Irish Farmers Journal.

The beef sector will be worst hit, with a 350kg Irish beef carcass, worth 1295 euros, facing a 780 euro tariff on the UK market, if the UK applies WTO terms.

If, instead, the UK adopts a zero tariff approach, Irish beef would face unlimited Brazilian competition.

The emergency support measures, that the EU might introduce to deal with a No Deal crisis, would buy time for the sheep, pig and dairy sectors. This would allow them to develop alternatives to the UK market.

But alternative markets for Irish beef, at anything near the returns to be found on the British market, do not exist.

A No Deal has become increasingly likely because Mrs May has decided that her priority is to avoid a split in the Conservative Party.  She has calculated that, if she tried to get her Deal through with Labour support, in return for modifications that would satisfy Labour, such as staying the Customs Union or softening her stance on EU immigration, her Party would break up. She would lose 50 or 100 MPs, and would cease to be Prime Minister.

Should, or could, the EU make concessions that would help out Mrs May?

Even if the EU side wanted to make concessions to the UK on the terms of its Withdrawal, it has no way of knowing if Mrs May would have the political authority to get any such modified deal through the House of Commons.

When one contrasts what leading Brexiteers, like David Davis, were saying a few years ago about what might be acceptable, with what they are insisting on now, it appears that nothing will satisfy them, and that every concession will be met by a new demand. It is catharsis, rather than compromise, they are after.

This is the point that needs to be addressed by those in the Irish media who are already laying the ground work for blaming “brinkmanship “ by the EU, and  particularly by Ireland, if the UK crashes out of the EU on 29 March.

What guarantee can these critics offer that any conceivable “alternative” to the backstop would pass in the House of Commons?

These critics, and the UK government itself, have so far been shy in coming forward with practical ideas that would get a majority in Westminster, and also respect the integrity of the EU market.

One person who has come forward with ideas to break the deadlock is the UCD economist, Karl Whelan.

He says that one of the reasons advanced by the DUP for rejecting the backstop, namely that the backstop would place a barrier in the way of Northern Irish exports the Britain, is without foundation.

 He says that under the backstop, exports originating in Northern Ireland would go through a Green channel at Belfast port with no checks or controls. Only goods originating in the Republic of Ireland , or further afield, would have to go through a red channel where there might be checks.

And, at the same time, NI exporters would have free access to the EU across the open land border in Ireland… They would have the best of both worlds.

Karl Whelan goes on to suggest that, to get the Withdrawal Deal across the line in the House of Commons, the EU side might consider two extra concessions.

 The first is an option that, at some future point after the end of the transition period, Britain could leave the joint Customs Union with the EU, on condition that Northern Ireland  remained in the Customs Union and aligned with EU goods regulations. This would deal with the Brexiteer fear that the EU is trying to “trap” Britain in the Customs Union, which is not the case.

The second part of his proposal is that voters in Northern Ireland try out the backstop for a few years, but that, after (say) five or more years, they could have a referendum, in which Northern voters could decide to opt out of the backstop.

He thinks they would opt to stay in it because by then they would , over the five years , have experienced the “best of both worlds”  that the backstop gives the Northern Irish economy.

There are two problems with this idea. The suggested referendum could further deepen the Orange/Green split, and the very possibility of a referendum would introduce a new element of uncertainty for business. Referendums are inherently risky and influenced by extraneous issues. But the delay would allow time for the supposed technological fixes for a hard border to be road tested.

That said, his proposal would be far less divisive than an outright border poll, which could flow from a “No Deal” Brexit.

Opinion polls in NI suggest that a  majority there would opt to stay in the UK if the UK were to remain in the EU, opinion would be equally split under the backstop, but would spring dramatically against staying in the UK if the there was a No Deal Brexit.  In those circumstances a border poll would be hard to resist. Brexiteer “Unionists” in Britain are foolishly playing with fire.

Another idea for breaking the deadlock has come from the German Ifo Institute, in a paper published only last month.

This proposal would involve dumping the entire EU negotiating approach so far, and instead offering the UK membership of a newly constituted European Customs Association, through which the UK would have influence on EU trade policy and vice versa. It suggests that Turkey might also be invited to join this European Customs Association. The Customs Association idea might mitigate the “vassal state” objection to the UK joining the EU Customs Union as a simple rule taker.

