John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas

Category: BREXIT Page 1 of 6

AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY THAT PUTS THE IRISH BACKSTOP IN CONTEXT.

I have just finished reading Seamus Mallon’s autobiography, entitled a “Shared Home Place”.

Boris Johnson, or one of his advisors, ought to read it if they wish to get an insight into the concerns that underlie the Irish backstop. 

They will learn that Brexit, and the Irish peace, are not events in themselves, but processes that will go on for years, and will either deepen or reduce division over generations to come.

 This is not a one off problem to be solved, but a choice between two courses of action that are fundamentally inimical to one another.

As the title of his book implies, Seamus Mallon makes the case that Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland, must come to terms with the fact that they must share their home place with a million or so people (unionists) who see themselves as British, and who do not have, and will never have, an exclusively Irish identity.

The early part of the book deals with the author’s experience growing up, peacefully, as a member of a Catholic minority in the predominantly Protestant town of Market hill in Armagh.

 It then moves to the beginnings of the troubles, and the exclusive way in which local government operated to the benefit of the unionist majority, without regard to the wishes of the nationalist minority.

After a stint in local government, Seamus Mallon later was a member of the 1974 power sharing administration, led by the Unionist Brian Faulkner, and established on the basis of the Sunningdale Agreement between the Irish Taoiseach of the day, Liam Cosgrave and his counterpart, Edward Heath. 

This power sharing Administration was brought down by the Ulster Workers strikers, who objected to the whole idea of power sharing between the  two communities. 

Mallon believes the IRA also felt deeply threatened by power sharing, which may explain why Sinn Fein, despite all the efforts made by others to accommodate them, has so far been unable to work the Good Friday institutions even to this day.

Mallon was SDLP spokesman on Justice in the 1980’s and he made a point of attending all the funerals of victims of politically motivated violence in his area, which was an important, but very difficult, demonstration of his profound sense of fairness and,  of his opposition to all violence. 

The book is very explicit about the murderous collusion between the security forces and Loyalist paramilitaries. He names names.

Mallon deals with the Hume/Adams talks, and makes clear that John Hume did not bring his party along with him in this solo endeavour, a failure that had deep long term consequences. 

As Mallon puts it,

 “peace was being brought about in a way that was bypassing democratic procedures”.

He is critical of Sinn Fein having been allowed into government in Northern Ireland without the IRA first  getting rid of their weapons. 

As he puts it, the IRA, continuing to hold weapons, after the Good Friday Agreement had been ratified in both parts of Ireland, was

“a challenge to the sovereignty of the Irish people”.

This was also my opinion at the time, both as Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael. 

There are some principles that should not be blurred.

 It took the IRA 11 years to eventually put their arms beyond use, and Mallon says that this

 “led to huge mistrust and misunderstanding”.

 Mallon believes the British and Irish governments should have called the IRA’s bluff much earlier, and claims that it was the Americans who eventually forced the issue of decommissioning.

He gives a good account of the dramatic conclusion to the talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement, and of Tony Blair’s letter to David Trimble, promising that the process of decommissioning should start “straight away”, a promise Mallon says 

“Blair was either unwilling or unable to keep”.

Mallon understood Trimble’s problem, praises his courage, and believes he was ill used by Tony Blair.

But the artificially prolonged focus on decommissioning kept Sinn Fein as the centre of attention, and thus helped them to supplant the SDLP as the voice of Northern Nationalism. This was an error of historic proportions.

Mallon believes that the Trimble/Mallon( UUP/SDLP) power sharing Administrations  under the Good Friday Agreement achieved more that the Paisley/ McGuinness (DUP/SF) Administrations did.

Mallon opposes political violence in all circumstances. 

As he says

“It is a universal lesson that political violence obliterates not only its victims, but all possibility of rational discourse about future political options”

I agree.

 The 1916 to 1923 period in Ireland also taught us that lesson too!

In the latter part of the book, Seamus Mallon talks about the prospects of a united Ireland. 

The Good Friday Agreement allows for referenda to decide the question. It posits a 50% + one vote as being sufficient to bring a united Ireland about. This is a deficiency in the Agreement.

