There’s been a Brexit post planned for ages, but things seem to change and each piece in time seems no longer relevant. So . . . time for a recap and quick look at where we are, which might seem not that much further on . . .
There are a sequence of events that create a mystery in the whole Brexit process to date, and is important to solve going forward. In January 2017 the Lancaster House speech set out what sort of trade and wider relationships the UK might have with the EU and the world.
When Article 50 was triggered the UK placed on the table its vision of a wide ranging trade agreement with the borders of the UK being managed technically and electronically. ninety-one percent of non-EU trade through UK border points is managed in this way today, more than half of all UK trade. Furthermore, the far greater trade management points are not along the UK/EU land border, but to and from the Sea Ports either side of the Channel (including much of the trade in goods of Republic of Ireland origin to the continent, by volume).
The EU rejected the UK idea of using technology as ‘magical thinking’and focused solely on the land border it will have with the UK.
In December 2017 the ‘Backstop’ was introduced to the Brexit negotiation by the EU, though not without some controversy. From that point the EU focused hard on the backstop, which increasing became regarded in the UK as a back door to hold the UK within the Customs Union and Single Market or lose Northern Ireland as an integral part of the UK.
The UK Government responded, (after lots of internal ‘debate’) with what has become known as “Chequers”. This is a rather convoluted effort to both deliver to the spirit of Lancaster House (looking at it kindly) and to take on board the stated issues the EU have in its pursuit of its “backstop”. Chequers hasn’t been universally popular – less popular than the poll tax? Within the Conservative Party #ChuckChequers has been loudly heard at the recent Party Conference.
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) October 2, 2018
What of the EU response to Chequers? It hasn’t gone down well with the Commission. Nor with the political leaders of the EU27.
In the run up to Salzburg there were noises that the EU might be softening its stance on the backstop. In truth the EU presented nice words, same outcome.
Here’s the thing.
Back at the outset of the negotiations the EU rejected electronic/technical checks proposed by the British along the EU/UK land border as “magical thinking”.
The EU presentation of the ‘de-dramatisation’ of the backstop was to offer electronic/technical checks along the Irish Sea. This is, apparently not “magical thinking”.
The mystery at this point is just what is the issue along the EU/UK: UK/EU land border.
The EU, in offering its own solution to trade management, has undermined its own case as to why a ‘Backstop’ is required at all.
The Backstop and Chequers both use ‘Northern Ireland’ as a tool to dogmatically reinforce negotiating positions that are fundamentally based on a problem that both have identified as fixable with broadly common agreement on the fix (magically thinking the thinkable).
We have wasted two years of preparing for Brexit and effective trade management across the UK and the Republic of Ireland (something Enda Kenny’s Government had started, that Leo Varadkar’s Government stopped). With a two year transition period there would have been more than enough time to set process in place to ‘de-dramatise’ any potential disruption to trade brought about by change, that is likely to have a far greater impact on the Republic of Ireland than anywhere else.
Time is running out to sort a Brexit agreement that is practical and sensible. Albeit in a convoluted manner, May has at least reached out to the EU with a plan that takes its concerns into account. The EU seems impervious to the importance of the Constitutional issue to the Conservative Government (or, in fairness, to the British generally). Theresa May, as David Cameron before her, is a natural Unionist, for whom the Union is a fundamental part of her Conservative idea. While Chequers may be questioned, it is wrong to suspect the underlying dedication to the Union that brought her to that point.
The EU underestimates the importance of the Union in regarding opposition to Chequers in the round rather than separating the principles on which it is based. May’s Unionism is shared by all shades of Conservatives, instinctively by Boris and, before the IEA launched its Plan A+, acknowledged by Jacob Rees Mogg on the Moggcast from ConservativeHome. The Union is above all else the most important thing to Unionists.
If people sincerely believe that the DUP is fundamental to the Conservative Government’s existence, then they need to listen to the DUP. While there may be doubts expressed about the DUP desire for power and money over all else, the messages from the DUP have been consistent before and after Chequers. If there was any room for doubt, the ‘blood red line’ on the Union and Brexit by DUP leader Arlene Foster is as clear as a statement on point can be made.
If the EU persists in pursuing the Backstop, failing to understand the fundamental constitutional challenge the Backstop poses and despite the contradicting its own reasoning as to why it is necessary, there are three conclusions.
- That the Backstop is a means of achieving a humiliation deal – either break up the UK (resulting in a constitutional/political crisis) or basically stay in the Customs Union and Single Market on EU terms (resulting in a political/constitutional crisis).
- That there is no real resolution in the coming months – a no deal (a crisis we’ll get over, eventually).
- that either way, we can expect decades of discord between the UK and EU on bits, pieces, and meanings around trade and all manner of other issues.
None of those conclusions is good.
Back in March the EU accepted that a Free Trade Agreement seemed the only positive way to proceed with the UK determined to leave the EU. At this point we are not even on that page. Having accepted the magic of trade arrangements, it is a mystery why the EU wishes to risk a no deal; along with the consequences for the EU, including the Republic of Ireland in crisis, and creating a substantial and bombastic trading partner just across the Channel at the same time as having one across the Atlantic.
We are heading for a magical mystery Brexit unless something is conjured out of negotiations soon.