The Best of Both Worlds?

It was with a complete lack of irony that Sinn Fein’s Martina Anderson MEP supported remaining because the EU brought peace to Europe. This was said at a panel event in Coleraine during the 2016 Referendum on EU membership. Seriously.

What did the murderous gang of thugs, the IRA, do for peace in Europe?

Sadly, one example among many.

And it could have been more.

Not a surprise that Ms Anderson now supports the Draft Withdrawal Agreement (DWA) as it stands this day 29thNovember 2018.

While members of Sinn Fein have been happy enough to live with a Royal Pardon, or take the salary of a Member of Parliament (Her Majesty’s), actually turning up and voting in the House of Commons is deemed unacceptable.

“Have cake and…” springs to mind. Though that phrase is rapidly being replaced with “best of both worlds”. This has become a popular description given to the Brexit backstop, much loved by Ms Anderson.

How exactly an Irish Republican doesn’t see that supporting “best of both worlds” tends to suggest that Irish Unity would compromise a truly brilliant arrangement for which Sinn Fein has fought so hard would only be a contradiction were it any other Party. That said, Sinn Fein has never been slow to ditch a Party policy when it suited politically, electorally, to be on the ‘right’ side of an argument (usually, for which some other Party has sweated).

Neither has the phrase “best of both worlds” been rarely too far from the cliché pack of NI business organisations. Just like Sinn Fein, the business approach to Brexit is one of ignoring inconvenient facts – though previously that has usually meant saying nothing at all.

The outlined backstop is presented as a triumph of enabling Northern Ireland business to be both in the EU and the UK trading zones at the same time. This is both a lazy consideration of the DWA, and just plain wrong.

The whole point of the backstop provision is that NI remains in the UK, but must follow EU regulations. There is a constitutional point that NI would have regulations imposed, without any accountability to the people of Northern Ireland – that accountability is State to EU, and the State of which NI is part is no longer represented. For all the talk of the EU protecting the democracies and rights of small states, it has been happy to play footloose with the democratic rights of Northern Ireland citizens.

Even leaving aside the constitutional or democratic flaws of the backstop, even on the economics NI business organisations seem to be rather overstating the case.

There has been a persistent representation of the backstop as good for trade, which has been allowed to be a shorthand for “exports” – hence best of both worlds. Many of those supporting Leave would give two cheers if this were the case. It is not.

Trade and exports could be conflated if discussing around an agreement that impacted only State to State. The backstop is not that sort of arrangement. For NI it involves not just exports outside the UK, but also trade internal to the UK. While, again, NI business organisations have emphasised goods leaving NI, or trade (exports and imports) with the EU, it has been silent on the impact of goods being carried from the rest of the UK into Northern Ireland.

This has been raised briefly by Dr Esmond Birnie:

“Importantly, Northern Ireland’s total product “imports” from GB are vastly greater than the level of imports from the Republic of Ireland (or RoI/rEU combined).  In 2016, NI imported £11bn of goods from GB but only £2bn from RoI and a further £2bn from rest of EU ie the imports flow from GB three times that of entire EU27.” 

For all the talk of best of both worlds the backstop arrangement increases the cost of doing business with NI for GB based business, and a potential barrier has been set in place that may impact on supply chains and the very significant investment into NI from GB. That may have consequences for consumer choice and consumer costs also.”

However, the issues go deeper.

It should be no surprise that big business is happy to see consumer costs increase – it will be the High Street that bears the cost of the backstop. The cost of the weekly shop is likely to increase as time critical produce such as food, fruit and flowers for supermarkets will face additional paperwork, and cost.

Though even online, the NI consumer is likely to find choice restricted, as small companies find the restrictions of regulatory checks: in Annex 5 (DWA) most goods would require additional checks/certifications into Northern Ireland. Small traders make up the majority of suppliers on Amazon (directly or indirectly).

This will apply to all goods coming into NI from (or into and then on from) the rest of the UK.

Big business may of course be able to avail of the sort of consultancy or support to not have to worry too much about such barriers. Even so, there is specific trade barrier implicit in the backstop that has the potential to impact on supply chain, especially where there is just-in-time requirements. Further doubt on business organisation grasp of detail has to be noted in respect of the way support for backstop arrangements has been communicated. Manufacturing NI, a business campaign organisation, was quick to show overwhelming support for the Prime Minister’s way forward.

Not exactly a scientific, or credible, poll. It was (and still is at time of writing) entirely possible to vote without declaring who you are, and to vote more than once using different browsers from same device.  Literally anyone could vote.

While the poll certainly represented the corporate view of Manufacturing NI, it was hardly based on any credible foundation.

Hospitality Ulster were similarly quick to support Mrs May:

The tweet, and its link, focused on the 74% who went along with the corporate view. Elsewhere things weren’t as clear.

It seems that the 74%, in PM’s option or no-deal context, was less than a third of the members polled, so about 20% of the membership overall. Clearly, more than two thirds had better things to do than be bothered to engage.

The CBI in Northern Ireland of course took its cue from London, though it probably needed little encouragement. It is interesting that the CBI is rarely slow to line up alongside and endorse other national and international corporate voices – the Davos consensus. Yet it is clear that the voices it does not want to hear, its own experts for example, are simply closed down if they differ from the corporate view.

Sadly, the CBI track record is not great on the big issues of the day

Harsh, but not incorrect. 

At this point the voices against the people’s votes, all 17.4 million of them, is similarly being ignored. Democracy is an inconvenience for the technocrat and corporate interests that really don’t want change at all.

True, there has been a great deal of uncertainty around Brexit, largely it would appear created by commitments being given by the Prime Minister while discussions were taking a different track altogether. In business terms, her management of expectations has been poor. As has her management of negotiations, where, despite talk of ‘a deal’, there is nothing but bare bones outlined on our future relationship with the EU going forward.

It is perfectly laudable for those with a particular view to speak out. It lends to debate. It is essential for a healthy democracy.

What doesn’t contribute to meaningful debate is a tendency which has crept into our discourse, perhaps through social media (though that is mostly amplification of noise that already exists), a tendency to exaggerate, obfuscate, or just make up facts that suit in the moment. Think Donald would call it Fake News.

Who would not want “the best of both worlds”? Except that is not what the Draft Withdrawal Agreement offers. Neither is it the foundation of ‘certainty’ that businesses claim it provides. It is only the end of the beginning of another round of negotiations to which absolutely no-one is able to put an end date. The Draft Withdrawal Agreement is flawed because it tries to hard and spent too much time trying to fix a problem that never existed.

No-one is willing to establish a “hard border” and no-one needs to.

The hubris of Sinn Fein is one thing – we are well used to that. The hubris that seems to underlie communications efforts by business organisations is something else.

Selectively using statistics and methodologies, badly, in support of the DWA shows how unable (or perhaps unwilling) supporters are to explain the apparent benefits claimed – business should know better. Those benefits are less than obvious to consumers, who are likely to end up paying from their pockets.

Furthermore, as with Project Fear Mk1, crying wolf seriously undermines the ability to have the public take seriously what appears to be more of the same. Who would have thought that Jeremy Corbyn would be quoted here as simply shattering the hubris, from Prime Minister’s Questions, succinctly put:

“The Prime Minister said, this is the best possible deal, it’s the only possible deal. It’s not hard to be the best deal if it’s the only deal. By definition, it’s also the worst deal.”

The Prime Minister has a mountain to climb and, far from being helpful, business is doing her a disservice as an echo chamber. No business (or political party) can ever say never to the challenges of change, or tell consumers (voters) they only have one choice; not if a business (or Party) expects to have a future.

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