But  I would question the wisdom, and perhaps the motivation, of bringing forward such a proposal at this impossibly late stage, as a possible solution to the present crisis.

It  might have been helpful, if it had been published when Theresa May wrote her original Article 50 letter in 2017, but it has little value, as a way of averting a No Deal crash out on 29 March.

 If the UK accepts the Withdrawal Treaty, or if it decides to withdraw its Article 50 letter, the Ifo proposal might be considered then. But to have any traction, it is an idea that would have to come from the UK side.

Both the Whelan and Ifo proposals are designed to help the UK clarify what it wants.

The problem is that UK opinion on Brexit has become so polarised, and so tied up with questions of identity, and political party discipline has been so damaged, that it is hard to see the House of Commons assembling a political will to deliver anything, except slipping into a chaotic No Deal.  I hope I will be proven wrong.

NO DEAL AND THE UNION….DO BREXIT SUPPORTERS KNOW WHERE THEY ARE GOING?

We seem to be sliding inexorably toward a “No Deal” Brexit.

Mrs May’s decision to prioritize a deal with the Brexiteers in her own party, over a possible deal with the Opposition, and the time limits imposed on all of us by Article 50, make a No Deal much more likely than it was a week ago.

The EU is a rule based organisation, and it cannot afford to break its own rules if it wants to maintain its moral and political authority. The technical fixes, advocated by the Tory Brexiteers, cannot be worked through between now and 29 March.

At this late stage, Mrs May can afford to gamble, because, politically, she has little left to lose.

The EU cannot do so.

Its credibility is vital to its trade agreements with the rest of the world. Its internal cohesion depends on consistent application of common rules.
Where will a No Deal leave Ireland?

On the 1 April, the UK will be a non EU country. By law, the EU will have to treat it as such.

Ireland has opted to stay in the EU, and will have to continue to apply EU law, including the EU Customs Code, in all its dealings with non EU states, including the UK and Northern Ireland. That is a clear general principle.
The detail of how this might be applied at Irish ports and land boundaries, on traffic arriving from the UK, should now be clarified in minute detail.
There is no negotiating advantage now in withholding this information at this late stage, in light of Mrs. May’s choice to prioritize a deal with the Conservative Brexiteers over a deal with Labour.

In an article last month, the UK journalist Quentin Peel quoted a recent opinion survey in Northern Ireland on how people might vote in a referendum on leaving the UK adjoining a United Ireland.

I have to say I found the results he highlights to be quite surprising.
The opinion poll, conducted in early December by the Belfast-based pollster Lucid Talk, asked respondents how they would vote in a border poll in three different circumstances:

  • If there were a “no deal” Brexit crash-out of the EU: 55 %  said they would either certainly or probably vote for a united Ireland, against 42 % certainly or probably opting to stay in the UK.
  • If there were a Brexit based on Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement: the outcome would be wide open, with 48 % opting to stay in the Union, and 48 % wanting Irish unification.
  • Only if Brexit doesn’t happen, and the UK stays an EU member, is there a clear majority for remaining part of the UK: 60 % in favour, against 29 per cent for a united Ireland.

On the whole, the vote splits clearly on ethno/religious lines:

80 % of self described unionists would opt for the UK even with a no-deal Brexit.

93 % of nationalist/republicans would opt for Irish reunification.

What makes the difference in the poll is the crucial swing vote of the “neutrals”, who are neither self described unionists nor self described nationalist/republicans.

  • If there is no deal, ONLY 14 % of these “neutrals” would vote to remain in the UK!
  • If there is Brexit on May’s terms, that rises to 29 % choosing to remain in the UK.
  • Only if the UK as a whole opts to stay in the EU, do 58 % of the “neutrals” (Alliance, Greens, etc) vote in favour of the Union.

This poll should be read by the MPs of the Conservative Party who stress their support for the “Union” as one of their reasons for opposing the Irish Backstop.
According to a study by University College London, support for the Union of Northern Ireland with Britain is given by many Conservative MPs as the reason for their opposition to the Withdrawal Agreement, and their willingness to contemplate a “No Deal” Brexit. This is perverse.

If this poll is to be believed, in the name of support for the Union, these Conservative MPs are opening the way to a No Deal Brexit, the very outcome that would make a breakup of the Union most likely.