 A united Ireland, imposed on that narrow basis, would be highly unstable. There would be a minority opposed to it that would simply not give up. 

As Mallon puts it

“I believe that if nationalists cannot, over a period of time, persuade a significant number of unionists to accept an Irish unitary state, then that kind of unity is not an option”

I agree.

The Irish and UK governments could find common ground here.

 But the two communities in Northern Ireland must first start talking to one another about what they really need and what they could concede to one another.

 There is no point blaming the politicians.  If the voters chose parties to represent them that are intransigent, then the voters themselves are ultimately responsible for the outcome.

This is something that Boris Johnson has to contemplate as he seeks a way to deal with the Irish backstop.

PRIME MINISTER JOHNSON’S LETTER TO COUNCIL PRESIDENT TUSK

 

This letter is important because it sets out the thinking of the new UK Government. 

 It should be taken seriously and analysed.

It contains a number of internal contradictions which should be, politely but persistently, probed by EU negotiators.

I hope to explore some of these in this note.

WHAT IS THE ESSENCE OF SOVEREIGNTY?

Some of the terms used in the letter need to be defined.

For example, Mr Johnson claims the Irish backstop is inconsistent with the “sovereignty” of the UK as a state. 

All international agreements impinge on sovereignty. 

But the ultimate sovereignty of a state concerns the states monopoly on the use of force within its territory. 

UK sovereignty in Britain and Northern Ireland is not interfered with by the backstop, in that basic understanding of state sovereignty.

WHAT IS JOHNSON OFFERING ON THE UNIQUES CHALLENGES FACING IRELAND?

Mr Johnson’s letter says

“ Ireland is the UK’s closest neighbour, with whom we will continue to share uniquely deep ties, a land border, the Common Travel Area, and much else besides. We remain, as we have always been, committed to working with Ireland on the peace process, and to furthering Northern Ireland’s security and prosperity. We recognise the unique challenges the outcome of the referendum poses for Ireland, and want to find solutions to the border which work for all.”

It continues

“ I want to re-emphasis the commitment of this Government to peace in Northern Ireland. The Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, as well as being an agreement between the UK and Ireland, is a historic agreement between two traditions in Northern Ireland, and we are unconditionally committed to the spirit and letter of our obligations under it in all circumstances – whether there is a deal with the EU or not.”

Boris Johnson recognises what he calls the “unique challenges” Brexit poses for Ireland.

It would be useful to ask him to set out in his own words 

  • what he thinks these “unique challenges” are, and to ask him to set out his own words
  • how he believes these can be met and
  • how his government might contribute to this.

I have the sense that neither he, nor his fellow Brexit advocates, have ever undertaken such a mental exercise.

Again, he says he is “unconditionally” committed to the “letter and the spirit “of the UK’s obligations under the Good Friday Agreement. 

It would be useful to ask Prime Minister Johnson to put in his own words what he considers these obligations to be, particularly as regards the “spirit “of the Agreement.

DIVERGENCE IS CENTRAL TO BREXIT, CONVERGENCE IS CENTRAL TO BELFAST AGREEMENT

Later in his letter, Mr Johnson says 

“When the UK leaves the EU and after any transition period, we will leave the single market and the customs union. Although we will remain committed to world-class environment, product and labour standards, the laws and regulations to deliver them will potentially diverge from those of the EU. That is the point of our exit and our ability to enable this is central to our future democracy.”

This is the most revealing paragraph of the entire letter.

The whole point of Brexit, according to Mr Johnson, is to “diverge” from EU standards on environment, product and labour standards.

 This means Northern Ireland’s environment, product, and labour standards diverging from those of Ireland (as a member of the EU).

FROM WHICH EU STANDARDS DOES UK WISH TO DIVERGE?

Although it has been promoting Brexit for three years now, the UK government has yet to say which EU standards it wants to diverge from, and why it wishes to do so.

Divergence, for its own sake, is what the UK wants, according to Mr Johnson.

