Assessing the two Brexit papers released last week by the UK government is difficult, due largely to the misguided nature of the underlying premise.
It’s a bit like trying to assess a paper from the White House on options for building a wall along the Mexican border. Trump’s wall is populist, ill-conceived nonsense. Popular with many because it provides foreign villains to blame for domestic failures. Ill-conceived because it would make America smaller, poorer and less relevant, while harming America’s friends and allies.
And Brexit is a bit like that.
It will hurt the people of the UK – particularly in Northern Ireland. It will hurt the people of Ireland – particularly in the border regions, rural Ireland, and sectors like fishing, agri-food and tourism. It will make Britain less relevant internationally at a time when its voice is needed. It could lead to a hard border with Northern Ireland and undermine the peace process.
So the two papers issued last week require us to investigate proposed details for what is a spectacularly bad idea.
The first paper concerns future customs arrangements between the UK and EU. It is pure Brexiteer propaganda, aimed at a domestic audience growing increasingly uneasy about the dross they were sold. The paper is so Brexit-biased that it could have been used by the Leave campaign during last year’s referendum – it even mentions the NHS.
The second paper concerns Northern Ireland and Ireland. It’s a more serious piece of work, with less spin and more detail, but is similar to the first paper in several ways.
Firstly, both papers say a lot of the right things, in direct contradiction to what the UK government is actually doing.
They emphasise the need for openness, while the UK closes its borders. They prioritise free trade with the EU, while the UK leaves the single market. They prioritise no return to a hard border for Northern Ireland, while the UK exits the customs union. They emphasise the importance of a transition period, while the UK states that free movement of people will end in March 2019.
Secondly, both papers restate the opening position from the Brexiteers: we want full access to the EU’s single market, but won’t accept freedom of movement; we want full access to the EU’s customs union, but will negotiate our own trade deals.
These positions were rejected by the EU after the referendum, and after the prime minister’s Lancaster House speech, and in response to the UK’s Article 50 letter, and during the first round of negotiations in Brussels. And again – not surprisingly – last week Guy Verhof, the EU Parliament’s lead on Brexit, described the UK’s customs proposals as ‘fantasy’, while the UK’s Brexit Minister, David Davis, admitted that Michel Barnier was “losing patience” with the UK.
Thirdly, both papers attempt to put the ball back in the EU’s court on the question of borders. They propose that international goods entering the UK, but destined for the EU, would have EU customs measures applied at the UK border, thus negating the need for additional border checks between the UK and EU. International goods entering the UK, and destined for the UK, would on the other hand have UK customs measures applied. A logistical nightmare, but maybe it’s possible.
What isn’t addressed, however, is the need to process UK goods bound for the EU, and vice versa. The inherent assumption, of course, is that the UK would retain barrier-free access to the EU’s Single Market.
The Northern Ireland and Ireland paper develops this thinking, and puts the island of Ireland very much in the firing line.
The paper says all the right things – about no return to a hard border, respecting the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts, protecting north-south and east-west cooperation and trade, and so on.
It links, correctly, the peace process and economic progress to the absence of a hard border. But then it springs the trap – because the solution it provides for continuing with no hard border is the same as in the first paper: that the UK retains full access to the single market and customs union, with none of the obligations.
The UK government knows this proposal is unacceptable to the EU. But now it can claim that it is in fact the EU, and not the UK, that is insisting on border controls, endangering the peace process and harming the people of Northern Ireland and Ireland.
This line was already being put about by one UK MEP shortly after the document was published. I won’t pour paint over your car if you let me drive it at the weekends. So if you refuse, then really it’s you, and not me, that’s pouring the paint.
The UK government also knows that avoiding some hard border will be very difficult once they’re out of the customs union. The papers show little concern for the movement of people across the border, which is peculiar given the rationale for Brexit being to stop EU citizens entering the UK. And they suggest technical fixes when it comes to goods, which seems utopian (dystopian maybe?).
Take the Brazilian cow. Brazil produces high-quality, grass-fed beef at about 60pc of the cost here. Post-Brexit, the UK could adopt a ‘cheap food’ policy, recently advocated by a think tank with close links to the Tory Party.
That would mean Brazilian beef imported to Belfast tariff-free, wiping out Irish and UK beef sales. And making it highly profitable to load said beef into white vans in Belfast and drive it into the Republic and onwards. And no border of any kind to get in the way. How long would that be tolerated?
So how should Ireland respond? We should acknowledge that in the Northern Ireland and Ireland paper, the UK government prioritises many of the same issues we do, including the peace process and common travel area.
We should remember that it is the right of the UK to leave the EU. And we should be honest with our friends in the UK. Including that their proposals for avoiding a hard border are based on a proposition already rejected by the EU. That any border would be due to their actions, not those of the EU. That prioritising the peace process means they should at least consider the most important option for avoiding a hard border, which is the UK staying in the customs union.
(The rationale for leaving the customs union is farcical – that the UK will negotiate better trade deals with third countries on its own than it does as a member of the biggest economic bloc in history.)
We should explore with the UK options such as designating the North as a special economic zone, with on-going connections to the EU, post-Brexit.
And we must ramp up our preparations at home.
We need to expand our trade capabilities. This means a national programme of training and supports for SMEs, new trade infrastructure, adaptation funding for affected regions and industries, all supporting a national effort for Ireland to move beyond our traditional, comfortable, Anglo-Saxon trading partners.