By backing Brexit at all costs, including a no-deal Brexit, the Democratic Unionist Party has enhanced the likelihood of a border poll that would end the Union. This is not a wise course for a “unionist” party to have followed. It plays into the hands of Sinn Fein.

This DUP approach shows how the politics of identity can lead sensible people to adopt policies that lead to the very outcome that they do not want.

The poll data also raises questions about how the vast UK Exchequer subsidy towards public services in Northern Ireland could be met from the much smaller Irish Exchequer, in the event of a United Ireland being chosen by voters in a referendum in Northern Ireland. The implications for tax, and for public services and pay, in both parts of Ireland would be substantial.

There is also the question of how Loyalists, who passionately support the Union and who have a record of violence, might react to a referendum decision that did not go the way they wanted, and how the Garda Siochana and the Irish Army could  cope with this.

Neither of these points is addressed by those, who refuse to take their seats where they could do some good, and who are instead constantly demanding a border poll. As Brexit shows, making a big decision on the basis on the basis of a 58/48% vote can have dire consequences.

Mrs May, by prioritizing Conservative Party unity over a cross party approach, is leading these two islands into constitutional and emotional territory that has not been mapped, and that is highly dangerous.

The problem is Brexit itself, not the backstop.

Brexit, of its nature, means hard barriers between the UK and the EU.

This is because it means the UK having different standards, and, sooner or later, different trade arrangements and tariffs than the EU.  

Whether these barriers are at the geographic boundary, or a few miles away, makes little difference.

These new barriers will bring delays, extra bureaucracy, and eventually bankruptcies, in their wake.

This is what Brexit means, and was always going to mean. Taking back control, by its nature, means more controls

The UK Government says it wants to impose these controls for two reasons.

The first is to be able to control immigration to the UK from the EU.

The truth is that the bulk of the immigration to the UK is not from the EU, but from outside it. EU immigration to the UK will fall off anyway because the population of the EU countries, from whom immigrants have come to the UK, is set to decline.

The second is to be able to make its own trade deals with non EU countries.

This argument is unconvincing. On leaving the EU the UK will lose the trade agreements it ALREADY HAS with the EU, and through the EU, with other countries.

In fact, leaving the EU will mean the UK losing trade agreements with countries that account for 70% of all UK trade. It will need a lot of new agreement to make up for this sudden and dramatic loss!

The backstop would reduce the effect of this, but not remove it altogether, especially if the UK opts for a different VAT regime to the EU.

No Deal

If there is no deal, and no backstop, the European Commission said in a paper published in November, that ;

“Member States, including national authorities, will play a key role in implementing and enforcing EU law vis-à-vis the United Kingdom as a third country. This includes performing the necessary border checks and controls and processing the necessary authorisations and licences.”

The paper does not exempt any of the EU Member State from this requirement.

Indeed if the EU Customs Union and Single Market were to deliberately fail to control any of its borders, it would soon cease to exist, as a Customs Union and a Single Market.

This would not be in Ireland’s interest, to put it mildly.

WHY IS THERE AN IRISH BACKSTOP?

It puzzles many people in Britain that something known as an “Irish backstop” should be at the heart of an increasingly bitter dispute. The dispute is about the Deal the UK Government has made with the EU on the terms for the UK leaving the EU.

Most people understand that, when the UK leaves the EU, the only land boundary between the UK and the EU will be the 300 mile long border in Ireland.

Some do understand that if the UK leaves the EU there will have to be border controls.

After all, leaving the EU was supposed to be about taking back “control”, and, given that countries can only exercise control in their own territory, there is a logical necessity to have controls at the border of a country’s territory,  at its ports and on its land boundary.

This is not something made up by the EU to annoy Brits, but is a logical consequence of Brexit, which is, as we all know, something Britons have chosen for themselves, and not something imposed on them by the EU.

The proposed backstop in Mrs May’s deal with the EU  involves the whole of the UK staying in a close customs arrangement with the EU.

The original idea was that the backstop would be confined to Northern Ireland, but the UK government itself preferred a backstop arrangement that would cover the whole UK, so as to minimize the controls that would otherwise have to be imposed between Britain and Northern Ireland.

The object of the entire exercise is to avoid having to have controls at the 300 crossing points between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Some in Britain think that the UK should be free to leave the EU, and that the UK and Irish governments should then just decide, between themselves, that they were simply not going to have controls on the Irish border.

