The Chequers proposals of the UK Government were a genuine, if belated, attempt to reconcile the expectations of the British people with EU realities.
But they ran into difficulty for the following reasons. If Chequers remained an opening negotiating position, it might have started a useful conversation.
- But , under the pressure of domestic UK politics, Prime Minister May soon made it a “red line” position, and thus no longer negotiable.
- From an EU perspective, Chequers was problematic because it would have meant the EU giving up control of its trade borders, and subcontracting that to a non member, the UK. It would have provided for a common rule book for the quality of goods circulating, via the UK, into the EU Single Market, but the UK Parliament would still have retained the option of not passing some of the relevant legislation to give effect to this rulebook. Furthermore, it would not have been bound to accept the ECJ’s interpretation of what the common rules meant.
- It would have meant the UK opting into some bits of the EU Single Market, but not all, and that precedent would have created immediate demands for exceptions from other EU members and also from Switzerland and Norway.
It does not require much political imagination to see that these aspects of the UK proposal were going to be a hard sell in the parliaments of some of the 27 countries. And if just one of them said NO to an eventual EU/UK trade deal, there would be no deal. Each has a veto.
GOVE THEN UNDERMINED THE CHEQUERS LINE
To make matters worse, a collectively responsible member of the UK Cabinet, Michael Gove suggested that the UK might agree a Withdrawal Treaty on the basis of the Chequers approach, but later, once out to the EU, abandon it, and do whatever it liked. This would put Mrs May in a position of negotiating with the EU in bad faith. It also raised doubts that, even if the EU side accepted Chequers, the UK government could not carry it through.
DOUBTS RAISED ABOUT THE IRISH BORDER COMITTMENTS
Gove’s intervention also cast doubt the genuineness of commitments the UK had given on the Irish border.
In a Joint Report of 8 December 2017, the UK agreed to respect Ireland’s place in the EU and all that entailed, and that there would be no hard border in Ireland. This was to apply
“in all circumstances, irrespective of any future agreement between the EU and the UK”.
When the UK declined to translate this commitment into legal language for the Withdrawal Treaty, the EU side began to wonder if the UK wanted to delay dealing with Irish border problem until the last minute, hoping to table a proposal on a “take it or leave it” basis, and that the EU would not then jeopardize the whole deal over a place as small as Ireland!
Unsurprisingly, this shifting UK approach was not accepted by the UK’s EU partners, when they met in Salzburg.
The UK should not have felt “humiliated” by this. The EU is a complex institution, with 27 different countries.
ANY DEAL WILL HAVE TO APPROVED BY 27 PARLIAMENTS
As I said the parliaments of all 27 of them will have to ratify any eventual trade deal the UK. Let us not forget that EU found it hard to ratify its trade deals with Canada and Ukraine, because of objections in Wallonia and Netherlands respectively.
But before starting to negotiate a trade deal, the UK must first agree the terms of its withdrawal from the EU.
The Irish border question is central to this.
THE HARDER THE BREXIT, THE HARDER THE BORDER
The harder the UK Brexit, the harder will be the resolution of Irish border problem.
The further the UK negotiating demand goes from continued membership of the EU, the harder it will be for it to fulfill the commitments it has given on the Irish border.
If the UK decided to leave the EU, but to stay in the Customs Union, the Irish border questions would have been minimized. But the UK has decided to reject that, because it hopes to be able to make better trade deals with non EU countries than the one it already enjoys as an EU member.
The UK has also rejected joining the European Economic Area (the Norway option), which would also have minimized the Irish border problems, because it would mean continued free movement of people from the EU into the UK .
In each decision, Ireland was given a lower priority than the supposed benefits of hoped for trade agreement with faraway places, and of curbing EU immigration. This was short sighted.
Future trade agreements that might be made with countries outside the EU are neither as immediate, nor as beneficial to the UK, as maintaining peace and good relations in the island of Ireland, or as the 70 or more trade agreement the UK already enjoys as an EU member, which it will lose when it leaves.
EU immigration to the UK, if it ever was a problem, is a purely temporary and finite one.
Already the economies of central European EU countries are picking up, and, as time goes by, there will be fewer and fewer people from those countries wanting to emigrate to the UK to find work. These countries have low birth rates and ageing populations, so there is a diminishing pool of potential emigrants.
Again, I believe that solving this, largely imaginary, EU immigration “problem” is less important to the UK, in the long run, than peace and good relations in and with Ireland .
If, as is now suggested, the UK moves away from Chequers, and looks instead for a Canada style deal with the EU, the Irish border problem will become even worse. Mrs May has recognized this and this is why she rejects a Canada style deal..
A Canada style deal would mean the collection of heavy tariffs on food products, either on the Irish Sea, or on the Irish border. Collecting them on the 200 mile long land border would be physically impracticable, so the only option would be to do it on the Irish Sea.
Either way, the all Ireland economy, to which the UK committed itself in the Joint Report, would be irrevocably damaged. The economic foundation of the Belfast Agreement would be destroyed.
CONSERVING WHAT WE HAVE SHOULD BE THE GOAL OF A CONSERVATIVE PARTY
It is time for the Conservative Party to live up to its name, to be truly conservative, and conserve the peace we have so successfully built on the twin foundations of the Belfast Agreement and the EU Treaties, to which the UK committed itself in 1998 in the case of the Belfast Agreement, and in 1973 in the case of the EU Treaties.