Given that the Good Friday Agreement is all about convergence (not divergence) between the two parts of Ireland, and between Britain and Ireland, there is a head on contradiction between these two parts of Mr Johnson’s letter.

On the detail of the backstop, he says

“By requiring continued membership of the customs union and applying many single market rules in Northern Ireland, it presents the whole of the UK with the choice of remaining in a customs union and aligned with those rules, or of seeing Northern Ireland gradually detached from the UK economy across a very broad range of areas. Both of those outcomes are unacceptable to the British Government.”

This point has some validity in its own terms.

 If no alternative solution is found, and the backstop comes into effect, new EU rules, in the making of which the UK will not have had a hand, with apply either to the whole of the UK or to Northern Ireland.

So far the UK has been unable to come up with a credible alternative to the backstop, that would allow Brexit to go ahead, but also to avoid progressive divergence in regulations between the two parts of Ireland. 

That is the core problem, and Mr Johnson’s letter makes clear that “divergence” is the whole point of Brexit and “central to our future democracy”. It is important the UK public understand what their government is committing itself to.

IT IS BREXIT, NOT THE BACKSTOP, THAT UPSETS THE BALANCE

MrJohnson also claims that 

“ the backstop risks weakening the delicate balance embodied in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. The historic compromise in Northern Ireland is based upon a carefully negotiated balance between both traditions in Northern Ireland, grounded in agreement, consent, and respect for minority rights”

He is right to say that the Belfast Agreement is a carefully negotiated balance.

But Brexit, of its very nature, upsets that balance. Brexit, as Mr Johnson’s letter says, is about divergence. 

If there is to be divergence between jurisdictions, there must be border controls between those jurisdictions.

Brexit upsets the balance by forcing a choice between

  • having the divergence/border between North and South in Ireland (thereby favouring the  “unionist” position) or 
  • having the divergence/border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK (thereby favouring the “nationalist” position).

Brexit alone is responsible for forcing such a choice. And Brexit is a UK initiative, not something forced upon it,

The only way to preserve the “balance”, to which Mr Johnson says he is committed, would be to disaggregate the regulations into categories, and have half the controls North/ South and half on an East/ West basis within the UK. This would be clumsy and would take years to negotiate. But so also is Brexit.

MINORITY RIGHTS AND BREXIT

Mr Johnson’s letter refers to

 “respect for minority rights”.

 The majority of people in Northern Ireland voted against Brexit, but their wishes are to ignored because a majority in the wider UK voted for Brexit. 

Brexit, as promoted by Mr Johnson, is a radical rejection of this minority rights aspect of the Good Friday Agreement.

Mr Johnson says

“The Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement neither depends upon nor requires a particular customs or regulatory regime.“

It is true that the Agreement does not say this in terms.

But, at the time the Agreement was negotiated, both the UK and Ireland were in the same customs and regulatory regime. That was taken for granted, and did not have to made explicit in the Agreement.

He goes on

“The broader commitments in the Agreement, including to parity of esteem, partnership, democracy and to peaceful means of resolving differences, can be met if we explore solutions other than the backstop.”

This is a strange sentence.

 It says the commitments “can” be met if we “explore” other solutions.

An exploration by its nature is uncertain, and the use of this term contradicts the confident statement that solutions “can” be found. In any event, Mr Johnson ought to have come up with the solution himself by now.

DOES MR JOHNSON WANT TO BREAK UP THE EU SINGLE MARKET?

Mr Johnson goes on

“This Government will not put in place infrastructure, checks, or controls at the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. We would be happy to accept a legally binding commitment to this effect and hope that the EU would do likewise.”

This reads to me like a straightforward attempt by a UK Prime Minister to destroy the EU Single Market. 

Controls on what goods and services may cross its borders are essential to the EU Single Market.  This is especially the case if the UK decides to make trade deals, with different rates of tariffs to the ones applied by EU. 

Given that “divergence” from EU rules is what Mr Johnson says Brexit is all about, inviting the EU not to enforce its own rules, raises the suspicion that, like his fan President Trump, Boris Johnson would like to dissolve the EU!

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.

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