That would not work because Ireland would still be in the EU, and would be breaking EU rules if it failed to control its portion of the EU land border.

Apart from being illegal, it would be impractical.

The UK, once outside the EU, would immediately go off and try to make trade deals with non EU countries. These would inevitably involve agreeing to different standards, and different tariffs, on goods coming from these non EU countries to the ones that the EU (including Ireland) would be applying to these countries.

So, if there were no controls on the Irish border, goods from these non EU with which the UK had made its own trade deals could enter the EU via Northern Ireland, without complying with EU standards or paying EU tariffs.

That would destroy the EU Single Market, which is based on common rules and tariffs, made, enforced and interpreted in the same way for all 27 EU countries (including Ireland).

TRADE DISCRIMINATION BREAKS WTO RULES

Outside of the EU, under WTO rules, the UK would also have to impose tariffs on its side of the Irish border, unless it wanted to collect NO TARIFFS AT ALL on goods coming into the UK from any country in the world!

This is because of a WTO rule which, says that, in the absence of a broad trade agreement, a country cannot discriminate between WTO member countries in the rate of tariffs it charges on goods coming from those countries (the most favoured nation rule).

So, in the absence of a trade deal with the EU, the UK must charge the same tariffs on Irish goods as it would  charge on goods coming from any WTO members, with whom it has no trade deal, which, on the day it leaves the EU without a deal, would be every WTO country!

If it attempted to discriminate unilaterally, the UK would be bound to be taken to the WTO court by some or all of the WTO countries who would not be getting the same concessions.

The UK is a trading nation. As such, it benefits from a rules based world trading system. So it would not be in the UK’s interest to start breaking WTO rules on the day it left the EU, just to solve a problem that is of its own making.

SAVING LIVES BY GIVING RESPECT TO THE TWO ALLEGIANCES IN IRELAND

The other big reason for having an “Irish” backstop”, and for avoiding a hard border, is about human beings, rather than just about commerce.

For the past four centuries two communities, with different allegiances have lived together, geographically intermingled, in the Irish province of Ulster.

One community feels a sense of allegiance to Britain, its monarch, its historic narrative and its flag. The other feels an allegiance to Ireland and identifies itself with different historic narrative and different symbols. The two communities have different religious allegiances too but the disagreements between them are not primarily about religious matters, they are all about national identity.

For centuries, the contest between these two identities was a zero sum game.  Either the British identity had to win, or the Irish identity had to win. That zero sum approach led to wars, threats of wars, or uprisings in 1641-51, 1689-1691, 1798, 1867, 1911, 1916, 1919-23, 1939, 1956-7, and 1969-1998. These conflicts caused many casualties in Ireland, and in Britain too.

British and Irish political leaders have for the last 40 years been trying to find a different way forward. Rather than a zero sum game, where if one identity won, the other had to lose, these leaders sought to create conditions in which both identities could coexist comfortably together within Northern Ireland, without either of them winning or losing.

The aim was to ensure that neither would feel cut off from their focus of their emotional allegiance. The nationalists would not feel cut off from Dublin, and Unionists would not feel cut off from London or the “mainland” as they would call it.

The Belfast Agreement of 1998 achieved this. Crafted between Ireland and the UK, when both were members of the barrier free EU, it created structures to create a comfort zone for both communities.  This was done through establishing three interlocking structures of cooperation, incorporated in an over arching international Treaty, namely

  1. power sharing within Northern Ireland,  
  2. cooperation between North and South and
  3. cooperation between Dublin and London.

On the strength of this Agreement, Ireland changed its constitution to remove a  territorial claim it had on Northern Ireland.

Now, 20 years later, the UK’s decision to leave the EU puts these structures at risk, because, for the reasons I explained earlier, Brexit requires barriers to go up between the UK and Ireland, where previously there was free exchange.

This is why, at a meeting in London, long before the Referendum, I described Brexit as an” unfriendly act”  by the UK vis a vis my country.

The backstop is simply an effort to mitigate the damage. It is a second best option…… and a bad second best at that.

The only option that will not damage the structure of peace, we have so painstakingly built between Ireland and Britain, and within the island of Ireland, would be for the UK to decide to stay in the EU after all.

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