At a conference last week, I heard Owen Patterson, Conservative MP and former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, say that the UK should renege on the “backstop” agreement on the Irish border, given by Teresa May to EU negotiators.

He admitted that Irish public opinion ”hates Brexit”, yet seemed to expect the Irish government to make Brexit easy for the UK! That is naive.

At the same event, Lord Alderdice, former Leader of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, said the Good Friday Agreement came about because the protagonists put the emphasis on developing new relationships between the communities in Northern Ireland, rather than on detailed rules and economic questions.

It seems to me that the absence of this sort of broad thinking, in the UK about the EU,  led to Brexit. UK public opinion saw joining the EU as a business transaction, rather than as a long term relationship building exercise.

When David Cameron decided to have a referendum on leaving the EU, it did not occur to him to call a meeting of the British / Irish Intergovernmental Conference, set up under the Good Friday agreement, to explore how this might affect relations between the UK and Ireland, between North and South and, consequently, within Northern Ireland.

This was myopic. It demonstrated a lack of seriousness, which persists.

 A similar myopia affected the UK relationship with the EU as a whole. UK decision makers saw the EU in purely functional terms, rather than as a means of developing new relationships.

The UK still hopes to negotiate access for itself to the UK Customs Union and Single Market, without joining either of them, and without allowing the freedom of movement of people that all EU members grant to each other, or accepting that the rules will be interpreted by the European Court of Justice(ECJ).

This is unrealistic. Any dilution of freedom of movement would require an amendment of the EU Treaties which would require the unanimous agreement of all 27 EU states. This will not be forthcoming. The ECJ is essential to ensure uniform interpretation of market rules, especially in services.

UK politicians and opinion formers forget that the EU is a rules based organisation, with a common system for making, interpreting and enforcing the agreed rules. In this, the EU is different from other international organisations.

The Treaties founding the EU are the equivalent of a written constitution, which is hard to amend. As the UK has no written constitution of its own, it finds this difficult to accept. These differences in perspective between the EU and UK will continue to cause trouble, unless UK politicians educate their electorate about the nature of the EU.

At this stage in the negotiations, the UK is seeking to interpret Article 49 of the Joint Report, the so called “backstop”, to cover the whole UK, and not just Ireland.

The wording of the Article is as follows;

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

Reading the paragraph as a whole, it is clear that it is about Ireland, not about the two islands.

In any event, there is no possibility of the other EU countries allowing the whole UK to enjoy the benefits of full access to EU markets simply by aligning its rules, but without allowing free movement of people and accepting the jurisdiction of the European Court.

The UK government is committed to having a frictionless border in Ireland and is considering two possible customs arrangements with the EU to achieve this.

One is called a “Customs Partnership”, which would see the UK collecting the EU tariffs on goods entering the UK, but destined for the EU, and then passing the money on to Brussels. It is hard to see the EU sub contracting its revenue collection to an external power over which it had no control. The Palestinian experience of subcontracting its revenue collection to Israel has not been a happy one.

The other customs option, called “Maximum Facilitation”, entails doing the customs controls, currently done at the border, remotely using technology. This technology is untried and there would be data protection and privacy concerns. It would still entail the preparation of customs declarations for all consignments of goods. This bureaucracy will add between £17 billion and £ 20 billion the business costs, or £32 per declaration, according to the UK Revenue authorities. This will make trade unprofitable in many cases.

The fact that, even at this stage, the UK has not made up its mind between these options, and has not yet made a detailed proposal is disquieting.

The EU will not be bounced into agreeing a half baked proposal, presented just before the Summit,  which attempts to evade the consequences of the UK’s own decision to quit the Single Market and Customs Union.

Those decisions were taken by the Prime Minister, not by Parliament, and should be reversed.

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